Roseanne Barr: A Curdled Avatar of White Resentment
Anybody surprised by the conspiratorial sitcom star's latest rant hasn't been paying attention to what Trump Nation has been trying to tell us.
Trump supporters have many complaints. The "elites" look down on them when not discounting them completely. Nobody understands that the desire to own a battalion's worth of assault rifles with armor-piercing rounds is totally normal. "Real Americans" work in coal mines, factories, auto repair shops, and power plants, and everyone who doesn't is an effete pajama-boy. Most of these gripes are variations on a gnarly chord of resentment: We have been misunderstood and ignored ... so buckle up, liberals, a reckoning is coming.
Another persistent theme bubbles up in just about every broad and searching think-piece that the national press has done on Trump voters since the 2016 election. It goes something like this: They're tired of "the media" (which does not include Fox News, Breitbart, or any other outlet that reliably spits out Trump propaganda) saying that they're all racist.
As anybody who lives in America with functioning eyes and ears knows, the surest clue that one is about to hear something racist is this (nearly always unasked-for) opening conversational gambit: "Now, I'm not a racist, but…" Just the same, when conservatives line up to vote for a candidate who has espoused openly racist views, and research suggests that attitudes like the denial of racism correlate strongly to support of Trump, it doesn't take a great leap of the mind to imagine that supporters of the Great Orange Leader are more likely to be racist.
So, how does Roseanne Barr fit in to all this? In the latest, strangest, and among the (at least from a cultural perspective) cruelest twists of the Trump era, the great working-class sitcom hero of the '80s and '90s has resurrected herself as a curdled avatar of white resentment. It all started so innocently. In a media landscape where every touchstone from the last era of Mass TV—shy of the untouchable behemoths (Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld)—seems to be in the process of getting dusted off for a new half-life as a reanimated streaming series, ABC decided to bring back Roseanne before Netflix could get its hands on it.
Not the worst idea, on its surface. The show's original incarnation, running from 1988 to 1996, was one of the few true sitcom gems of that time. Although much of the buzz at the time was about Barr's rough-and-ready, comedy club-honed crudeness, the show wasn't the primitive backlash against the era's prim family sitcoms that its critics claimed (that prize went to the demolition derby cruelties of Married… with Children). That had more to do with classism about the Connors' well-worn home, lousy jobs, and tendency to focus on things like making fun of their kids and wondering how they were going to pay the bills. At the time, sitcom families that weren't fabulously wealthy were supposed to be invisibly middle class, and as likely to talk about money at the kitchen table as they would about cocaine.
On Roseanne, the fractious dynamic of a family full of whipsmart snarkers cracking on each other was heightened by a backdrop of living-on-the-edge economic insecurity, the shadows of familial abuse, and a gotta-get-out desperation. It even pushed LGBT characters to the forefront, not only taking a commercially risky stand in the pre-Will and Grace era, but also sending the subversive reminder that gays lived in the heartland, too, not just in big cities. Roseanne's writing staff, a motley crew that included everyone from Joss Whedon to Penelope Spheeris and Carrie Fisher, threaded the needle between deftly delivered emotional wallops and gaspingly funny one-liners without flopping into saggy sentimentality or catch phrases. (Excepting the ninth and last season, in which the Connors win the lottery; the less said about that, the better.)
When ABC rebooted the series, it seemed like a great idea. The whole gang was back together and people uninterested in watching John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf probably don't deserve good television. But then the narrative started to build around the reasons that they had brought it back. Primary among them was the myth of the Great Forgotten Majority. This was promulgated in part by a self-flagellating media still convinced that Trump was elected because reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post didn't spend enough time stumping around rural Wisconsin, and also by Barr herself. A one-time Green Party type given to flinging fool theories around like so much confetti, Barr reinvented herself as a Trump supporter who bought into his millionaire-populist shtick.
According to the narrative built around the new show's surprisingly high ratings, TV executives had forgotten about Real America, which was supposedly hungry for a show about people like them. Never mind that network television was still overwhelmingly white and straight and that well-reviewed comedies about blue-collar heartland families like The Middle (run by a couple Roseanne veterans, incidentally) were regularly killed in the ratings by the one-hour procedurals like NCIS, which will apparently be churned out until the end of time.
The old Roseanne never dealt with politics. That was always a bit facetious, given the times. It was a little hard to believe that the First Gulf War and the Clinton impeachment never snuck into the Connor family's kitchen coffee klatches. But in the new Roseanne—where suddenly, Dan (Goodman) is not dead—it was suddenly front and center. Roseanne went after her pink pussy hat-wearing sister Jackie (Metcalf) by shouting that Trump "talked about jobs!"
In the right hands, this could have been a daring move. After all, the cultural Left has responded to the Trump presidency with an outpouring of comedic fury in the late-night territory of John Oliver, Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers, but scripted comedy has remained generally apolitical, if a little more acid-struck than before November 2016. In the right hands, a comedy about the American tug-of-war could have been liberatingly raw.
But Roseanne wasn't in the right hands. It was Roseanne Barr's show. The new Roseanne managed to gratuitously jab at ABC's tiny number of sitcoms starring minorities and play at being inclusive by including a storyline where the Connors' Muslim neighbors turn out to be … friendly. This kind of shadowplay is typical of Trumpian politics, where nakedly offensive behavior is mixed with fig-leaf overtures of inclusiveness (e.g., Trump playing at being LGBT-friendly while bringing virulently homophobic people into government, denouncing NFL players protesting police violence and then posthumously pardoning Jack Johnson).
It all came to end for Roseanne and Roseanne on May 29th. Just hours after coughing up a racist tweet about Barack Obama's onetime senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, Barr was canned by her network. But her racist behavior shouldn't have been a surprise. Her online record, as documented by Joan Coaston at Vox, is a fetid pile of Pizzagate, MK Ultra, Holocaust denial, and Islamophobia. It scans like a core sample taken from deep inside the Trumpian Internet, where childish blame-deflection, ill-aimed rage, sputtering paranoia, and crude nativism are coin of the realm. The surprise was that ABC acted so decisively, standing to lose tens of millions in revenue from the popular series.
Once Barr made the tenor of her political beliefs known, a racist tweet was just a matter of time. As Chris Rock once said, that train always runs on time.