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The Woefully True-To-Life Legacy Of Roseanne

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In 1988, I didn’t see families like mine on television.

No, I’m not talking about white families. I saw white families on T.V. all the time. Family TiesThe HogansGrowing PainsWho’s The Boss, sitcoms that didn’t depict the ideal middle-class white experience were few and far between. As a child, I knew T.V. wasn’t real, but I also knew that these kinds of lives existed. Out there in the wide world, a family like the Seavers contended with the problems of juggling their father’s in-home psychiatric practice and their mother’s television news career. Some busy and successful single mom just had to be out there looking to hire a hunky live-in housekeeper to clean her already immaculate home. There were just too many people on the planet for that to not be happening. It just wasn’t happening in my family.

My family didn’t worry about the things television families worried about. Problems I was having with kids at my rural Michigan school were rarely met with tidy, thoughtful advice dispensed in a gentle, heartfelt conversation that made me feel better. Not because no one cared about me but because there simply wasn’t time between the two jobs my grandfather worked, my mom’s nightshifts at a printing factory and her day shifts at college, and the overwhelming burden of not just childcare for me, but home care for the entire family that fell to my grandmother. When I compared the slick, modern interior of Charles In Charge to our crumbling farmhouse–where pieces of the wall regularly chipped off and fell into the bathtub while I bathed in shared water to avoid filling up the septic tank–I felt a deep sense of wrongness about how we should be living.

The more I thought about it–and since I spent most days from four in the afternoon to nine at night watching a small black-and-white set on the kitchen table in my grandmother’s kitchen I had plenty of time to analyze this–the more I began to realize that the things that happened in my house weren’t the things happening in other houses. I became convinced that our lives and experiences were somehow bad, and therefore not worthy of consumption by a live studio audience. “We” weren’t on television because “we” weren’t acceptable. I started to resent the people on T.V., even though I knew they were fake. I started to resent my own family. I started to despair.

Then, something absolutely magical happened. It started with a few shrill, plaintive notes from a harmonica and a revolving camera shot around a crowded dinner table. The mom was fat and loud and unglamorous. The dad was jolly and loving, but he radiated worry. The kids weren’t wearing the latest fashions. No one was slick and polished. Their furniture was ugly, their kitchen had dishes in the sink, and my god, the green shag carpeting. They were living in a crowded bungalow, with people walking in and out at all hours without knocking. You could see their laundry, even when it wasn’t a plot point, and there were sometimes toys or backpacks on the stairs.

They looked like us.

To say I absolutely craved Roseanne would be an understatement. The show ran after my bedtime, but after much pleading, I received a stay of execution on Tuesday nights only. And I lived for Tuesday. I loved watching Dan and Roseanne fight–not argue, fight–knowing that they still cared about each other the way my grandparents still cared about each other even when they reached screaming levels of frustration. When Becky farted during her student council speech, I was mortified right along with her, while being as gleeful as Darlene. I can still remember how perfectly Sara Gilbert’s eyebrows arched into devilish triangles as she delivered, “Becky. Cut. The cheese.” I can remember her voice.

So many of the Conner family values were things I’d already learned in my own working class home. Treat others the way you want to be treated, but don’t let them walk over you. Speak your mind. Be grateful for what you have, because other people are struggling, too. And, long before any other influence reached me, Sandra Bernhard’s Nancy was a blueprint for my own queerness, despite admitted flaws in her representation.

Roseanne made me feel like I was worth something. Like my family was worth something. Like we were real.

I didn’t pay much attention at the time to the antics of Roseanne née Barr, née Arnold. She was always in the press, doing something controversial. I did wear out a VHS copy of her movie, She-Devil, a more outré attack on the patriarchy and the out-of-touch upper class than Roseanne had the luxury of being on network television. But Roseanne the actress and Roseanne Conner were two separate entities in my mind.

Would that they could have stayed that way.

In recent years, Roseanne the “Domestic Goddess” with her socially progressive television message has become Roseanne the overtly transphobic, outspoken Trump supporter spewing vitriol against Hillary Clinton and Palestine, retweeting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and claims that Roy Moore’s accusers are all paid liars. She is, well…

She is exactly who Roseanne Conner probably would have become, were she a real person.

