The ‘Roseanne’ Rohrschach Test
Did you watch the premiere of the rebooted Roseanne show this week? I didn’t, because I don’t have a way to do so, but I’m curious about it, given that a stunning number of Americans — 18.3 million, which is a massive TV audience in 2018 — did tune in.
One of them was Roxane Gay, who wrote about it for The New York Times, after viewing the first two episodes. She thought the show was funny, but she’s not going to keep watching it because it’s politically incorrect — even though Roseanne’s grandchildren include a black child living in an interracial family, and a gender-nonconforming boy. Check this out:
The presence of D.J.’s daughter, Mary [who is black], is particularly awkward. When she appears, one of these things is clearly not like the other, but the show makes no mention of it as if to suggest how at ease the Conners are with difference. But Mary has no lines and very little camera time. We are given little information as to how she became part of the Conner family and what life for her is like in a small, predominantly white Illinois town where everyone, seemingly, voted for Donald Trump. Young Mary is just there, a place holder, tokenized and straining the limits of credulity.
Good grief, she decided that the show was racist after watching only two episodes! More:
In the show, during an exchange about their political disagreement, Roseanne tells Jackie one of the reasons she voted for Mr. Trump is because he “talked about jobs.” And that was all the political ideology we got. If we are to believe the circumstances of this character’s life, a few vague words about “jobs” was more than enough to compel Roseanne, with inadequate health care, with vulnerable grandchildren, and struggling to make ends meet, to vote for Mr. Trump.
How do you reach people who make dangerous political choices grounded in self-interest? When Roseanne and Jackie finally reconcile, Roseanne never apologizes or concedes. She merely tells Jackie, “I forgive you,” and Jackie acknowledges how hard that was for Roseanne. Clearly, we cannot reach people who make dangerous, myopic political choices. We concede, as Jackie does, or we resist, as hopefully the rest of us will.
This is so, so revealing. Roxane Gay is a black feminist who has said that she is “as queer as the day is long.” I bet that she does not live in a world in which she knows a Trump supporter. I am willing to bet that she is not related to someone who voted for Trump, or loves someone who voted for Trump, and who is trying to keep the family together despite radically different political opinions. That’s American life right now for many millions of people, but for Roxane Gay, that reality is intolerable. Roseanne must repent, and Jackie must insist that she repent. This is as bad as an Evangelical insisting that a movie is flawed unless it clearly presents the Gospel and features an altar call.
As I watched the first two episodes of the “Roseanne” reboot, I thought again about accountability. I laughed, yes, and enjoyed seeing the Conner family back on my screen. My first reaction was that the show was excellent. But I could not set aside what I know of Roseanne Barr and how toxic and dangerous her current public persona is. I could not overlook how the Conner family came together to support Mark as he was bullied at school for his gender presentation, after voting for a president who actively works against the transgender community. They voted for a president who doesn’t think the black life of their granddaughter matters. They act as if love can protect the most vulnerable members of their family from the repercussions of their political choices. It cannot.
This fictional family, and the show’s very real creator, are further normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies. There are times when we can consume problematic pop culture, but this is not one of those times. I saw the first two episodes of the “Roseanne” reboot, but that’s all I am going to watch. It’s a small line to draw, but it’s a start.
Roseanne presents Trump voters as human beings, and clearly that is something we can’t abide.
Writing at The Tablet, Liel Leibovitz lets Hollywood have it. Here he is taking about the yuuuuge audience the Roseanne debut drew:
Those numbers are huge. In our era, meaning the past decade, or even decade and a half, they are unprecedented. What matters more is that an audience that size is literally the only thing that could catch the attention of the top decision-makers in the culture industry. Those numbers represent the potential size of the threat to the bottom line of their business, if they choose to ignore them—and the size of the potential profits if they meet them head on, in a way that the audience judges to be at least half-way fair.
It’s hardly a secret that Hollywood was shocked and disgusted by the election of Donald Trump. I felt very much the same way myself. But watch virtually anything on TV and in the multiplex these days, and you realize that the election spurred Hollywood’s power brokers into making a very risky bet, producing content almost exclusively for people who thought and felt and believed the same exact things as them. It’s always been a liberal-leaning industry, but you needed to glimpse only a few minutes of this year’s Academy Awards to understand that ideological purity was now paramount to artistic merit.
