Historically, female protagonists have battled sexism, gender inequality and prevailing stereotypes in the quest toward accurate, multidimensional representation on television. Today, small screen characterizations are far from perfect, but have experienced incremental progression over time — much of which can be attributed to a number of groundbreaking women who blazed a path for the existence of future TV heroines. From Mary Richards to Olivia Pope, here are my seven picks for the most revolutionary women to ever rock it on the tube.
Lucy Ricardo, I Love Lucy
In this day and age, female comedic roles are commonplace in the television world. But once upon a time, women were virtually nonexistent in the comedy industry — that is until Lucille Ball catapulted I Love Lucy into its place as one of the most beloved TV sitcoms in history.
With boisterous humor and crazy onscreen exploits, Ball changed the game for the female comic, ultimately paving the way for a number of today’s funny women — from the ladies of Saturday Night Live to comedic actresses like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Melissa McCarthy and Sarah Silverman.
Julia Baker, Julia
Julia became a hit sensation in the fall of 1968, all while garnering criticism for what some audiences interpreted as a watered down portrayal of the black experience. Nevertheless, Julia Baker was a young African American nurse — characterizations that broke away from the standard servant or Mammy caricature hailed by popular shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah. With that, Julia became the first weekly series in history to present a black woman in a non-stereotypical television role.
Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
She could turn the world on with her smile. And in the process, Mary Richards ushered in a new era for the independent working woman on television.
Airing during the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970's, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made a daring declaration that women were vastly capable of finding happiness in ways not limited to wedded bliss and traditional child rearing (yes in fact, contrary to June Cleaver-esque perception). Tackling cutting-edge topics that included single womanhood, divorce and equal pay in the workplace, the series set a standard for the development of future professional women in the popular sitcom arena.
Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show
Just as The Cosby Show ranks among the greatest TV series of all time, Clair Huxtable remains a foremost figure in the history of the American sitcom.
She was a distinguished attorney and partner at a law firm, all while fulfilling her duties as a devoted wife and mother of five. She was highly educated, gracefully feminine, brilliantly eloquent and radically outspoken (who can forget that classic scene where she schools Sondra’s sexist boyfriend Elvin on marriage and gender role expectations?). Ultimately, Clair Huxtable represented a bold reconstruction of black femininity as the matriarch of an upper middle class African American family that— as a whole — became a groundbreaking manifestation of the proverbial American dream on prime-time television.
Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City
There was always something special about Carrie Bradshaw. She was a successful newspaper columnist whose alluring charm and ever fashionable attire commanded everyone’s attention when she walked into a room. And yes naturally, as the main character of a TV series called Sex and the City, she certainly boasted her fair share of romantic exploits (we all remember the hot mess of a roller coaster ride that became of her and Mr. Big).
But whether Carrie was living it up in Manhattan with her three BFF’s, or scouring the flyest boutique in town for her newest pair of designer pumps, her weekly commentary on love, life, social dysfunction and yep, you guessed it…sexual empowerment for the female soul, meant everything for longtime fans of Sex and the City. More than a decade after the shows demise, Carrie still stands as one of the most adored cultural icons in modern TV history.
The women of Girlfriends
Okay, we have a four way tie. I mean really, when it comes to Joan, Toni, Maya and Lynn, who could possibly choose just one character?
Sure most of us have our own personal favorite, but these zany girlfriends were all equally fabulous in their own right. And whether viewers found themselves rooting for Joan to finally find a husband, or for a narcissistic Toni Childs to care about someone other than, let’s say… Toni Childs, the series candidly addressed the intersection of race and gender, while also representing a sophisticated circle of successful black women as uniquely diverse, non-stereotypical entities. Though prematurely cancelled in 2008, Girlfriends is still coveted for its authentic presentation of the true power of African American sisterhood.
Olivia Pope, Scandal
She’s Washington, D.C.’s most powerful political fixer, and can rescue anyone from even the most scandalous situations. But while the ever composed Olivia Pope remains an expert at “handling” everyone else’s problems, her personal life could not be more of a mess (case in point: she’s actively involved in a passionate love affair with Fitzgerald Grant III, otherwise known as the married President of the United States).
Still, Olivia’s imperfections make her all the more likable (that, and her uber-chic wardrobe collection). Insert the fact that she’s a cutting edge boss in a male dominated political stomping ground, and there you have it: Olivia Pope becomes the predecessor to an unprecedented number of black heroines who now exist on modern television (it should be noted that before Scandal debuted in 2012, no African American actress had appeared as a lead character in a network drama since 1974).
Let’s take a moment to tip our hats to Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington, shall we?