The Conners represented a very real slice of the population: blue-collar white Democrats who clawed through Reagan’s recession and the Bush, Sr. years, who knew exactly who to blame for their economic woes, who welcomed the new age of Clintonian prosperity and peace. Granted, some of them cheerfully voted for Bush the younger based on his folksy everyman persona, but many of the same people opposed his war, knowing it would be their children on the front lines, fighting not for freedom but for the wealthy.

Then came Barack Obama.

I don’t know much about Roseanne Barr’s political views before a black man ran for president, but I certainly know what they were afterward. Barr, now staunchly anti-Clinton if her Twitter timeline can be trusted as a barometer, lashed out at both Obama and Oprah in 2008, just before the former president clinched the Democratic nomination. She condemned Oprah for playing the “race card” and accused her of hating other women. Barack Obama, she alleged, was a racist capitalist with no plan for his presidency, who would condemn us to a McCain victory. McCain didn’t escape her ire unscathed; she branded him a fascist. Roseanne Barr saw white supremacy challenged, just as the white liberal working class who once worshipped her saw it challenged, and like Barr, they tossed the principles they previously claimed to hold directly into the garbage.

Like so many white women at the time, Barr embraced the narrative that a vote for Obama was a vote for the patriarchy. Some of the same Baby Boomers who often bragged about their social justice activism in their college days, who credited their generation with “solving” racism, saw an attractive chance to uphold the status quo by supporting a white woman over a black man and branding it the only true progress. With Fox News to stoke their paranoia and the new phenomenon of social media uniting them, they were able to convince themselves that white supremacy was righteous–but certainly not racist–and that they alone could save America through dubious “news” blogs and loud insistence that “common sense” drove their political views and not something far more insidious. When Clinton lost the Democratic primary, the GOP swooped in with tough-talking, gun-toting Mama Palin to be their “strong, independent woman”, and there was no turning back.

These people were the Conners, the Dans and Roseannes and Jackies trying to survive outside of the Family Ties mold. They became the America Roseanne resisted all those years ago; the crowd that cheered a same-sex kiss now floods their Facebook timeline with rants about gay wedding cakes. The people who grieved the loss of Lanford Custom Cycle and nodded sympathetically when the power company shut the Conners’ lights off now would view the same family as deadbeats who created their own problems, rather than victims of a grinding capitalist trickle-down machine. They can do this because they’ve rewritten history to suit themselves. “I bought a house when I was twenty.” “never got a handout from anyone.” “didn’t go to college, I worked for a living.” All of this conveniently ignores that houses cost considerably less in 1975, that a college education wasn’t more expensive than one of those houses at the time, and that jobs that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree were plentiful. Adjusted for 2017 inflation, the 1988 Conners are the “lazy” generation that accrued mountains of student loans, worked unpaid for “experience”, and don’t have three kids because even owning a hamster is too much of a financial commitment. They are the people that their original audience now despises.

Now, Roseanne is set to return in the spring of 2018. The viewers who once cheered when Dan was arrested mid-KFC bucket for beating up Jackie’s abusive boyfriend will switch channels from Fox News’s nightly explanation of why women who are raped are merely overreacting. As the winter snows melt all around their tattered Trump yard signs, they’ll settle into some welcome working class nostalgia. They will be reunited with the Conner family, though which version of the Conners is still uncertain. With Dan having been retroactively killed off via voiceover in the show’s finale and a bonkers plot twist that saw the Conners become instant millionaires, it seems unlikely that the family we bid farewell to in 1997 will return without any retconning in the writers’ room. But will the show depict the sad reality of what its eponymous star has become? Will audiences be asked to ignore the fact that the characters we once loved would have inevitably slid into full-tilt Birtherism and Pizza Gate conspiracies? Or will the reboot become a bullhorn to amplify its star’s wild cries of liberal intolerance and public embrace of an actual fascist, the way it once served as a platform for progressive ideals?

I don’t feel I can support the reboot, or, sadly, the cast, who’ve all agreed to return to work with a woman who spends her days promoting alt-right hate under the guise of centrism and reasonable discourse. I certainly don’t feel like I can trust the Conners; like several of my own family members who stubbornly vote for the hand that holds them down time and again–for reasons having nothing to do with white supremacy, of coursethe love I once felt for them has become tainted to the point of sorrow. Too many of us who grew up on Roseanne have seen parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles follow the same twisted path that Roseanne Barr continues to forge. What could the show possibly offer us now? We don’t want to see D.J. opine about ethics in games journalism. We don’t want to sit through a TERF-y rant from Nancy or hear about how Becky can’t get a promotion due to affirmative action. Yet time has proven that this is the natural progression of Roseanne Conners everywhere, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Connors who felt so real in 1988 would be nothing but a fairytale in 2018.

