Last weekend, amid a barrage of strange and unprovoked racist tweets, Roseanne Barr left Twitter and her show, the eponymous “Roseanne,” was dropped by ABC. The cancellation was as sudden as the tweets themselves — near-indecipherable shouts in the dark, calling former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett the child of “Muslim Brotherhood & planet of the apes” and stating, with no observable context, “Chelsea Soros Clinton,” before tweeting that George Soros himself was a “Nazi who turned in his fellow Jews to concentration camps.”
Roseanne’s Twitter “rant” was in fact wholly bizarre, though unfortunately not uncharacteristic to those who knew her. Co-star Sarah Gilbert lamented that her “kids, and her TV kids, try to keep her off social media,” and that friends and family had encouraged her to step away from Twitter prior to the show’s launch.
To take a step back, though, “Roseanne” had more to offer than its namesake did. Although the actress is an outspoken Trump supporter, the show was not so much about supporting the president and his rhetoric as much as understanding whom it swayed. Barr the person is, quite obviously, to one degree or another a racist. But the show had a purpose other than to rationalize Barr’s political persuasions. The sitcom aired on Tuesday evenings, and held about as much importance and reverence as a weekday evening sitcom can; but its cancellation, though absolutely necessary, is also deeply unfortunate. Because its message was — in some way — necessary.
There are some who will contend that it is unimportant to understand the white working class and its sociopolitical viewpoints simply because they are “wrong.” To some, there is no value in this exploration of cultural diversity, because the mere presence of problematic beliefs disqualifies them from participation in a cultural mainstream. It is true that toxic ideologies shouldn’t be allowed to permeate the national spotlight, but what “Roseanne” did was portray people who were seeking to catch up to the modern sensibility, not reject it out of some knee-jerk prejudice.
“Roseanne” allowed us to bridge that great gap of cultural dissonance for 30 minutes. Its message, soundly, was that of the many other ABC shows seeking to promote greater diversity, like “Fresh off the Boat” or “Black-ish” (granted, their creators do not e-shout “Chelsea Soros Clinton” in the middle of the day): That is to say “this is our day-to-day, these are our concerns, these are our struggles, this is how we approach them.”
And by and large, Roseanne depicted a white working-class family tackling modern issues of social justice with a remarkably open mind. The message was not that these people do not care about or decry social justice but simply that they were doing their best to catch up with the concept of social justice. “Roseanne” forms an understanding of today’s issues in a town that’s still 15 years behind 15 years ago.
An example: Roseanne’s daughter (portrayed by Sarah Gilbert) and her two kids used to live in the big city, Chicago; they’re down on their luck, so they move back home to live with Grandma and Grandpa (Roseanne and John Goodman). Turns out grandson Mark (Ames McNamara) prefers wearing dresses to school. He’s eight. In the version of “Roseanne” people seem to presume, this would have been the moment a masculine Grandpa Goodman takes Mark hunting or teaches him carpentry or something, or they have a big heart-to-heart and find out Mark dresses this way because he saw it somewhere in the “liberal media,” or perhaps he’s only “confused.”
Instead, their concern is not how Mark chooses to dress — the family could care less what he wants to wear — but that the other kids will tease him at school. Roseanne tells him, “Come talk to your Grandma,” sits him on the couch, and explains to him that she’s afraid he’ll be mistreated. He says he doesn’t care, and she impresses upon him — “You know, sometimes you have to choose your battles. Is this really that important to you?” Mark responds: “Yes.” And Roseanne affirms that she’ll support him. He goes to school, he’s cruelly teased, and the next day Grandma Roseanne shows up at school and addresses the classroom — be nice to Mark, or I know where you live. Perhaps a crude take on a rust-belt version of justice, but nevertheless — this is their way of supporting Mark’s gender-nonconformity. It may not be the sophisticated nature of the metropolises, but Roseanne gets the message right. At the end of the day, it’s one of support.
The concerns of these people are the ones we hardly hear; their world is one that many in big cities and on opposite coasts will never observe. Grandma Roseanne, for example, is addicted to opiates, self-medicating to supplant a knee surgery she can’t afford. Grandpa Goodman notices that their elderly neighbor next door has passed away, and sneaks over to steal the copper piping (and the stair lift, for Grandma and her knee) before the estate sale. Roseanne’s daughter, waitressing at a local restaurant, convinces her coworker to go back to school — telling her that the free community college offers night school, and how to sign up.
Just as “Fresh off the Boat” is a depiction of an immigrant narrative the mainstream deserves to understand, “Roseanne” represented another cultural niche by telling a different story. The show’s characters are not perfect, and they are not always admirable role models. But must they be?
Although Roseanne Barr could not allow her story to take precedence over her racism, and although her cancellation was easily deserved, do not dismiss the meaning of “Roseanne” due to its creator’s disappointing actions. What the show served to do was important, and hopefully, another similar series will take its place — albeit without a creator who has a penchant for spewing toxic beliefs. It is, at the end of the day, a genuine tale of a human experience told and observed through art. And as far as casual 30-minute television goes, that seems, at least to the viewer, to be the point.