Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Originally Published on May 29, 2018
It seems to me that I only ever heard of Roseanne Barr’s return show on ABC was when she went out of her way to kick up a stink. It certainly seems that she kicked too hard this time... A racist comment this morning resulted in a rushed apology. But contrary to what Republicans, Fox News personalities, and, it seems Roseanne Barr believes, apologies are not magical buttons that make people forget malicious comments.
She learned though. (Maybe it'll stick this time?) Another few hours after Barr’s apology, ABC announced that her show is to be cancelled… after it was just renewed for two seasons. Though let’s be honest — nobody can really say: "Who could have seen this coming?" Barr received more free passes than a foot-long blunt at a culturally-appropriated Reggae-themed frat party.
And she’s just as offensive to people who aren’t white.
Aside from reviews of the first episode — which received ‘praise’ for harkening back to the show’s 1990s heyday, albeit while remaining relatively light on political topics, which is surprising, given the show’s theme of living in working-class America, while Barr’s own political favourite has been going out of the way to exterminate the American middle class; while she herself is a kajillionaire who in no way relates to working class Americans, but feels that she is enough of an authority on the topic to depict poverty — her show’s entire media presence has been built around how hard she can kick the progressivist hornet’s nest.
If you can forgive the run-on sentence, what have you heard of the show? Admittedly, I never watched an episode. The earlier ‘Roseanne’ was a bit before my time, and since reading about her politics, I hadn’t been enthusiastic about the reboot.
A friend of mine was/is a fan of the original run, and gave me break-downs of the first two episodes of the new series before he also lost interest. In fact, after Barr’s in-character comments on shows about Black and Asian families being ‘just like us,’ anything I heard about the show was about Roseanne Barr herself. And her… antics.
You can see any number of hateful things that Barr has said since the show’s release. Just look to her Twitter, if its still up. It seems as if she has been enjoying the show’s controversy (popularity?) as a platform for her politics. Or maybe you don’t have access to her twitter… one of many policies she shares with her president is how little criticism she will endure before blocking you.
The tweet that broke the proverbial camel’s back regarded former Obama White House’s (not-white) advisor, Valerie Jarrett.
Without explicitly repeating the comment, there is, underneath the expected revulsion, a lingering disappointment that a professional comedian, whose job is to be creative, can’t do better than that. In fact, Barr’s racism, as far as creativity, is always both dated and juvenile. Content quality shouldn’t be the most outrageous thing about an aggressively racist comment, but when it's literally your job to be clever and witty... But there is a theme linking this comment to her show’s revival itself.
‘Roseanne’ returned to the air amidst a sudden outcry for revival of shows from the 90s. After the Netflix run of Full(er) House, and then the reunion of Will and Grace on NBC, there has been a head hunt for gathering old cast members together to return to beloved roles. This was at the same time that ‘making America great again’ became a priority.
‘Again’, of course, is the key word. Because talking about making the future great can be frightening — no one knows what that version of ‘great’ will look like. To many people, the majority of whom are not white, a great future is something that looks very different from what we have seen. But the larger demographic of America has always been scared white folks. And, while America may not have been fantastic to others, there have been pockets of time where it was good to them. It just needs to be like that 'again'.
Just like people wanted to watch Full House 'again', and how people wanted to watch Will and Grace 'again'. Just like how Star Wars, and Mad Max, and Ghostbusters need to be about white men 'again'.
Point being, Roseanne isn’t the root of all evil — she and her show is a symptom of a much larger problem. And while she is an extreme example, what she represents is that ‘again-ness’. It seems to be the centre of all commercial entertainment.
It’s understandable — Roseanne was a product consumed in a period of time when people were comfortable. And people want to re-experience that comfort. America was so comfortable, in fact, that the most newsworthy controversy of the 90s was a presidential blowjob. But the thing is — for many, the 90s was not a comfortable place.
People certainly don’t nostalgize over the LA Riots, for instance — the Defence of Marriage Act, or secret bombings across Africa and the Middle East.
And, curiously enough, both Clinton and Regan both told rallying crowds that they wanted to 'make America great again.'
When it comes to culture, yes, parts of the 90s may have been passive and harmless. But you cannot remove Friends, or Frasier, or any kind of commercial media from their context. Because while Friends was seldom, if ever, about the LA Riots, it was generated by individuals who lived in a culture that tolerated the injustices that spurred the LA Riots.
As being a product of the culture it was developed in, older media perpetuates the underlaying themes of that culture. Just like Empire Strikes Back wasn’t explicitly racist, but it was developed in a culture where it was acceptable for the only black person in the series to be depicted as a smuggler and gambler.
Just like Roseanne was never explicitly racist in the first iteration of the show, her racism eventually manifested. But just because it didn’t manifest while the show was airing, doesn’t mean it hadn’t worked it’s way that Roseanne Barr promoted the show.
That is something I hope that fans of the first iteration of Roseanne will think of as they re-examine how the show functioned — and what they may have missed while they were watching it in the cultural context it was being produced in.
Full House, for instance, was not explicitly homophobic. And yet, despite being set in AIDS-ravaged San-Francisco in the late 80s and early 90s, you may not have noticed a complete omission of homosexual characters.
As our cultural awareness has expanded, and ethnic voices have become much clearer about how they wish to be represented, it’s a definitive positive that we are changing how diverse characters are depicted.
It is 'possible' to revive old media, but it requires a certain evolution of content to match the cultural mindset that it is being moved into. Ask the minds behind the Star Wars revival — this is nigh impossible to do without upsetting the audience who simply wanted a magical doorway back into their childhood. On the flip-side, you can end up making Star Wars something magical to people who weren’t provided heroic moments in the original films.
At the end of it all, if we scoop up handfuls of earth from one garden and place it in another, we’re going to move a few bugs with it. A product of culture cannot be separated from the culture it was created in — when you carry Roseanne over from the 90s, you're going to pull a few things over from the 90s that weren’t so great. And if you want to recall a comfortable period of time, you can re-watch the first eight seasons of Roseanne. They’re not going anywhere. (I’m told that we pretend season nine never existed.)
But if you’re out to re-create the setting in which you were comfortable, you need to remember that the past was not a better place for everyone. And quite frankly, that’s effort wasted when we can make the future a comfortable place for more than just one kind of person.