Let’s talk about sex, baby.
As many stalwart fans will already know, Netflix’s Sex Education has taken the world by storm in a very big way.
The show, which premiered earlier this year, has been praised for refusing to conform to a cookie cutter view of high school romance. Instead, we are treated to discussions of vaginismus, sexting, blow jobs, casual sex, scissoring and virginity. We have a diverse group of characters, all of whom are trying to find their place in the world. And, perhaps most importantly, we have women who cannot be pigeonholed, resulting in a cast of complex and multi-faceted characters who discuss everything from abortion to their deepest, most intimate sexual fantasies.
But the Sex Education writers weren’t the first, nor were they the last, to defy stereotypes, celebrate female friendships, deliver awesome feminist life lessons, and subvert run-of-the-mill male-stream media.
Here are the television shows that completely redefined how we viewed women, sexuality, and relationships.
Sex & The City
Best quote: “I will not be judged by you or society. I will wear whatever, and blow whomever I want, as long as I can breathe and kneel.”
Slut-shaming is rarely directed at men. In fact, many men tend to brag and boast about their sexual conquests – and, in pop culture, plenty of male characters are praised for enjoying all the pleasures that casual sex has to offer. Yes, we’re looking at YOU, James Bond.
But Sex And The City's Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Miranda Hobbes, and Charlotte York opened our eyes and minds to a world of women revelling in one-night stands, threesomes, oral sex, different penis sizes, orgasms and more.
Why? Because women are sexual beings, with wants and needs and desires all of their own - and yes, some of those are truly messy, but they're real and vital, too.
The L Word
Best quote: “She has the best nipples in town and she knows it.”
The first show ever to focus on a group of lesbians, The L Word explored a vast range of sexual interests, identities, and fantasies – keeping sex scenes as raw and real as possible. In doing so, it blitzed various stereotypes (not all lesbian women use dildos or strap-ons, you know) and became known as "the lesbian version of Sex And The City".
The show also acknowledged the fluidity of sexuality – and allowed the characters to explore theirs, too.
Too bad it only lasted 70 episodes, huh?
Gavin & Stacey
Best quote: “You can buy me all the chocolates, all the chow mein you like but it won’t wash and you knows why. Now, back off, or I’ll tell everyone on that coach about my trip to the doctor’s.”
Nessa (Ruth Jones) was unconventionally attractive, and fiercely independent of any male influence. More excitingly, she was very in touch with her sexual side, often opening up about her impressive string of ex-lovers, the "tools, whips, and capes" she used in the bedroom with them, and the STIs some of them had infected her with (thanks for that, Dave Coaches).
Throw in all those other little moments, like the time she dressed up as Santa and forced Gavin to sit submissively on her knee, and you had a woman who truly defies convention, and challenged the order of a male world.
Best quote: “I don’t like to smile unless I have a reason.”
Daria was sarcastic, droll, and hyper self-aware. Better still, she had bucketloads of self-respect.
Remember when, way back in episode two, she and her BFF were hit on by a couple of guys who asked “where have you girls been all our lives?”
Daria’s reply was dripping with sarcasm - yet seriously on point.
"Waiting here for you. We were born in this room, we grew up in this room, and we thought we would die here... alone. But now you've arrived, and our lives can truly begin."
Best quote: “Now, everybody knows the basic erogenous zones. You got one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven. … OK, now most guys will hit one, two, three and then go to seven and set up camp. … You want to hit ‘em all and you wanna mix ‘em up. You gotta keep ‘em on their toes. … You could start out with a little one. A two. A one, two, three. A three. A five. A four. A three, two. Two. A two, four, six. Two, four, six. Four. Two. Two. Four, seven! Five, seven! Six, seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven! Seven!”
Friends, first and foremost, taught us that men and women genuinely can be just good friends - and that those friendships can be the most important ties in someone's life.
However the Friends writers didn’t stop there, as they also worked hard to break the taboo of women having casual sex. We were given a show which saw women enjoy one-night stands, discuss safe sex (remember when Monica and Rachel fought over the last condom?), consider artificial insemination, and date lots of guys that DIDN’T turn out to be The One. Because, yes, not every relationship winds up becoming a fairytale.
Masters of Sex
Best quote: “Climax together? That’s as rare as Haley’s Comet.”
