When it comes to diverse representation, it was often found in the margins. Diversity rarely took center stage, and instead would be resigned to a tokenistic role, a background character, or a character that appears for a single episode to impart some kind of moral tale to the recurring normative cast.
However, recent years have seen diversity enter the spotlight. Increased diversity behind the camera has allowed for new voices to emerge and be reflected through representation on screen. No longer cast to the outskirts, characters of mainstream television have entered an era that champions diversity – allowing new stories to be told through genuine representation that has pushed the boundaries for diversity onscreen.
Rebooting the classic 1994 Australian TV series for a contemporary audience, Netflix’s Heartbreak High follows the students of Hartley High navigating school romances and teen angst. With LGBTQ+, POC, neurodivergent, and First Nations characters as part of the main cast, Heartbreak High showcases the diversity of Australian classrooms.
Chloe Hayden’s depiction of the queer and autistic student Quinni subverts the stereotypical portrayals of autism made popular in shows like The Good Doctor and The Big Bang Theory. Breaking boundaries by representing an autistic character navigating LGBT+ romance, Heartbreak High’s representation is made all the more authentic with Hayden becoming one of the first autistic actors to play an autistic character in a major TV series.
Throughout its three seasons, Netflix’s Sex Eduction has continuously explored the diversity of sexual experiences in following the lives of the students, staff, and parents of Moordale Secondary School.
With a diverse range of sexualities represented throughout the show – including lesbian, pansexual, and bisexual characters – Sex Education shines especially in its representation of lesser known sexualities. As Florence (Mirren Mack) confides in Jean (Gillian Anderson) her lack of desire for sexual attraction, Jean explains asexuality in an empathetic yet straightforward way to help Florence understand her feelings. This scene dispels the myth that asexual people don’t want to form emotional bonds, and makes for sincere representation that accurately portrays the experiences of the asexual community.
With its ensemble cast of characters, Brooklyn Nine-Nine made waves as a mainstream comedy series with a diverse cast. Each member of the squad showcases their individuality while avoiding stereotypes, allowing them each to become three-dimensional characters.
One of the most poignant plot points of the series was Rosa Diaz’ (Stephanie Beatriz) coming out as bisexual to her friends and family, a narrative shaped largely from Beatriz’ own experiences. With stories like Terry (Terry Crews) experiencing racial profiling as a POC cop, as well as the Captain Holt’s (Andre Braugher) experience as a gay, black police captain making it through the ranks – Brooklyn Nine-Nine shows that it’s possible to balance comedy with inclusivity and politics.
In Netflix’s adaptation of Alice Osman’s graphic novel, Heartstopper brought a refreshingly unproblematic LGBT+ story to TV screens. Subverting the history of queer representation that often resorted to trauma or tragedy, Heartstopper emphasized joy and diversity in its wholesome tale of queer coming-of-age.
Heartstopper dismantled numerous queer stereotypes throughout the series. With Nick Nelson’s (Kit Connor) journey to discovering his own bisexuality, healthy communication in relationships, and Yasmin Finney breaking through as a trans actress playing the trans character Elle – Heartstopper proves that positive queer representation is both possible and powerful.
Considered one of the greatest television shows of all time, Breaking Bad’s five season run was met with critical acclaim for its performances, direction, cinematography, and story that saw the show set the bar high for prestige TV. Following Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as he turns to a life of crime after his recent cancer diagnosis, Breaking Bad depicts an empathetic portrait of a man who wants to look after his family.
Walter’s son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy – a condition that affects muscular coordination, speech, and motor skills. As Mitte himself has cerebral palsy, this casting not only engrains the character with an authentic sincerity allowing for accurate representation, but it has also championed the way for characters with disabilities to be played by actors with disabilities and enabling increased accessibility into the industry.
Marvel’s venture into television has allowed for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to expand its reach by allowing more of its diverse characters and stories to be told. Arguably one of the Avengers characters with the least focus throughout the movies, Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) finally got his chance to shine in the Disney+ Series Hawkeye.
Suffering from hearing loss from his years of damage being an Avenger, Hawkeye now wears hearing aids to assist with his everyday life. His hearing loss is a major plot point of the series, showing his struggles with communication. Hawkeye also introduced the second deaf character in the MCU Maya Lopez played by deaf actress Alaqua Cox who will go on to have her own series Echo in 2023.
The early phases of the MCU largely focused on the typical hero archetype – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor – all powerful, middle-aged, white men. However, as a franchise built largely on its fans, it’s important for the fans to feel represented on screen through role models that represent its audience.
Ms. Marvel follows Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), a 16-year-old Pakistani-American teenager obsessed with the Avengers. The show depicts Kamala’s coming-of-age and struggles with her sense of belonging while balancing her family’s culture and religion. In representing a young Muslim teenager as a superhero, Ms. Marvel redefines what’s possible for women and POC in an industry defined by white men.
Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy has been a faithful adaptation of Gerard Way’s comic book series. Following the estranged siblings of Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), each of his adopted children form a team of superheroes each with their own unique abilities.
Viktor Hargreeves (Elliot Page) has had the most progressive arcs of the series; once initially believing to not possess any powers only to discover he has the strongest ability of all at the end of season one. However, more poignantly the showrunners wrote a coming out narrative into season three to correspond with Page’s own transition with his character adopting he/him pronouns and now going by Viktor. The Umbrella Academy proves the simplicity of writing inclusivity into the script while breaking boundaries with authentic transgender representation.
Known for its complex ideas told through psychedelic narratives in sharp 15-minute episodes, Adventure Time was a long-running animated series on Cartoon Network. Following the adventures of Finn the human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio) in the Land of Ooo, Adventure Time is a magical odyssey filled with colorful landscapes and quirky characters. Two characters throughout the series – Marceline (Olivia Olson) and Princess Bubblegum (Hyden Walch) – had been hinted at having a romantic relationship that was only confirmed in the final episode.
LGBT+ representation in children’s television is rare, but thanks to shows like Adventure Time pioneering the way, it has allowed for other media companies like Disney – who has historically had a tumultuous history with queer representation resorting to stereotypes and queerbaiting – making a positive step in the right direction with The Owl House featuring Luz Noceda (Sarah-Nicole Robles) who made history as Disney’s first openly bisexual protagonist.
Expanding upon the mythical world created by J.R.R. Tolkien is Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Set during the Second Age of Middle Earth, thousands of years ahead of the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Rings of Power introduces an ensemble cast of characters hailing from all regions of Middle Earth.
As a genre that has historically favored an all-white cast, the Amazon series subverts this maligned imagining of the fantasy genre by casting actors of color as elves, dwarves, humans and Harfoots. The series pushed the boundaries for representation defying the conventions of the genre to open up the industry to inclusivity. With Halle Bailey going on to play Ariel in the upcoming The Little Mermaid live action film, we can only hope that diverse casting in traditional roles can continue to positively shape representation onscreen for the future.
Next: The TV Fantasy Boom Offers Opportunities for Diversity and Expansive Storytelling
Amanda is a First Class Honours graduate in Film Studies having written her thesis on radical queer representation in horror cinema. She now continues to write about movies, TV, and culture as a freelance film critic and essayist. She cries during most movies and admires films that dare to be different.
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10 Best Mainstream TV Shows That Pushed The Boundaries for Representation – Collider