No Going Back: How Television is Helping Viewers Challenge Gender Stereotypes

gender equality

More than fifty years after the women’s rights movement challenged gender stereotypes in politics, the family, and the workplace, there’s reason to celebrate the progress made. However, while significant progress has been made, the work towards a more inclusive society will likely never end. It’s critical that Individuals and institutions across the country continue pushing back against outdated stereotypes, and there’s no bigger microphone than television. Many networks have helped lead the way to eradicate gender norms. In the 2020-2021 season alone, the percentage of female speaking characters on broadcast and streaming programs reached 44.5% – an all-time high.

But beyond the numbers, what specific shows are leading the way in rejecting gender stereotypes? Here’s a list of our favorites.

All Rise, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)

promo image from the television show All Rise
OWN’s All Rise

In the tradition of American courthouse dramas, All Rise follows officers of the Los Angeles legal system, from judges, prosecutors, and public defenders to bailiffs, clerks, and police. But—and here’s the difference—the leading role of Judge Lola Carmichael is played by Simone Missick, a Black woman and the executive producer of the third season of the series. Discussing the third season, Missick says “As we fill out their world, we get to see some of our characters from the first two seasons go home in a different way,”. “We get to learn a little bit more of who they are underneath, which is very exciting because that kind of diversity on screen was initially nurtured, and now it’s only flourishing even more as we step out into this third season.”

Euphoria, HBO

promo image from the television show All Rise
HBO’s Euphoria

Rue Bennett (Zendaya) is recovering from an overdose. Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer) is a transgender girl who is new in town. Throw in some vices, relationship drama, and social media, and you have an explosive series that has won three Emmys in as many seasons. In addition to its strong ensemble cast, the strength of Euphoria, an HBO series based on the Israeli show of the same name, lies in its honest depictions of the traumas of modern adolescents, for whom definitions of sex and gender are more fluid than in generations past.

Sneakerella, Disney

promo image from the television show sneakerella
Disney’s Sneakerella

This modern-day Cinderella story is set in Queens and centers on El (Chosen Jacobs), a stock boy and aspiring sneaker designer who falls in love with Kira (Lexi Underwood), the daughter of the basketball star and sneaker mogul Darius King. In addition to the unconventional setting, the traditional story is turned on its head in other gender-bending ways. First, the fairy godmother is now fairy godfather Gustavo (Juan Chioran). Second, El is helped by Sami (Devyn Nekoda), his openly lesbian best friend. And finally, the fiercely independent Kira sets out to find her “prince” rather than the other way around. After a planned 2021 premiere was pushed back, the film was released on Disney+ in May to positive reviews. In the words of singer and actress Lexi Underwood, Sneakerella is a coming-of-age story about finding a voice. “Seeing Kira and all of those women break out of the box that society has tried to place them in, it really inspired me to tap more into my passions and creativity,” she says. “I hope that inspires young girls. Don’t let anyone define your story. Anything is possible, and you can do anything you set your heart and mind to!”

Kevin Can F***” Himself, AMC

promo image from the television show Kevin Can F*** Himself
AMC’s Kevin Can F*** Himself

Airing its final season this fall, with a plotline unlike any other ever seen before, this dark comedy takes a snipe at the traditional sitcom theme. Annie Murphy stars as the stereotypical sitcom wife on the outside married to an insensitive husband who draws audience laughter by poking fun at her, constantly making jokes at her expense. But the show alternates between single camera realism and multi-camera comedy scenes to reveal her character’s true feelings and frustration of being trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who constantly brings her down, while making himself shine in front of others. The series also explores the complex relationship between two women, Murphy’s character and her next-door neighbor as they seek to claim their own power in a male dominant world.

Making it Permanent

However stubborn gender stereotypes appear, they can be bent and, ultimately, broken. Television shows and series that have shown us new ways to be, relate, and find fulfillment are a testament that gender stereotypes can be challenged successfully. Our job is to pick up the mantle and permanently transition to openness, tolerance, and acceptance. To learn more about breaking gender stereotypes with LGBTQ+ milestones in television history, read our related article, Pride Month 2022: Key LGBTQ+ Milestones in TV History.