In the 80 years that television has been in existence, we have experienced how powerful the medium can be in changing and shaping our culture. From a “radical” first-ever mention of pregnancy on I Love Lucy to Snooki’s “slap heard around the world” that sparked a debate on violence against women, as television grows and transforms, so does its ability to confront audiences with topics that were previously deemed “too touchy” to discuss in public forums.
Here are 42 of the most controversial TV moments that have had a hand in shaping the way we see the world…
When Ellen came out of the closet
While it may be hard to remember a time when Ellen DeGeneres was considered a controversial figure, 20 years ago, she was the most radical person on television. In April of 1997, “The Puppy Episode” aired on her sitcom Ellen. In it, she finally announced what the public had long suspected—that she was a gay woman. At the time, the episode faced such harsh opposition from advertisers and the industry power players that be, that Ellen’s co-star, Laura Dern, says she didn’t work for the year after it aired. She saw the sudden career drop-off as “punishment” for participating in this defining cultural moment. Nowadays, DeGeneres is a successful talk show host who makes a cool $75 million per year for her hosting duties on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
When Seinfeld characters made light of Puerto Rican culture
Seinfeld, the “show about nothing” that reigned supreme in the 1990s, may have seemed rather “PG” on the surface, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t stir up at least some controversy. In its ninth and final season, an episode entitled, “The Puerto Rican Day Parade” debuted to ultra-high ratings—in fact, it ended up being the second most-viewed episode in the show’s history. But, ratings aside, some viewers took offense to how Puerto Ricans were portrayed in the episode, so much so, in fact, a letter-writing campaign encouraged NBC to pull future re-runs of the episode altogether.
When Mulder and Scully tackled incest
The science fiction phenomenon that was The X-Files took on some creepy subjects over the years, but none was more disturbing than season 4’s “Home,” an episode that followed a rag-tag incestuous clan that also just happened to be killers. Though the episode featured gruesome violence—it was the only one to be rated TV-MA in the entirety of the series run—it gained more attention for its insinuation that the men in the fictional family were carrying on a sexual relationship with their incapacitated mother. Even after eleven seasons and two movies, “Home” is still the one episode that stands out as being the series’ edgiest.
When Ashlee Simpson was caught lip-synching
Ashlee Simpson, the kid sister to the pop star, Jessica Simpson, had her burgeoning music career cut short when she was caught lip-synching on what was set to be her big introduction to the world. It all went down when the singer prepared to sing her second and final song on a 2004 episode of SNL. Her first performance went off without a hitch, but after host Jude Law introduced Simpson, a pre-recorded track began playing over her, a mistake that ultimately revealed that she had been lip-synching during her performance on the live show. Although Simpson eventually fessed up to the flub, her career as a musician quickly fizzled and she hasn’t been able to fall back into public favor since.
When Lena Dunham got naked
Lena Dunham, the talented creator and star of HBO’s Girls, was not camera shy when it came to performing nude on the show. In fact, the actress appeared in various states of undress throughout the six-season run, and, according to her, the choice had everything to do with building on the show’s “slice of life” tone. At the 2014 Television Critics Association panel, Dunham addressed one critic’s charge that she was undressed too often. “It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it,” the actress and showrunner said. “If you are not into me, that’s your problem.”
When Felicity chopped off her curls
In October of 1999, Keri Russell, the star of the WB’s Felicity, made a change to her appearance that was so drastic, network execs feel that it influenced fans to stop watching the show. You see, Russell’s title character was known for her voluminous, long curls, a hairstyle that gave her an ethereal, and completely unforgettable signature look. But, when the star sent a photo of herself wearing a short wig to producers as a gag, they thought that the ‘doo would be a good move for the series. Unfortunately, they were wrong—ratings dropped and the show never regained the buzz that it had in its first season.
When Family Guy tackled abortion
Family Guy may be known for causing a stir, but the season 8 episode “Partial Terms of Endearment” started a serious conversation that left viewers questioning their personal ethics. The episode, which featured Peter and a pregnant Lois agonizing over whether or not she should get an abortion, struck a chord with pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, and, with a vague and abrupt ending, the lack of resolution only fueled the debate even more. The last line, which was delivered by Peter, was a simple “We had the abortion,” right before the credits rolled.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer tackled rape
In the ‘90s, the WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show that put its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, into dangerous situations often, but the series’ 19th episode of the 6th season had some fans questioning if the writers had gone too far. The episode, entitled “Seeing Red” featured a scene where an injured Buffy endured a near-rape at the hands of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Spike. The graphic scene made Canadian network YTV’s executives nervous, so much so that they aired it at a later time so as not to expose its youngest viewers to the violent scenario.
