The Politics of Roseanne

The two most important shows of my adolescence were Roseanne and The Cosby Show. When these shows were on the air, they became my family, as I didn’t have much of one in real life. Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations wrecked the Huxtables for me, but I still had the Conners, this sharply witty family that was the first to accurately depict working-class white people from the Midwest.

The show was a slice of perfection for several seasons. It was both hilarious and real, to start with, as it showed a flawed family that loved each other, and drove each other insane all at once. The couch was real; the wallpaper was real. The shabbiness was real. I knew these people. And even now, when I need to go home, this is where I go — I binge-watch Roseanne reruns and get a strange sense of security from a family that wasn’t mine.

So when they announced a reboot with all the original cast members, I was into it. Who knew if it would be good, but curiosity and a deep connection to the earlier show would drive me to check it out.

The one hitch was that 2018 Roseanne Conner is a Trump supporter. This, along with the fact that Roseanne Barrthe creator and actress, is also a Trump supporter, has caused some fuss already — which was not improved, at least for liberals, when Donald Trump himself called to congratulate her on the show pulling in 18 million viewers for its two debut episodes.

Despite the massive ratings, liberals have been divided about whether to watch.

On Thursday, two days after it aired, Sarah Silverman Tweeted support for the show, saying it’s important to watch people with views that don’t reflect yours. 

Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote and starred in The Big Sick, took issue with her soft view of a show fueled by a woman who believes conspiracy theories, undermines the Parkland students, and considered appearing on Alex Jones’ show this week. Roxane Gay wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Timesthe same day, echoing some of those sentiments. Her points were all solid. 

But I remain torn. The show did an unusually good job of handling its politics. Roseanne and her sister Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf, have been estranged for a year, because of who each voted for. When Jackie finally returns to the Conner's house, she shows up wearing the now-iconic pussy hat, and a “nasty woman” t-shirt. Her opening line to Roseanne is “Whassup, deplorable,” and it’s hilarious. It immediately sweeps the dated Conner family through the decades into the present, with our surreal politics, and the unique branding and family fights that have come out of it.

Roseanne Conner is still a consistent and lovable mother and grandmother, despite her new Republican status. She stands up for Darlene’s sweet, cross-dressing son, and adores her black granddaughter, Mary, who is DJ’s kid.

But the real Roseanne remains a wild, erratic, irrepressible character, which is evident on talk shows and Twitter. Her politics, once devotedly liberal, are now more of the incoherent variety, as Gay pointed out. I have never been able to glean a solid reason for her pendulum swing, and yet she is unapologetic and enthusiastic about her views, whatever they are.

But to me that’s just — Roseanne.

Even in 1988, Roseanne was a controversial character. In those days, it wasn’t so much her politics as her raunch factor. On screen she was relatable, and her decision to play a real mom, and not the over-polished, too-wealthy, usual TV mom we had been force-fed for decades, earned her both scorn and respect, but mostly respect.

The real Roseanne was always hard to pin down. She did what she wanted, whenever she wanted, and however she wanted to do it, whether or not it made sense to the rest of us. The best example of that is her rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at a 1990 baseball game, which she belted out ear-splittingly, and ended with a spit and crotch grab. 


She always had some trouble reigning herself in, or maybe didn’t care to try. She spilled out of the lines. Sometimes she made no sense — the last seasons of her show seemed more like her own erratic whims than solid writing — especially when the Conners won the lottery.

But that’s the fringe that often comes with genius, whatever the genius is. And in Barr’s case, the genius is what she created: smart, funny, and real characters that pushed hard against the polished stereotypes of American families that weren’t true for most of us. 

Few artists have ever given us perfect, unblemished products, either in the art itself or in their personal lives. Most people are deeply flawed, or at least inconsistent with our own expectations of them.

The same has always been true with Roseanne. I can deal with the fact that the same woman I once saw stumping for Barack Obama at a Michael Moore rally in Ohio is now a conspiracy theorist in the same way I can deal with Bob Dylan converting to evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s. Or Chris Rock ending his special Kill the Messenger by encouraging women to swallow cum, or Eddie Murphy emphatically urging all women to fuck their men in Raw. 

There is, of course, the matter of Bill Cosby.

What made Cosby different for me is that both himself and his character, Heathcliff Huxtable, represented a sort of moral and spiritual rectitude most of us bought into. It was woven into his public persona and scripts. The allegations of sexual assault felt somewhat like accusations against a priest, only because a priest also would have taken some pains to appear as a moral arbiter in the world, as Cosby did. The hypocrisy in that case is too much to bear, and the realities too revolting.

But for most, imperfection comes with the art, if only, the messy art of being human. For now, I’m going keep Roseanne Barr off my Twitter feed, and watch Roseanne Conner with interest and some caution as she navigates Trump’s America.

We’ll see how it goes.


Cover photo via CNN