Throughout a television, film and stage career spanning more than four decades, Judith Light has witnessed firsthand the powerful ability of the arts to affect positive change in society. From altering perceptions surrounding traditional gender roles in Who’s the Boss? to highlighting the importance of love and acceptance in Transparent to supporting health-related causes like HIV/AIDS and flu awareness, she has utilized her place in the public eye to shed light on some of the most pressing issues of our time.
Most recently, in the fourth season of Transparent — which premiered in September on Amazon — her character Shelly Pfefferman opens up to her family about feelings of isolation and loneliness, which in part stem from being molested as a child. Given the recent situation in Hollywood, which prompted so many women and men — both inside and outside the entertainment industry — to tell their stories about being sexually assaulted and harassed, Light’s character’s revelation could not be more relevant.
“I think it couldn’t be more timely to have this come out in the way that it has,” Light tells SheKnows. “And you see how Shelly has been so deeply damaged and affected and kept this secret for so long — that it has literally kept her from having her voice and standing up and being the best person she can be in her life.”
Light views this bottling up of emotions and painful secrets as a health issue, noting, “If we keep something inside for too long, it can do great damage to our immune system and our own psyche.” She uses the example of trying to hold a beach ball underwater; it’s impossible to do, and at some point, no matter how hard you try to keep it down, it comes to the surface.
“I look forward to the time, as we have these kinds of conversations, that the culture actually begins to change out of having these secrets revealed,” she adds. “You see what changes occur out of telling the truth; out of — no pun intended — being transparent.”
This is hardly the first time Light has portrayed a character iconic of a larger societal shift. She is perhaps best known for playing Angela Bower in the sitcom Who’s the Boss?, which ran on ABC from 1984 to 1992. Bower was a high-powered advertising executive who owns her own business and employs a male housekeeper (Tony Danza in all his firm ‘80s glory, no less).
When it was airing, Light said they didn’t recognize how much the show — and her character in particular — was impacting the culture at the time.
“We knew it was different. We knew that it was a twist, and we knew that it was really smart of ABC to do that,” she explains. “But what we didn’t know was the level to which it would affect people growing up watching it to the depth that has been expressed to me subsequently.”
Looking back, she now knows that when people are able to look at a character on TV and see themselves, it can make them think they can accomplish similar goals.
“I have women now who own their own businesses who say they were powerfully affected by that character and those dynamics,” she says. “It changed the conversation.”
Light has also been an integral voice in the conversation surrounding HIV and AIDS since the condition first surfaced in the 1980s and continues to be involved to this day, as well as being a strong ally and advocate for the LGBTQ community.
“It is still here. It has not been cured and there has been no cure,” she says of the condition. “Of course, thank goodness for the protease inhibitors that allow our friends to live longer, full, active lives because of that, but until the day this disease ends or we find a cure for it, I’ll be participating as much as I possibly can.”
But HIV/AIDS isn’t Light’s only public health cause; most recently, she partnered with the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases to create a public service announcement that aims to raise awareness of the importance of the flu vaccine, especially for people age 65 and older. She says learning that every four minutes someone 65 or older is hospitalized with the flu and every 12 minutes someone over 65 dies from the flu was a major turning point of her, causing her to become involved with the NFID and promoting the flu shot.
As Light points out, because everyone is so busy, doing small yet important things like getting a flu shot can sometimes fall by the wayside — but shouldn’t.
“There’s something so easy in being able to do that,” she says of getting the flu vaccination. “Life can be so complicated in other areas — do the things that can be helpful to you and easy to do and in some way take care of yourself.”
For more information on the flu and vaccination options, please visit the NFID Flu Alert website.