Penned by women, Masters of Sex focused on real-life feminist heroes Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who began researching female sexuality in 1956.
The pair didn’t just interview their subjects; they also measured physiological responses to sex by observing them masturbating and having intercourse.
As a result, they wound up proving that women don’t need a man to help them climax – and firmly told the world that everyone, regardless of gender, is entitled to a toe-curling orgasm.
Expect glass dildos, the discovery of the G-spot, and a lot of clitoral stimulation…
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Best quote: “What’s the matter? I have to be a witch, I have to be a mortal, I have to be a teenager and I have to be a girl all at the same time. That’s what’s the matter.”
Sabrina Spellman (Melissa Joan Hart) lived with her two aunts, which meant that, yes, the show’s three primary characters were women... and powerful women at that.
The non-traditional family unit was incredibly strong, particularly the bond between Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick), who had lived together for around 600 years. Yes, they often had boyfriends and went on dates – and, yes, they clashed on occasion – but they were always there for one another. Romantic interests came and went, while theirs was the true sponsored_longform, and they worked together as parents to instill their wisdom upon their teenage niece.
Talk about some seriously magical role models.
Call the Midwife
Best quote: “I used to think that night was a time for women. All day, the docks were raucous with the lives of men. Lightermen and stevedores, dockers and pilots, the sailors and the drivers of the trains. In the smallest hours, only the river’s voice was heard. Only women were awake. Men slept. Mostly.”
You want a show about women which doesn’t revolve around their love lives? Then you need Call The Midwife.
Absolutely unflinching in its depictions of feminism and controversial social issues, this period drama encouraged us to talk about everything from domestic abuse to homophobia, and it did it all while reminding us that love doesn’t have to be romantic.
Best quote: “I don’t need a baby to validate my existence.”
Sterling may have been one of the most sexist and moronic people to ever grace our televisions, but Archer was packed to the brim with awesome female characters.
There’s Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), the openly bisexual HR director, and Cheryl / Carol Tunt, a wildly self-aware billionaire with a strangulation fetish. There’s Lana Kane (Aisha Taylor), one of the top field agents in the International Secret Intelligence Service – and a working mother, to boot, thanks to her insemination by sperm donor. And there’s Mallory Archer (Jessica Walters), a former super-spy who manages the entire operation from her luxurious office – when she’s not sleeping with the head of the KGB, and Bert Reynolds, or, you know, anyone else who takes her fancy.
These women were of all shapes, came from all backgrounds, and were dotted across the age spectrum. And, perhaps most excitingly, they didn’t give a s**t about slut-shaming. Sploosh.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Best quote: “You know what? I don’t need a boyfriend. To rescue me or for any other reason.”
We’ve waxed lyrical about Buffy The Vampire Slayer before, but there's no denying that the show gave us one of the most mature and fascinating portrayals of sexuality ever seen on TV.
Yup, we're talking about Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) – who just so happened to be one-half of one of the first lesbian couples to feature in a US television show. She didn't start off as gay; in fact, it took four whole seasons for her to address her feelings. But, when she finally accepted her sexuality, we saw the young witch evolve into a much stronger, and far more confident, woman.
Best quote: “I am not the girl the guy gets at the end of the movie. I am not a fantasy. If you want me, earn me. Until then, we are done.”
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) was a serious badass, taking on the White House’s biggest threats week after week, and eradicating any scandal before it had a chance to spiral out of control. She was on call day and night – and her professional commitment always drove her ambitions.
Yet, rather than reduce her to the stereotype ‘career woman’ that television shows are so prone to doing, Scandal’s writers ensured that Pope was a well-rounded and beautifully developed character. She was emotionally strong, caring and nurturing – and personally complicated, too.
There’s a reason we all refer to her as the ultimate gladiator, you know.
Best quote: “If Angelica is ever going to make it in a male-dominated power structure, she’s got to eat, breathe, drink, and sweat self-esteem.”
Oh yes, we’re deadly serious.
Disregarding the babies and Angelica (the ballsiest little girl ever) themselves, the adult female characters were just as revolutionary, coming from all different backgrounds and making entirely different life choices. Didi was a homemaker, Charlotte a high-flying CEO, Betty a sports-loving feminist, Kira a single mother, and Dr. Lucy Carmichael a Harvard graduate, successful doctor, and part-time gourmet chef.
