Wide Angle

Roseanne vs. Roseanne

The comic and provocateur once led the charge for progress. Her downfall marks progress of another kind.

Roseanne Barr
Roseanne Barr Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robert Trachtenberg/Getty Images.

It’s a testament to how baffled everyone is at this juncture in American life that almost no one predicted the aftermath of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet correctly. No one—not even Barr’s harshest critics—expected ABC to actually cancel the show, which had given the network a much-needed ratings bonanza. Working under the same assumption, some on the right briefly tried to argue that comparing Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to apes was acceptable. Former Fox host* Eric Bolling reassured Barr (in a now-deleted tweet) that “no apology necessary at all.” Conservative loudmouth Bill Mitchell tried to argue (in a now-deleted tweet) that the apes in Planet of the Apes were the heroes, so the comparison was actually flattering. One sensed that pundits on the right were privately waiting for Donald Trump to tweet in Roseanne’s support; if he had, the Defend Roseanne machine would have fully activated. But Trump’s loyalties are fickle, and his signal for how to handle the scandal facing his biggest supporter in Hollywood didn’t come. (His eventual Wednesday tweet—it should be no surprise—was more about himself than about Barr.)

Once ABC announced the cancellation, everyone was more or less stunned. The controversy had all the makings of turning into a bruising, drawn-out political fight by proxy. Because the Roseanne reboot famously retooled its protagonist as a Trump supporter, and ratings for the show (a liberal darling in its original iteration) soared, many Trump fans saw its success as a measure of their victory. Understandably! Trump literally told supporters the reboot “was about us.” Whether this fairly characterized the show was beside the point: Trump had staked a claim on it in the culture wars. But instead of the backlash predicted by the left, many conservatives expressed real dismay at her racism. Conservative media included: Fox News, while featuring a feeble “free speech” defense on one of its programs, straightforwardly called Barr’s tweet racist in headlines and chyrons—the equivalent, to the network’s white America, of going nuclear. Even Breitbart used the R-word.

So bewildering was this moment that not even Roseanne could predict what Roseanne would do next: She left and rejoined Twitter within hours, sounding alternately contrite and defiant. It feels, to this viewer, that perhaps the last major chapter of whatever Roseanne meant to America has closed, and what’s left is the work of sorting through this clash between its star’s past progressivism and reactionary presentism.

It has been disorienting but instructive to watch the emphatic return and emphatic fall of Roseanne Barr, culture disruptor, at a time when our politics have been similarly disrupted. Barr and Trump are, after all, the yin and the yang of the story we tell about blue-collar America that’s long since stopped being true—both of them accruing capital by hearkening back to better times. Roseanne the reboot tried to do the same. Claims that the show was bravely addressing our divided political moment were ludicrously overblown. The show was funny because of how completely it side-stepped the way contemporary citizens engage with each other politically—a tendency best exemplified by its vitriolic creator, whose online conduct finally took the show down.

In the new Roseanne, the denizens of the internet don’t quite exist. We’re asked in the pilot to believe that Jackie and Roseanne stopped speaking for a year; had the Roseanne of the show more faithfully reflected her creator, the sisters would have spent that year waging an endless flame war online. But the show’s approach to political disagreement felt retro, even old, because it so completely ignored the way social media has changed our discourse and our politics. Maybe that’s because the show didn’t want to alienate anyone. As Willa Paskin wrote, it seemed to be in search of a “piecemeal accord.” But the result was mealy-mouthed and euphemistic and worse, untrue. The show did what the network did: pretend, hard, that Barr’s appalling online presence didn’t exist.

Even the show’s “controversial” episodes never sharpened into a true confrontation between different belief systems. Sometimes—as with the debate over whether Darlene’s son should wear feminine clothes to school—issues resolved themselves with curious ease. The message was both simple and simplistic: Underneath it all, our concerns are the same. But even the show’s bigger swings, like the shocking revelation that Roseanne was addicted to opioids, turned out to be less a shattering adjustment of a central character’s moral authority than a Very Special Episode—uncomplicated, isolated, compartmentalized. Roseanne tweeted recently that her show was about “REAL ISSUES & REAL PEOPLE.” It’s a characterization I’d dispute; no one in the sitcom feels like they’re living in contemporary America. The reboot, in other words, was a piece of nostalgia disguised as realism.