16 Comments

  1. Aimee
    Aimee

    What a poignant essay. I used to watch Roseanne too and it’s never occurred to me to make the connection between the Conners of 1988 and the mess we’re in now. Thank you.

    January 1, 2018
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  2. Ilex
    Ilex

    Fascinating commentary and insights here, Jenny.

    I can’t behind this Roseanne reboot, either, and I didn’t even know Roseanne Barr had turned into such a political horror. I still love occasionally revisiting the original series on some retro TV channel I get, but it also feels very much a product of its time. I don’t see how any new version of it is going to recapture that magic.

    I sure hope the reboot isn’t based in some kind of full-on Fox News version of America. Yikes!

    January 1, 2018
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  3. Kate
    Kate

    I’ve only briefly seen the teasers for the reboot (I mute commercials), so maybe this has already been answered, but how much of that shitshow of a final season (that I am still in denial about to the point of petulance) is going to factor into it?

    Regardless, I’m in complete agreement. I really got into the show when it started airing on Nick at Nite. I had been aware of it when it was still on air because my mom liked it, but didn’t pay attention beyond that. I was in a not-so-great place at the time and it was a happy place for me. When Nick at Nite got to the final season and the final episode I think my reaction was akin to Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook when he got to the end of A Farewell to Arms lol.

    When Roseanne started showing her ass on Twitter, et al. it was severely disappointing to see someone who’d brought me joy when I was at such a low point a few years prior. Based on the pushback she got I could see I wasn’t alone in that disappointment. It’s too bad, too, because while working class families aren’t as much of a rarity on TV anymore, it could have been an interesting experiment.

    January 2, 2018
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  4. E.
    E.

    For the life of me, I can’t explain how Carrie Fisher was friends with that person.

    I liked Roseanne when I was a kid but will skip it today, mostly because 1. I liked it because it showed me one completely foreign reality (I am not from the US, I have never been there, nor I have visited and 2. It reminded me of The Addams family which were dysfunctional but loving but today’s version and the reality behind the characters of Roseanne are exactly as described by Jenny and I don’t want to support the creator of this in any way.

    January 2, 2018
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  5. Victoriana
    Victoriana

    It continually astounds me that people can have their views so warped by bigotry that they will vote and act against their own interests, even to the point of creating their own alternate realities. It is just sad. Awful, but really sad too that so many people are like this. That nothing – not lessons from history, not empathy, not logic, nor even self-preservation – will sway them.

    January 2, 2018
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  6. SuburbanGirl
    SuburbanGirl

    This essay, along with watching the commercials for the reboot have reminded me what it was that bothered me about Rosanne when I was a kid. Back then they were a little bit too much like my family. Fat mom that yells at everyone and puts us all down. Aloof dad making mistakes and not realizing the effect that has on the kids. Kids that seemed a little too much like me and my family, except they didn’t seem to be bothered by the abuse or neglect they were suffering.

    While watching the commercials for the reboot just listening to Rosanne’s laugh triggered a panic attack for me because my mother used to laugh that same way, but it was never with love when she did it. Rosanne and my mother seemed to have some kind of monopoly on being mean without seeming to, and fooling people into thinking they were good people. As the years have gone by both Rosanne and my mother have gone off the deep end, it seems. They have both become a sad shadow of the few good things they once were.

    January 2, 2018
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  7. RodeoBob
    RodeoBob

    Wow… so the last thing I remembered about Rosanne was back during Charlie Sheen’s firing and public meltdown, she spoke up in his defense. I remember her arguing that he was likely in a manic state, that what he really needed was rest and care and a break, and that having to act in a role that’s based on his own public image, delivering self-loathing material, deeply hateful jokes, and working on a hack show would be enough to drive anyone to despair.

    Through the haze of memory, I recalled that of all people able to make such a defense, it was her, and that her argument for compassion for Charlie Sheen in his crisis was a rare one when everyone else seemed content to point and laugh.

    But, memory is a shaky thing, and we remember what we *want* to recall, not necessarily what actually happened, so I googled and searched for her original comments, and found Rosanne Barr’s blog.