When Mr. Rogers taught kids about the cold war
Fred Rogers may have served as the peaceful, practical, and oh-so-loving grandfatherly figure to three generations of tv viewers, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t share his views of pacifism with his young audience. In 1983, when the U.S. and Russia were in the midst of stockpiling weapons, the television host produced a series of episodes in which King Friday, the leader of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, begins spending his subjects’ money on arms, while leaving their education and art funds depleted. Although the sentiment was well-received, the episodes were never issued re-runs.
When Hannah committed suicide on 13 Reasons Why
Though Netflix’s show 13 Reasons Why was meant to act as a teen suicide deterrent, some experts have said that the series can “trigger” self-destructive impulses in depressed children. In fact, a recent rash of suicides from middle schoolers and high schoolers following the show’s debut has prompted parents and teachers to worry that the series may have something to do with it. But, as with all controversies, it seems that the violent depictions of suicide may have done some good. According to a study using Google search trends, researchers discovered that searches for suicide prevention and suicide hotlines rose by over 20% since the show’s debut.
When South Park censored an image of the prophet Muhammad
Like Family Guy, Comedy Central’s South Park is considered to be one of the most hilarious, albeit controversial cartoons of all time. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone endured death threats when they attempted to include a cartoon depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in two of its episodes. The 2010 episodes, entitled “200” and “201” were meant to make light of the dicey political landscape, not degrade the religion, but Comedy Central took threats against the show’s creators seriously enough and they were made to censor out the cartoon prophet with a slide that read: ‘Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network’. What makes the controversy all the more interesting is the fact that cartoon depictions of the prophet had appeared several times, starting back in 2001, on the show with no previous debate.
When Bill Maher said the N-word
In June of 2017, Bill Maher, the venerable host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, shocked his audience by playfully referring to himself as a “house n****r.” The tone-deaf quip infuriated many, with high profile celebrities, like Chance the Rapper calling for HBO to immediately cancel the show. That being said, when Ice Cube came on the show the following week as a guest, the rapper turned Maher’s transgression into a teachable moment. “That’s our word now, and you can’t have it back,” Ice Cube told Maher. After some back-and-forth, where the rapper accused Maher of sounding like “a redneck trucker,” Maher delivered an apology. These days, the host says that he has learned from his potentially career-ruining mistake.
When Lucy was pregnant
Back in 1952, the classic I Love Lucy episode “Lucy is Enceinte” aired wherein the show’s star appears pregnant. Believe it or not, this was one of the very first times network television allowed a pregnant woman to be featured on its airwaves. Executives were reportedly so nervous about the milestone that writers were not allowed to refer to Ball as “pregnant,” which is why the episode title includes the word “enceinte,” the French term for “pregnant.”
When Dawson’s Creek featured a gay kiss
In 2000, the WB brought to us what was called by The Huffington Post “TVs first passionate gay kiss.” The show of affection, which involved characters Jack and Ethan, may have only lasted a mere few seconds, but TV critics say that the loving kiss on the mouth changed the way gay characters were viewed in years to come. The episode’s director, James Whitmore, admitted that the network was “nervous” about the backlash they might face for airing the kiss, but they ultimately felt that the emotional scene was well worth including in the episode.
When Chris took Viagra on Skins
When the American version of the U.K.’s Skins debuted on MTV in 2011, the network didn’t shy away from paying homage to original series–even when it came to the topic of erections. In one episode, teenager, Chris, experiments with a Viagra pill, and afterward, the audience gets to catch a glimpse of the pill’s effects. This, along with a later streaking scene, where the character’s bare behind is visible while he runs down the street, was enough to spark outrage amongst parents who viewed the network as having a responsibility to its impressionable viewers.
When The Simpsons insulted Brazil
While The Simpsons may not be as “in your face” as South Park or Family Guy, one moment from the series made some viewers wonder if the shows’ writers were racists. The episode in question, “Blame it on Lisa,” featured a plotline where the family visits Rio de Janeiro and, in it, they encounter a violent Brazilian people in a city that closely resembles an apocalyptic wasteland. Following the episode’s initial airing, the city’s tourism board threatened to sue FOX for its negative depiction of Rio, saying that they spent $18 million in attempts to reverse the damage that the episode had done.