If the new Roseanne felt anachronistic, lacking bite and real engagement with our politics, Barr herself more than made up for it online. And that gap—which ultimately cost her a show—is telling. Confusing though it might be to distinguish the comic from the eponymous character who once defined American authenticity, the fact is that these days it’s Barr, not Conner, who scans as a “real” Trump supporter. It’s Barr who behaves online the way many Trump supporters do: circulating conspiracy theories, attacking people online for things they didn’t do, and wallowing in imaginary harms while ignoring real ones. Her full-throated commitment to Trump supporters’ ugliest tendencies drives home the extent to which the show (and its writers) refused to participate in the real, distressing debate it was ostensibly resurrected to address. If Barr’s portrayal of a struggling blue-collar woman feels old, that’s because it is old. After all, Barr hasn’t been the character she plays in ages. She’s rich and safe and distant from the realities that once shaped her comedy.

But, as Trump himself has shown us, there are advantages to affecting a blue-collar “authenticity,” even (or especially) if you’re a millionaire. Foremost among them is the fact that people will think the atrocious things you say are really just honest. Viewed this way, his misbehavior becomes proof of his authenticity. Taken to an extreme, this perspective reframes decent or courteous behavior as more essentially deceptive than straight-out lying—it smacks of fakery and elitism.

Of course Roseanne would choose this moment to return: Using shock as a proxy for truth-telling was arguably her M.O. even before it was Trump’s. Like Trump, Roseanne is a talented performer who feeds on the public’s outrage. Back in the aftermath of Reagan’s America, when it was outrageous to support homosexuals and have a messy home and ill-behaved children and sing the national anthem badly, that’s what Roseanne did. She sensed that society was on the cusp of changing, and she rode that change into a more progressive moment. She did this with confidence and humor and real skill: Her acerbic sensibility paired well with her generous laugh, saving her from the usual accusations of bitter feminism. And her frank assessment of how her appearance was at odds with the “domestic goddess” myth she skewered disarmed many a would-be critic.

The original Roseanne Conner was a master of self-ironizing: She made a career out of knowing exactly what people thought of her and narrating it back to them in ways that made them think twice. She was in on the joke. You’d expect someone like that to do beautifully in the era of social media, which rewards a knowing performance of the self.

But she didn’t, for a couple of reasons. One is that the internet never forgets, and Roseanne’s erratic say-anythingness (which probably included plenty of shocking stuff the public never heard, even back then) is no longer the ephemeral stuff of live shows or back rooms. And two, as she got rich, and got used to being rich, her need to say the outrageous remained steady, even as the culture’s definitions of what is outrageous changed.

It’s hard to know what to make of reactive, charismatic, transgression-seeking people generally, but Roseanne in particular has scrambled our own reaction radar for days—hell, for months. Her new show was largely praised even if some critics found her personal (and longstanding) noxiousness on Twitter too offensive to ignore. This is the downside to a purely contrarian approach to stardom: no one knows quite what to make of you. For all her parallels to Trump, Roseanne isn’t just a Trump supporter. Her legacy is messier and more complex than that—which is why no one quite knows what her show’s cancellation means. You can measure how confounded everyone is by the way some of Trump’s angrier supporters are demanding justice. A campaign surfaced to get Bill Maher ousted as a kind of eye-for-an-eye “payback,” but liberals reacted with amused surprise at the choice, given his Islamophobia. Some Trump supporters have announced plans to seek out and watch old Roseanne episodes as a response to networks dropping the reruns. As vengeful political performance, though, this doesn’t quite work: It’s hard to get more provocatively progressive than old Roseanne episodes.

You can’t eye-for-an-eye Roseanne because she has no real equivalent (except, possibly, for Trump himself). Is she a spokeswoman for the working class who changed television? A racist who compares black people to apes? A feminist who made assertive women palatable to Americans? A vicious conspiracy theorist? A choleric showrunner? A good stand-up? A survivor of a catastrophic car accident as a teen? A bad singer of national anthems? A hinge between Trump supporters and the rest of the world? Defensive? Sorry? Mad?

The answer turned out to be all of the above, and more. Seen one way, the woman who once brassily led the charge toward a more progressive America has changed so much that her downfall marks progress of a different kind. Seen another way, she’s a star who’s always prioritized her own contrarianism over any deeply felt principle; this, then, would be just more of the same. As it stands, Barr, a rich and powerful conspiracy-monger, was fired for saying something virulently racist. She was fired against all odds and despite the vast sums involved. She was fired despite having publicly said awful things for a long time without the network seeming to care. I’m not sure Barr herself can be interpreted. What matters more than is what her dismissal means to the rest of us. For a lot of dispirited people, Barr’s most recent outburst seemed like just another entry in the long line of indecent, racist, dehumanizing rhetoric she and others have made routine, and that we’ve been told we must accept.

But this time it wasn’t accepted. And that matters. Once the dust settles, Roseanne might mean something after all.

*Correction, May 31, 2018: Eric Bolling was originally misidentified as a Fox News host; he is a former Fox host.