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5 Trailblazing Leading Ladies from TV You Should Know About

Representation matters. If there’s one thing that the current television landscape has shown us is that, when done right, it’s not just about ticking a diversity checkbox, but about telling real and interesting stories from voices we don’t get to hear from all that often. When done right, it makes the television staple of sitcoms much more exciting than the typical formula we see from this genre. When done right, an eager audience will be there to take it all in. From Black-ish, to Fresh Off the Boat, and even to Modern Family, the current crop of sitcoms are definitely doing their thing. However, here’s a shout-out to those that came before and the leading ladies who broke down some of the barriers that have made our current TV landscape possible:

1. Diahann Carroll

With critically-acclaimed films like Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, the verdict is in: people want to see African-American stories past just slaves and maids. Hats off then to Diahann Carroll, the star of NBC’s Julia (1968-1971), one of the very first African-American women to portray a non-stereotypical role on television. In an era where black characters were relegated to the typical, seeing a black nurse was definitely something to cheer for. The role even eventually won Carroll a Golden Globe for her portrayal. Check out the opening sequence above–it is cheesy sitcom goodness.

2. Ana Margarita Martínez-Casado

Before the Álvarez women came to play in Netflix’s One Day at a Time, we had the Peña’s in PBS’s ¿Qué Pasa, USA? (1977-1980). Exploring three different Cuban-American generations within a single household, this bilingual show was in a way ahead of its time. Playing mom Juana, we gotta give props to Ana Margarita Martínez-Casado for paving the way for actresses like Justina Machado. Check out the catchy opening credits above!

3. Margaret Cho

Being a pioneer is no easy feat, just ask Margaret Cho. The first Asian-American sitcom, ABC’s All-American Girl (1994-1995), barely lasted a season: panned by critics, the general public, and even the very own audience it was trying to court–the underrepresented Asian-American community. However, for better or worse, Cho was the kind of leading lady that is still all too rare on today’s TV landscape and that is something that, failed show or not, you can’t take away from her. (Also, shout-out to Cho for living her openly bisexual life all these years. While not the show’s focus, it is still a very significant level of representation in real life.) P.S. Check out her totally 90s jean jacket, puffy hair, and house phone.

4. Ellen DeGeneres

Before she was one of our favorite daytime talk show hosts, Ellen DeGeneres was an actress doing her thing on the Hollywood scene. Her show, ABC’s Ellen (1994-1998), dealt with the typical daily struggles found in any good sitcom. What wasn’t found in any other sitcom? A main character coming out as a lesbian in its fourth season, alongside its main star coming out of the closet in real life. Ellen has become one of the most important LGBT icons today, which deserves recognition.

5. Mary Tyler Moore

No list can be complete without Mary Tyler Moore. CBS’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) is as iconic as they come. Winner of the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row and ranked by the Writers Guild of America as number six in its list of “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time,” the show featured as its leading lady a single, independent, and career-focused woman – a groundbreaking role even in today’s media. The sitcom genre was forever changed due to this show’s influence. The actress herself became as acclaimed as they come, thanks as well to her roles in other television programs, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, and even her work in film. Sadly, Tyler Moore passed away earlier this year, but her legacy as a feminist icon due to her gender-norm breaking roles will forever endure in media. She made it, after all.

Stephanie M. Fuentes Álvarez is a sixth year English major at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez Campus. An aspiring writer, she watches copious amounts of television shows in the hopes of one day becoming a possible screenwriter. She considers herself a muse-based poet, a music connoisseur, a professional procrastinator, and a pop-culture junkie.
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