When an elementary school shooting was featured on Sons of Anarchy
The end of the FX show’s season 6 premiere concluded in one of the most controversial moments in the intensely-violent show’s history, when an 11-year-old student walked into a classroom and began shooting at his fellow students. The scene, which came just months after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, was viewed by many as occurring “too soon.” The show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that he feared “blowback” from the choice to include the scene, but he also said that he didn’t want “fear” to govern his artistic choices.
When Star Trek featured an interracial kiss
Although it was far from being a romantic one, Star Trek still holds the title of being the show to feature television’s first interracial kiss. The scene, which included star William Shatner and guest star Nichelle Nichols was originally never going to happen; NBC ordered for there to be several variations where the kiss wasn’t visible, but the cast and crew refused to give the network anything but the real thing. Almost unbelievably, the landmark episode was banned by the BBC until 1994.
When Diff’rent Strokes tackled sexual assault
In 1983, family sitcom Diff’rent Strokes featured a storyline in which the series’ young characters, Arnold and Dudley, were lured to the back of a bike shop by a pedophile. As the episode, entitled “The Bicycle Man,” progressed, the predator showed X-rated magazines to the children and even asked them to strip for a photo shoot. Though the episode was clearly meant to bring awareness to child sexual abuse, viewers felt that the show’s particularly cheery tone ended up making light of a horrific situation.
When Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Archie Bunker
In this seminal All in the Family episode, “Sammy’s Visit,” Sammy Davis Jr. pays a visit to the Bunker clan where he quickly picks up on the patriarch, Archie’s, racist tendencies. The episode culminates in what was, at the time, a shocking moment in which Sammy Davis Jr. lands an unexpected kiss on Archie’s cheek. Fun fact: It was TV legend, Carroll O’Connor’s idea to include the infamous kiss at the end of the episode.
When Elvis played The Ed Sullivan Show
Although legendary host Ed Sullivan later revealed that Elvis wasn’t his “cup of tea,” in 1956, the presenter knew that he would hit ratings gold if he hired the musician to perform on his show. It was the first time that much of the world got a glimpse of the singer’s gyrating hips that would make him famous. His moves ended up making such an impression on conservative TV audiences that, when Elvis was invited back to perform in 1957, the director of the show instructed the camera operator to film the star above the waistline in order to prevent further controversy.
When Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of the Pope
Singer Sinead O’Connor became the subject of a media firestorm when she concluded her SNL performance by looking into the camera and ripping up a photo of the Pope at the time, John Paul II. Afterwards, O’Connor explained that her protest was in regards to the child abuse cover-up within the Catholic Church, something that most of the general public knew nothing about in 1992. Unfortunately, the singer’s public demonstration made her a pariah and her burgeoning career was never able to rebound.
When The Twilight Zone tackled PTSD
In a 1964 episode of the legendary sci-fi show The Twilight Zone, a young George Takei plays a Japanese-American gardener employed by a WWII veteran. The dialogue-heavy episode, which aired just months after Lyndon B. Johnson upped the number of troops in Vietnam, made steps forward by dropping subtle mentions of the existence of PTSD but also took several steps back by wrongly-implicating Japanese-Americans as spies leading up to Pearl Harbor. Because of complaints about the latter, the episode only aired once and was never again played on network television.
When network TV made a Hitler sitcom
It’s hard to believe, but back in 1990, a show called Heil Honey, I’m Home, premiered on British Satellite. The sitcom was meant to be a satirical take on the abominable leader, but audiences weren’t having any of it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series was immediately canceled after the first episode premiered, and the rest of the season has never been shown.
When Tiny Toons tackled underage drinking
“In this episode, we’re showing the evils of alcohol,” Buster Bunny quips, whilst taking a beer from the fridge. Though it was meant to educate young kids on the dangers of underage drinking, particularly drinking and driving, adults thought that the episode, entitled “One Beer,” missed the mark. Even though the alcohol consumption ends in the characters’ demises when they drive off a cliff, some parents thought that the slapstick nature of the cartoon might influence curious children to drink. The episode only aired once before being pulled; it is still banned to this day.