Roseanne’s astonishing success should serve as a much-needed wake-up call. What it means is that there is a large audience of Americans who are sick of sneering, condescending, authoritarian right-think that pounds away at the thought-crimes of people who work their asses off and send their kids off to wars while falling further and further behind on their car and mortgage payments. Trump won’t help them, but neither will the intersectional left. And the president, at least, doesn’t demonize their life choices and, on occasion, says something that makes them feel good. To the extent that politics is the downstream of culture, Trump, like Roseanne, understands America in a way that Hollywood no longer does.
Leibovitz says that Hollywood people have to be dragged kicking and screaming into making something that appeals to the Other America, or at least doesn’t treat them like orcs.
But do that, and you’re sure to be labeled a racist, a fascist, a misogynist, or any of the other noxious labels thrown around so frequently and so casually these days and used to stifle any real attempt at debate. In the #Resistance, there’s little room for contemplation or complexity.
Now, though, Roseanne Barr has proven that there is an enormous audience for programming that treats Trump’s people as if they were worthy of anything but scorn. Leibovitz:
Almost for certain, the success of the new season of Roseanne will lead many bien pensants to call the comedian a crackpot or worse. But Roseanne needed just one night to remind us of why she’s the single most popular television star in America, or maybe the most popular woman in America. Good luck to those who will now try to turn a legitimate working class white feminist hero into Putin’s handmaiden, or a racist crank. Roseanne’s success sends yet another reminder, as if the travesty of last November wasn’t enough, that most Americans will reward anyone who merely takes the time and the trouble to acknowledge that they exist.
American life is so much more complex than these people dare to think. Heck, in my own family — all of us conservatives of one kind or another — we lived through the same kind of cultural class divide that separates Trump supporters from his opponents. We did not make it through intact, not really. Trump had nothing to do with it, but class resentment did, and the bonds of family were not strong enough in our case to outlast it. This was the sad and unpredicted (by me) denouement of the story I first told in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Come to think of it, I see Roxane Gay’s approach — ideological rigidity, pride, and militant lack of empathy construed as virtue — as having done serious, probably permanent, damage to my family. It’s a real tragedy, because it didn’t have to be that way, but this seems to be the way the whole country is going. If this happened to us, and we’re all conservatives, how much more difficult is it for families that are politically divided? Again, I haven’t seen Roseanne and won’t be able to watch it (I don’t have cable or broadcast TV), but I appreciate that Roseanne Barr is at least trying to explore these actual real-life tensions in her show. It’s what a lot of families and communities are dealing with now.
American life is in a lot of turmoil now, with old pieties and old loyalties under a lot of stress. Some of them won’t survive. Some will. Many will be transformed. This is the stuff of life in this Age of Transition. Now that I have some distance from the drama within my family, I find I’m haunted — and probably always will be — by our inability to navigate the changing times without falling apart. We thought that what we believed about ourselves would be enough to hold things together. It was a costly self-deception. These days, I keep thinking about this lesson with regard to the Church, and to the country.
Is Roseanne examining these issues at a deep level. Probably not. It’s a TV sitcom! But at least she has a TV show in which Trump supporters are treated like real people. This may come as a shock to politically-correct prisspot Roxane Gay, and to the kind of people who go to Hollywood parties, but some of the kindest and most noble people I’ve ever known also hold appalling opinions about politics and cultural matters. I also know people who hold “correct” opinions about peace, love, and the dignity of all people, who are awful sh*ts to those around them. Me, I’m both these people, depending on the hour of the day.
This is humanity. We’re a mess. It would be nice to see ourselves on screen sometimes, if only to help us think and live our way through this thing without losing our hearts, our minds, and our souls.
UPDATE: A reader writes (I’ve slightly edited this for privacy’s sake):
You are so right about how Roxanne Gay’s comments typify the rancor and
illiberalness that is tearing apart families.
I am one of 25 first cousins out of a Scots-Irish “clan” from deep in the mountains of [Appalachia], people like J. D. Vance who made it out into the broader world through hard work and education, mostly conservative Presbyterians. We were doing fine for generations…until the gay lawyer cousin joined a PCUSA church that transformed him into a LGBT bully who publicly shames family members on Facebook for any view they hold contrary to him.
He has become the family terrorist.
Now this fine old family gathers for weddings and funerals in little polarized clumps, if they gather at all. I can hardly believe I’ve lived to see a tight-knit family torn apart by political views and ideology. I can’t help wonder how many families are experiencing the same sort of strife.
You hit on something in your blog that currently plagues scores of American families.
But social justice!