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 Ties, The Hogans, Growing Pains, Who’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.” “I never got a handout from anyone.” “I 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 course–the 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.