When Married With Children tackled public sex
The highly-sexual and always crude, Married with Children was a show that was no stranger to controversy, but one episode, in particular, shocked even its most dedicated followers. The episode, entitled “I’ll See You in Court,” was actually banned from appearing on FOX when it was set to originally be released in 1989 and wasn’t shown until it was included in a DVD box set almost 15 years later. It’s said that network censors refused to air “I’ll See You in Court” because of the strong sexual undertones prevalent in the episode in which Al and Peggy unwittingly appear in a porno at a cheap motel. These days, the episode is shown in syndication, and even includes a scene where the show’s stars are shown having sex in a courtroom.
When Beavis and Butthead tackled arson
Like the aforementioned Married with Children, MTV’s Beavis and Butthead was practically created to cause a stir. In fact, many episodes of the legendary MTV cartoon were either cut down to appease censors or even banned outright. The most infamous example of this is the episode entitled “Comedians,” where Beavis, attempting to display his comedy chops, burns down a comedy club when he performed a routine of juggling fiery newspapers. The episode didn’t cause any problems until a couple of months after the air date when an Ohio boy accidentally burned down his family trailer, killing his sister while trying to perform the same trick. The episode has been banned from television ever since.
When Ren & Stimpy went over the line
During its original air, Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy quickly became known for being a cartoon that often displayed questionable material to a very young and impressionable audience. One episode, in particular, 1992’s “Man’s Best Friend,” was initially banned by the network for excessive violence. The episode didn’t see the light of day until 2003 when the Spike TV network aired it on its Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon Party.
When Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift
When it comes to controversy, Kanye West truly is the gift that keeps on giving. The rapper is known to be a live wire, particularly when it comes to appearing on live television, so it didn’t come as a surprise to some when in 2009, he jumped on the stage at MTV’s Video Music Awards and grabbed the microphone from the Best Female Video winner, Taylor Swift, and went on a rant about how Beyoncé should have won. Although it’s been almost a decade since the incident, Swift herself recently confirmed in her latest single “Look What You Made Me Do” that the two still have a beef.
When Petula Clark touched Harry Belafonte’s arm
The above image may appear to be a relatively innocuous show of affection between a man and a woman, but back in 1968, the gesture was groundbreaking. Here’s some backstory: British singer Petula Clark invited the legendary Harry Belafonte to do a duet with her on one of her television specials. While singing “On the Path of Glory,” Clark touched Belafonte’s arm, an act that angered a Chrysler ad executive who threatened to pull out of sponsoring the special unless the moment was cut. Clark, along with the show’s producers, refused to placate the racist sponsor, and the duet aired in its entirety to rave reviews soon after.
When Soap featured a homosexual character
Character Jodie Dallas, played by a young Billy Crystal in the 1970s series Soap, is widely regarded as being one of the first gay characters to be featured on network television. Although it was a groundbreaking moment in television history, LGBT groups, including the National Gay Task Force, voiced their concerns to ABC because they felt that the character’s sexuality was feeding into tired and damaging stereotypes. On the other end of the spectrum were religious organizations that felt that it was blasphemous to feature any gay characters on television altogether. In what was viewed as a very poor compromise, ABC cut most mentions of Crystal’s sexuality from the show, with the character even going on to date women during the series’ run.
When Matt Lauer’s Today Show colleagues announced his termination
In December of 2017, longtime Today Show anchor, Matt Lauer, was fired from his hosting gig when NBC executives were sent a detailed report of his sexual transgressions. The incident came right at the height of the #MeToo moment, where women around the world were telling their tales of sexual exploitation and abuse. What made the situation all the more awkward was that Lauer’s co-host, Savannah Guthrie, was made to deliver the announcement just moments before, she herself, learned of the news. The network has since replaced Lauer with veteran anchor, Hoda Kotb.
When Rosie O’Donnell started a gun control debate with Tom Selleck
In the 1990s, actress Rosie O’Donnell was the host of an extremely popular daytime talk show. Her show was anything but controversial until, one day in 1999, the actor Tom Selleck came to promote a new movie of his. Almost right off the bat, O’Donnell began questioning Selleck as to why he was such a vocal member of the National Rifle Association. The awkward interview has since become a legendary TV moment, but it’s interesting to note that even the host herself has admitted that she used improper tactics at the time. In 2012, O’Donnell told the New York Post that she was “emotional” after the Columbine High School shooting and would “redo” the interview today, if she could.
When Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch
In 2005, legendary film actor Tom Cruise surprised the world when he showed up on the Oprah Winfrey Show in what can only be described as a “manic state.” The Mission Impossible star squealed, laughed maniacally, and even jumped on the set’s couch in mock delight after the host asked him about his relationship with then-girlfriend Katie Holmes. His appearance has since become viral, with some critics pointing to this particular interview, as well as his strong ties to Scientology, as being the reason why the actor’s likeability has tarnished in recent years.
When Marlon Brando used the Oscars’ stage to detail the plight of the Native American people
When Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award in 1973 for his influential performance in The Godfather, many thought that he was a shoo-in for the award. Recognizing his high potential to win, the actor decided to forgo the ceremony so that the audience could focus their attention on a cause close to his heart—Native American rights. So, Sacheen Littlefeather, a member of Indians of All Tribes, accepted—or rather, rejected—the award on Brando’s behalf, and took the time allotted to her to discuss the mistreatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. Today, the speech is still regarded as one of the most memorable in Oscars’ history.
When Roseanne kissed a girl
The influential ‘90s sitcom Roseanne never shied away from covering risqué subjects, but even the show’s most hardcore fans were surprised when the series’ main character kissed a woman the 1994 episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The episode features a scene where special guest star, Mariel Hemmingway, plants a kiss on the lips of Roseanne Barr’s character. It goes without saying that 1994 was a very different time in our culture; Ellen DeGeneres had yet to come out, so featuring a gay person on television was still very much uncharted territory. The show’s network, ABC initially resisted airing the episode, but after threats from Barr and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the network relented, and even began marketed it as the “lesbian kiss episode.” As it turned out, most phone calls made to the network in response to the episode were positive, and some say that it started a trend of gay kisses on other network shows, like Party of Five and Ally McBeal.
When Janet Jackson suffered a wardrobe malfunction
Not many people can tell you who won Super Bowl XXXVIII (it was the New England Patriots), but they can tell you that they saw Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple during the half-time show. It all went down at the very last second of the show, when Justin Timberlake, in a rehearsed move, pulled off the outer-layer of Jackson’s costume—the only problem was that her bra came off along with it, exposing her right breast to an audience of 140 million. The FCC ended up fining the network over $550,000 and, to this very day, ‘Janet Jackson half-time show’ is still one of the most searched phrases on the Internet of all time.
When Drew Barrymore flashed David Letterman
Drew Barrymore flaunted her wild-child image when in, 1995, the then 20-year-old got up on The Late Show host’s desk, did a sexy dance, and flashed him. The dance, which she asserts to this very day was completely impromptu, still remains one of the most memorable moments during Letterman’s reign on the show.
When Donald Trump’s true colors were revealed
In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, a vintage clip of Republican candidate Donald Trump making extremely crude, behind the scenes comments alongside Access Hollywood host, Billy Bush, mysteriously surfaced. While many thought that his off-the-cuff comments in which he brags about sexually assaulting women would be the end of his candidacy, Trump emerged from the controversy unscathed and, amazingly, went on to win the presidential election.
When Saved by the Bell tackled drug abuse
Resident nerd Jessie Spano from the uber-popular teen hit Saved by the Bell was known for being a bit of a wet blanket, which made it all the more shocking when the character flirted with a caffeine pill addiction during the show’s second season. The “very special episode” wasn’t necessarily controversial at the time, but the over-the-top, often cringe-worthy acting didn’t exactly get the anti-drug sentiment across all that effectively. These days, the moment lives in infamy as being one of the most unintentionally hilarious in television history.
When Madonna kissed Britney (and Christina)
When Rolling Stone compiled a list of the most outrageous MTV VMAs moments, it seemed only natural to put the on-stage kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears at the very top. Though Madonna kissed Christina Aguilera as well, audiences were more shocked that the virginal Spears would partake in such a scandalous form of showmanship. It was a moment that marked the pop queen’s departure from her “good girl” persona and the start of a much steamier image which she still rocks today.
When Snooki got punched
Whether you love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Jersey Shore’s Nicole Polizzi, better known by her nickname “Snooki,” was a true forced to be reckoned with in the mid-2000s. And, although she had the reality TV game down pat, it doesn’t mean that the star was safe from the general public. In a 2011 episode of the show, Snooki was filming at a Jersey Shore bar when an intoxicated fellow guest by the name of Brad Ferro punched her in the face. Ferro ended up getting arrested shortly following the incident, and received 6 months probation along with a fine and mandatory community service. He has since apologized for his wrongdoing.