Alex Newell has gained acclaim for his realistic and sensitive portrayal of the first transgender teen on American television.
The 21-year-old actor portrays Unique, who is transitioning from male to female, on the popular show Glee.
By showing Unique as a multi-faceted person who happens to be transgender (which the character is) and not someone entirely defined by her transgender identity, viewers are subtly invited to say, “Hey, we’re not so different after all.”
"It's been a blessing," Newell told Fusion's Alicia Menendez of portraying Unique.
While the individual concepts might change, television tackling tough ideas and helping to make them mainstream is nothing new.
Here’s a look at a few other shows that addressed now-mainstream ideas like interracial relationships, back when they were widely regarded as controversial.
All in the Family
The 1970s show touched on everything from menopause, a largely taboo topic at the time, to abortion, which even 40 years later remains a hot-button issue.
As A.V. Club pointed out, “All In The Family wasn’t the first TV series to tackle controversial subjects such as racism, rape, and homophobia. What was groundbreaking about the series, which ran from 1971 through 1979, and was the highest-rated show on television for five seasons, is that it mined comedy from hot-button issues, and it explored them through characters we got to know every week.”
One of the most memorable episodes came in 1972 when Sammy Davis Jr. guest-starred a himself and took down Archie Bunker’s prejudice, not by beating him over the head, but by pointing out to viewers exactly why it was not okay with humor and wit. People were laughing the whole episode and getting a serious lesson at the same time.
Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most beloved talk show hosts in the country these days and she just happens to be gay. But DeGeneres broke barriers in the early 1990s with the sitcom Ellen, where she portrayed bookstore owner Ellen Morgan. Morgan deals with issues everyone tackles, like friendship woes and family drama. But Morgan was also one of the first characters to come out as gay.
The coming-out episode aired in 1997, sparking public controversy, conversations, and drawing attention to LGBT issues. It showed viewers who might not otherwise have been exposed to homosexuality that gay people are just that: people. It also helped gay viewers come out to their loved ones. People sent her messages telling her the show helped them be brave. It was followed by the likes of Will and Grace, and more recently Modern Family and The New Normal. But that wouldn’t have happened without pioneering shows like Ellen.
As Diane Sawyer said, “Ellen, you helped change the world.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Mary Richards, played by Moore, pioneered a character who wanted equal pay and respect at a time when many women were expected to be subservient secretaries, if they even worked at all.
“Mary Richards was the stealth bomb of feminism,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, the author of a book about the show told the New York Daily News. “She went in there and made feminism okay. But she had to be the good girl first.”
Richards shocked people by going on the pill and talking about the fact that a woman could be happily single in her 30s. It also showed that women could be friends and not just characters who cattily bicker over men. Off-screen, the show opened the door for women television writers and allowed them an outlet to talk about their lives at a time when men wrote most female characters.
It also, as the New York Times pointed out, set the stage for characters like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock.
“‘30 Rock’ was modeled on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ in many important ways, except for its heroine. Liz was not a goody-goody perfectionist like Mary Richards, or, by her own admission, Ms. Fey herself,” the Times pointed out. “Disciplined, ambitious type-A’s can be comical, as Ms. Moore, and later Candice Bergen, the star of “Murphy Brown,” proved. But Ms. Fey, who was the first female head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” chose as her alter ego a dumpy sad sack who just happened to be the head writer of a late-night sketch comedy show.”
Fey is clearly a pioneer in her own right, but it took characters like Mary Richards to provide a foundation.
As Katie Couric says in the clip below, “When I saw Mary Richards drive in that Mustang to that TV station in Minneapolis, I thought ‘Wow, I can have a career, too.’”
Lena Dunham’s Hannah is open and raw, in ways that sometimes make even its young audience uncomfortable. One reason people get uncomfortable in the first place is because it’s real. Audiences recognize their own flaws and faults in Hannah. Not only has the show tackled controversial topics, but it’s also one of the first, credit to Dunham, that hasn’t tried to present its actors as perfect. Nobody’s makeup is flawless. Hannah regularly walks around in her underwear (or less) displaying a body that doesn’t align with what society and the media have deemed desirable.
As Claire Danes wrote for Time, “Hannah is as vivid and raw a portrait as we have seen — nails bitten to the nub — and despite her glaring faults, we ravenously embrace her. Lena’s unique lack of vanity or shame allows us to consider that we may also be able to accept and express ourselves fully. This is not only impressive, it’s important. Because it turns out that girls don’t just want to have fun. They also want to be known for who they really are.”
Many shows talk about people with disabilities but few actually portray a character who just happens to have a disability. But that’s what Breaking Bad does in Walter Jr.’s character. Walt, and notably the actor who plays him, R.J. Mitte, have cerebral palsy. The neurological condition impacts muscle control and movement, and Walt uses crutches on the show.
As the Daily Mail pointed out, “Able-bodied actors are often praised for such roles (Daniel Day-Lewis played Irish artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot and Eddie Redmayne will soon star as physicist Stephen Hawking, who has motor neurone disease) yet disabled Hollywood stars are few and far between.
“So many people are disabled but we’re all capable of doing something in our own way,” Mitte told the paper. “Hollywood shouldn’t be afraid of actors like me. Diversity can only make the stories better.”