Sometimes, pop culture can be more than just entertainment.
Take television for example - the characters, worlds, and stories that we engage with through the medium of TV may often seem like mere escapism. But every once in awhile, our favorite television programs may provide us with something more - a character, a story, an idea, or a celebrity identity, can become subversive, influential, and important, reaching out to the hearts of millions and inspiring real social change.
To celebrate some of these TV heroes, here are 5 TV pop culture icons who make a difference.
1. Dana Scully / Gillian Anderson - The X-Files (1993)
Gillian Anderson’s role as the purely logical, scientific-minded Dana Scully on The X-Files has made her into somewhat of a role model for many people, myself included.
In a genre dominated by strong male leads, this genius red-headed FBI agent was a breath of fresh air. What was interesting about the Mulder/Scully dichotomy was that the male of the duo was emotional and irrational, while the female was always level-headed, rational, and cool as a cucumber. The X-Files flips the genre roles that are standard to sci-fi, horror, and cop shows, while also providing millions of viewers with a kick-ass female role model to look up to.
Gillian Anderson continues to star in similarly subversive and badass roles, like her work as Superintendent Stella Gibson on BBC’s The Fall, a show that tackles women's issues through the guise of a horrifying police procedural. The actress also supports various causes and charities, including Artists for a New South Africa and Neurofibromatosis Inc.
As if that didn’t make her cool enough, Anderson also often stays in close touch with fans, participating in multiple Reddit AMA’s over the years. Reddit user jessaschlitt said the following about the actress during one of these community interviews:
A hero indeed, Gillian Anderson. A hero indeed.
2. Uhuru / Nichelle Nichols - Star Trek (1966)
Star Trek isn’t really about alien civilizations, space exploration, and instant teleportation. These SciFi elements are all just literary devices that allowed the writers of the series, going all the way back to the original from the 60’s, to explore social issues and fundamental questions of what it means to be human.
Maybe this is why Star Trek was also one of the first American television series to feature a black woman in a non-subservient role.
The role was so unprecedented, so influential and inspirational, that the Martin Luther King Jr. personally told Nichelle not to leave the show when she was contemplating transitioning to Broadway.
Nichelle’s influence is not just theoretical - Whoopi Goldberg recounts the time she first saw Uhuru on TV: “I looked on that television and I saw… this black lady, and I ran through the house screaming: Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid… I knew right then and there I could be anybody I wanted to be.” (Source)
3. George Takei - Star Trek (1966)
Of course, you can’t talk about Star Trek and social change without mentioning George Takei. This ex-Star Trek actor has become somewhat of a social media and social justice powerhouse in recent years. Maybe “somewhat” is an understatement - his Facebook page alone has over 8 million ‘Likes’.
Takei actively engages himself in various social justice and human rights efforts, including Japanese-American human rights issues, and LGBT issues. He’s received various awards for his work in these fields, including the ‘LGBT Humanist Award’ in 2012, and the ‘2015 JANM Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service’.
Currently, he is the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign’s ‘Coming Out Project’, and is starring in a self-reflective musical called ‘Allegiance’. Written by and featuring Takei himself, the musical tells a story based off Takei's own life experiences as a Japanese-American during the American internment of the Japanese in the 40's.
Takei is a prime example of a modern, Internet-age, pop culture icon. He has used his identity as a massive social media presence to bring important topics to the forefront of worldwide conversation, and shows himself to be a charismatic (and often hilarious) leader of human rights issues.
Keep on rockin’ George Takei. And an obligatory ‘ohhhhhh myyyyy’ to you!
4. David Simon - Creator & Lead Writer of The Wire (2002)
Okay, so maybe David Simon isn’t so much of a “pop-culture icon”, but he certainly is a fine example of somebody who used the medium of television to do something truly great, and perhaps even something truly important.
HBO’s The Wire wasn’t a huge phenomenon as it aired, often struggling with ratings during its 5 season run. However, many critics and fans alike now agree that the show is one of the best examples of intelligent and thought-provoking adult television.
In fact, the show is so acclaimed as a tool of exploring social injustice and broken political systems, that Harvard University even began teaching a sociology course that examines the television show in detail. As mentioned in a Washington Post article, “More than simply telling a gripping story, "The Wire" shows how the deep inequality in inner-city America results from the web of lost jobs, bad schools, drugs, imprisonment, and how the situation feeds on itself.”
The show ended its final season back in 2008, and we still haven’t quite seen another television series more ambitiously attempt to capture the woes of modern American city life.
5. Lisa Simpson - The Simpsons (1989)
Regardless of what you may think of the more recent seasons, it’s hard to deny the mammoth success and influence of The Simpsons. The show has been on the air for over 25 years now, and is easily one of the central pillars of contemporary American television.
Among a plethora of unforgettable characters, however, Lisa Simpson often stands as an unsung hero.
This jazz-playing, vegetarian, feminist bookworm, is a fantastic role model for young females everywhere. Lisa is intelligent, independent, and insanely talented. She questions long-standing gender roles, sticks to her principles, and pursues her passions no matter what. Even through the perhaps limiting nature of her family, she stands true to herself and her ideals.
To see more reasons why Lisa is an important pop culture icon, one can turn to two articles written last year for The Simpsons' 25th Anniversary - one by The Telegraph, describing “19 Reasons Why Every Woman Should Love Lisa Simpson” and one by MTV, listing “13 Times Lisa Simpson Was The Ultimate Feminist Icon”.
Personally, I know that if I ever had a daughter, I’d love it if Lisa became an influence on her.
What do you think, have I missed anybody essential? Feel free to comment below!