When I was a kid, Roseanne was a person who challenged the order of things. Now, it feels like she’s upholding it.
In 1988, a TV show premiered that portrayed the white American working class with a honesty and humanity that had been absent from television before, and hasn’t been replicated since. I’m talking, of course, about Roseanne. This March, ABC is rebooting the show, bringing the Conner family back to prime time (and Dan back from the dead, for some reason). Revisiting old TV shows to cash in on nostalgia is often a bit disappointing, but though I haven’t seen it yet, I fear this particular reboot is destined to be especially awful. The reasons have to do with the show’s creator and lead, Roseanne Barr, and her abominable politics.
Sitcoms follow a fairly specific format, and tend to portray mostly middle class and upper middle class families. This was true before Roseanne, and while shows like Malcolm in The Middle and Everybody Hates Chris have also offered us portraits of the working class, it is still mostly true today. When we do see poor and working class people on our screens, the portrayals are rarely realistic. Either they are sloppy caricatures, actors portraying what the comfortable believe about the poor rather than the poor themselves, or they are idealized to the point of either not seeming human or not seeming poor. These characters will often tell you they are struggling financially, but are never shown to be actually struggling. Think of Lorelai Gilmore on The Gilmore Girls. She’s a struggling single mother, but her struggle all occurs off screen before the show actually begins, and despite her rejection of her parents’ wealth, she can still afford constant takeout and new clothes.
Roseanne was different. I had watched some of it in my childhood, but only remembered it vaguely (along with my dad’s rants about how annoying Roseanne was as a person). When I rewatched the show a few years ago, I was struck by how familiar it all seemed. As a working class white woman myself, the Conners’ home looked like the kinds of homes I spent my childhood in. The furniture was old and followed no principles of interior design. The house was cluttered, and not artfully so. I gasped when I realized that there were piles of stuff on the staircase, leaving only a small space for walking. Seeing the world they inhabited made me feel seen in an unexpected way, and it gave me a newfound appreciation and affection for my own childhood home.
Moreover, the Conners themselves were shown as real human beings, who were really frustrated and overtired. Roseanne worked a factory job until she became a waitress, and Dan worked in construction (and was often looking for work). They yelled at their kids. They drank beer. They sat at the kitchen table to figure out which bills they could afford to pay this month, and which they could put off until another check came through. The constant running of numbers to keep the lights on and food on the table is such an integral part of not having enough, to see it portrayed honestly on screen made me gasp.
But the realism of the characters extended beyond simply “passing as real poor people,” because they were also multifaceted and not defined solely by their economic status. Roseanne and her husband Dan are both fat, but their personalities aren’t reduced to fat jokes or a constant struggle for weight loss, and they are shown to actively desire each other (gasp). The show even featured gay characters at a time when most shows didn’t (those portrayals were far from perfect, but at least the characters themselves were more than stereotypes).
And while the white working class is often viewed as conservative, Roseanne is shown having a more nuanced understanding of politics. In one episode, a politician going door-to-door comes to the Conner house, and she takes him to task for giving out-of-state businesses tax breaks, busting unions, and asking workers to work for “scab wages.”
I grew up in a fairly conservative, white, working class home. I’m intimately familiar with how people screwed over by the system can be totally invested in said system, and how Fox News can take over a living room. Most of the working class conservative men I was around voted Republican, and they tended to cling to patriarchal systems because they convinced themselves it was the last bit of power they had. These men were extremely uncomfortable with Roseanne Barr, her show, and everything that she stood for — her outspokenness, her opinions, her unabashed confidence. Their squeamishness around her was rooted in sexism for sure (she was so “shrill!”) and it gave me a pretty good idea of how I would be treated if I grew into a woman who challenged them. I found the whole thing intriguing and scary in equal measures.
Since Roseanne went off air in 1997, Roseanne the person has changed quite a bit, and her public persona has stayed controversial, though not always in a way that challenges the powers that be. In 2012, while she was a presidential candidate for The Green Party, she posted a series of transphobic tweets. Since then she has only dug her heels in when it comes to transgender people and issues, and she has also vocally swung to the right politically. It’s not unheard of for anti-trans “feminists” to support conservative politics when those politics align with their own transphobia, and I’m not convinced Barr’s stance on transgender issues and her political 180 aren’t related. In fact, she’s been known to share alt-right conspiracy theories and in January announced that her character, Roseanne Conner, would be a Trump supporter.
“It’s just realistic” Barr has said, implying that since many working class white people voted for Trump, those of us who didn’t are, I guess, unrealistic.
This, I think, illustrates what is bound to be so very different about this reboot than the original show. When I was a kid, Roseanne was a person and a show that made the conservative men in my life extremely uncomfortable, because she challenged their supremacy and the patriarchal order of the world. By now publicly endorsing both transphobia and Trump, she’s instead protecting that order. The belief that it was the working class that elected Trump, when in fact white middle class and rich people are just as responsible (if not more so), plays right into the caricature we so often see of poor people. Poor people, we are told, are stupid and unable to look out for our own interests. We focus on excusing the bigotry of poor folks due to their “economic anxiety” and lack of education, so we won’t have to look at the bigotry of the people who are actually in power.
But Roseanne Barr is not a working class person struggling to get by, she’s an extremely well off celebrity, and one who has made the choice to support another extremely well off celebrity. That she sees this as being reflective of the working class shows, in some ways, how completely out of touch she has become. Rather than a nuanced look at poor folks who are intelligent enough to call it like they see it, question politicians, and push back against unfair systems, the reboot offers us something else: a Roseanne who falls in line.
I hope I’m wrong. Supposedly the Conner family will not be a monolith of political belief, and apparently Darlene and David’s daughter is to be “gender creative” (I sure hope she isn’t a punchline). Perhaps a strong cast will be able to carry the show and offer some much needed nuance.
But with the history of ham-fisted reboots, and the show’s star and creator choosing to side with bigotry, I won’t be holding my breath.