    Do not do what I did. It’s a rabbit hole that goes really deep, and there should be all kinds of trigger warnings for mental illness, mania, and similar topics. It’s the kind of thing you read, and wind up feeling sad and worried about someone you can’t possibly help. Rosanne Barr wants to be in the public eye, wants to entertain, but that might not be the best thing for her health and happiness. This reboot failing would mean she could go back to a quiet life farming macadamia nuts, and maybe that’s better for her overall health and happiness.

    January 2, 2018
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  8. Anon
    Anon

    So, this is small and unrelated to the subject, but since people come here for writing advice:

    She was not “née Arnold.” “Née” means, literally, born and refers to one’s given last name at birth. In the majority of cases, it refers to a woman’s maiden name. So she was “née Barr,” but not Arnold.

    January 2, 2018
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    • Ann
      Ann

      Thanks! I had no idea. And since we’re off topic, I loved She Devil. Any fan of Meryl Streep should watch the crap out of it. It’s great! Don’t read the novel though… it’s damn dark.

      January 2, 2018
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  9. Tasja
    Tasja

    I’m so disappointed whenever I see the white working class attacking working class POC. The only winners in that fight is the bourgeoisie. The conservative owning class and liberalism as an ideology has tricked us into thinking we all have a good shot at become a part of the elite if we just work hard enough and that everyone else wanting a piece of that cake is a threat (immigrants, people on welfare etc.) The fact that liberalism is considered “left” in the US says it all. People think that unions, and a united working class and under class is something unnecessary since we are all just broke, potential millionares. A world where you are a commodity will never be POC or LGBT+ friendly as you are forced to push down the people below you in the hierarchy to heighten your own value. We need to quit working against ourselves and unite against the real enemy!

    Because of illness I’m now a person of immigrant background living on welfare. We almost never get to be on TV unless we are Welfare Queens, criminals or getting murdered on a cop show.

    January 2, 2018
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  10. ElBandito
    ElBandito

    I never got to see Roseanne until I was in my mid-20s (mostly because I was living overseas for so damn long, plus there wasn’t a lot of American TV where I was growing up as a kid).

    But I absolutely agree about the value of at least seeing working-class families in media. Like, I freakin’ LOVED Raising Arizona. The main characters’ home and personal objects were the exact opposite of what my mother wanted (and throughout my childhood, she used to seethe about not having a house exactly like in the magazines (all white, with colonial and chrome touches plus exotic paintings)), but the movie showed me that even if the characters’ house looked unfashionable, even if their couch wasn’t made out of pristine white leather that’s still in its own plastic wrapping, even if some surfaces were still covered with plastic tupperware/brightly colored plastic bowls (and quelle horreur! Baby toys left out for people to see*!), it’s NOT the end of the world (and if anything else, it’s CAN still look nice).

    It actually made me realise that I shouldn’t have to struggle hard to have an ‘upper-middle class’ home like my mom. Like the characters Ed and Hi, I can have a clusterbomb of old furniture and kitsch in my house and still be happy–and even have a loving relationship while living in such a home (which was a useful lesson considering how I don’t have much money, and live in a small apartment that’s stuffed with books and movies). Besides, my mom spent way too many years pushing and brow-beating my dad into giving her that ‘pristine’ white home that she had fixated on from Hello! magazines and those model-home rags, and after getting everything EXACTLY how she wanted it–she still felt insecure and actually hated it (I’m not kidding, she didn’t even know what made it imperfect–she couldn’t even say WHY she hated it, she just did).

    But you’re right about what’s happening with the working class (and trust me, it’s the same problem in the UK and in Spain). What’s happening is a strange mix of Victorian elitism and ultra-nationalism that’s being supported by our current working class, and it’s STRANGE for them to act like every ‘outsider’ (if they were opposites of their gender, their ancestry, their age group, anything) are definitely a threat to THEIR lives and are unworthy of any sympathy. It’s horrifically sad, and as a lifelong immigrant–it makes me wonder if we’d need another Great Depression to throw all those people out of loop and make them realise that it’s not their scapegoats (often consisting of regular, and working class people that just happened to come from a different ethnicity/country) that are causing their sorrows, it’s powerful people and organisations that actually have the power to and DO harm to poor and working class people.

    January 3, 2018
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  11. Cait H
    Cait H

    I think I’ll watch it, at least the first one, just to see how much of a train wreck it is. It has the potential to be spectacularly crappy.

    January 13, 2018
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