This diverse cast allowed the show to tackle all sorts of hard-hitting topics, such as transphobia and women in the workplace, from lots of different points of view.
Guess that’s excuse enough to give in to our nostalgic urges and tune into an old Rugrats episode tonight, eh?
Xena Warrior Princess
Best quote: “In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. Her courage will change the world.”
Xena: Warrior Princess was, aside from a few male extras, a show which revolved entirely around two badass women, and their bond of love and friendship.
And, while it was never explicitly made clear, we all understood the lesbian subtext behind Xena (Lucy Lawless)'s relationship with Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) - who, we would like to point out, was perhaps even more of a progressive feminist hero than the warrior princess herself, showcasing both her inner and outer strength on an episodic basis.
Talk about girl power, huh?
Parks & Recreation
Best quote: “If you want to bake a pie, that’s great, if you want to have a career, that’s great too. Do both or neither, doesn’t matter, just don’t judge what someone else has decided to do. We’re all just trying to find the right path for us as individuals on this earth.”
We fell in love with Parks because Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was such a loud and proud feminist - and she refused to settle down until she found Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), a man who would happily put her career and beliefs before his own. More important than that, she was unwilling to raise Ben to a status above her BFF Ann (Rashida Jones), because she knew that female friends are just as important - if not more so - than boyfriends.
Hence the creation of Galentine's Day.
“Every February 13th my lady friends and I leave our husbands and our boyfriends at home and we just come and kick it back breakfast style. Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair, minus the angst, plus frittatas.”
In Knope we trust. Seriously.
Best quote: “I can’t be with someone who doesn’t break up nicely. That’s an important part of a relationship.”
Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) dumped a guy after learning his views on abortion were different to her own, entered a competition with her friends to see who could go the longest without masturbating, and freed the nipple LONG before it was cool.
Her best moment, though, was when she rushed out to buy the last of a discontinued range of contraceptive sponges (her favourite form of birth control, obviously). She then debated whether or not the guy she was seeing was worth wasting one of her precious cache upon - and coined the word “spongeworthy” in the process.
Best quote: “I have work, then a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am.”
Girls was utterly unapologetic, using its female characters to reveal just how difficult it is to be a grown-up millennial woman without being a total f**k-up.
Their lives were complex, and messy, and, as a result of a myth perpetuated by the media, all of them felt as if their lives wouldn't be complete until they'd found The One – a mission which often put them on unequal footing with the men in their relationships.
The show also regularly touched upon the fact that many young men have entirely unrealistic sexual standards, thanks to their frightening obsession with internet pornography. Remember when Hannah got peed on in the shower?
The Good Wife
Best quote: “You’ve obviously never made a woman angry before”
The Good Wife's Alicia (Julianna Margulies) was a force to be reckoned with; when her husband wound up in prison, she ditched her role as a stay-at-home mum and “good wife” so that she could return to work as a junior litigator at the law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner.
One of her most infamous scenes happened way back in season 2, when Peter (Chris Noth) got turned on watching his wife exert her power in the courtroom. Up until that point, the pair were still struggling to rebuild their marriage, and so sex was firmly off the cards – but, when they got home, all of that changed.
However, rather than have them fall into each others’ arms, Alicia remained in control - and simply allowed her estranged husband to perform oral sex on her.
Orange is the New Black
Best quote: “I like hot girls. And I like hot boys. I like hot people. What can I say? I’m shallow.”
One of the only ensemble TV shows where the focus was entirely on women, OITNB made sure to discuss the big topics regarding gender and the prison system – but it was also very sex-positive.
Think lessons in how to masturbate (with tips on how to get to know your own cha-chas, y’all), reminders that sex happens for all sorts of reasons (lust, love, loneliness, prison protection), and a closer look at the fluidity of sexuality.
Better still? These women may be behind bars, but they are firmly in charge of their own sex lives. Time to jump on the OITNB prison wagon, we say...
Best quote: “You wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I.”
Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) was a rape survivor, yet she did not let her experience define her. Instead, she refused to ever lose sight of the fact that she was not to blame for her rape, and spent the entirety of the series fighting to uncover her rapist’s identity and bring him to justice—something she finally succeeds in doing in the very last episode.
It’s unsurprising that the show has been praised for offering up the most “real” account of the long-term effects of rape.
Main image: Getty