Roseanne’s Gender Nonconforming Character Seems Designed to Appease Anti-Trans Feminists

Mark and Roseanne sit on the couch in a scene from the TV show Roseanne.
Ames McNamara as Mark and Roseanne Barr as Roseanne in Roseanne. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Rose/ABC.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The revival of Roseanne, Roseanne Barr’s sitcom about the working-class Conner family, has already spurred a great deal of controversy. And for good reason: Barr supports President Donald Trump, as does her character, and the show reinforces the misconception that Trump supporters are primarily people who have fallen on hard times, when in fact they are on average better off than most Americans. Barr’s vociferous support for conspiracy theories has also been impossible to ignore given that she keeps promoting extremely weird ones. Yet Barr’s well-documented transphobia, as well as her association with an anti-transgender ideology described as “the Westboro Baptist Church of feminism,” has received comparatively little media attention.

The fact that Barr’s TV show grandson, Mark, is depicted as gender nonconforming—and that Roseanne producer Sara Gilbert is a lesbian—has dulled criticism of the show within the LGBTQ community. But dig deeper into Barr’s beliefs, and it becomes apparent that Mark was likely designed to appease feminists who hate transgender people.

To be sure, there are gender expansive kids like Mark. Children who push the boundaries of gender expression have legitimate experiences worthy of celebration. This character wouldn’t be problematic if the show’s star didn’t have a virulently anti-transgender streak. But anti-trans feminists often use such children to argue against the validity of kids for whom full social and perhaps, eventually, medical transition is the best path. And that is very likely what Barr is trying to do.

Barr’s public disgust at transgender people dates back to a 2001 book in which she describes transgender women as “a huge guy with boobs talking about female hormones and deciding to keep his penis.” In 2012 Barr mocked Green Party candidate Jill Stein for declining to debate her, tweeting, “Jill is also in favor of letting men into spaces where young girls get changed,” and “Women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms.
Respect that FACT.”

Barr has a strong following on Twitter among self-proclaimed “gender critical feminists,” also known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs. She’s also hosted interviews with some of them and effectively endorsed their positions. This loose (and not particularly coherent) ideology is based on the notions that sex equals gender (i.e., they reject the validity of gender identity) and that transgender people are very bad for society and thus should be “morally mandated out of existence.”

Barr has defended her anti-transgender Twitter followers, declaring, “Calling lesbian separatists who want no dicks around them-bigots now?? #rightwingbullshit.” She also called inclusion of transgender people by LGBTQ rights organizations, “Another sign of the apocalypse.” And she stuck up for TERFs in a (now deleted) tweet.

Roseanne’s deleted tweet, which reads: "terf is a slur, asshole."
Screenshot via Twitter

This ideology typically opposes all transition-related medical care, legal recognition of transgender people, and legal protections for transgender people as a class. TERFs are generally opposed to letting transgender people use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, regardless of surgical status.

Some believe that if gender were somehow culturally abolished, transgender people would simply stop wanting to transition and would therefor cease to exist as a distinguishable class of people. Others suggest that if everyone could express their gender freely, no one would ever want to, or need to, medically or legally transition between genders.

Both theories are nonsense of course. Society won’t abolish the concept of gender. And even if gender nonconforming expressions were completely accepted by American society (and that’s not happening for a long time), there would still be transgender people who were desperately uncomfortable with their bodies (i.e., suffer from gender dysphoria) and needed to transition medically and legally. The show seems to admit that gender abolition is unlikely to happen anytime soon when Darlene (Sara Gilbert) tells Mark, “You just gotta hang in there until people figure out that weird is cool.”

Mark is the perfect character for people who wish to deny the experience of folks for whom transition is the correct choice. He freely admits to being a boy in a dress. He’s fine with it. His gender identity matches his sex at birth. He has no desire to use the girls’ bathroom. In short, this is what Barr wishes all transgender people would be—because they see transgender women as boys and men in dresses, regardless of their gender identity.

Barr’s character has been called progressive for standing up for her gender nonconforming grandson. And there are certainly gender expansive kids out there who deserve representation in media, as well as compassion and support for their gender expression. But if Mark identified as a girl, Roseanne would be the first to throw her under the bus. In the context of Barr’s trans-exclusionary ideology, it’s clear that Mark is meant to further a specific narrative about the “correct” kind of gender nonconformity.

After Mark attempts to go to the first day of school in a skirt and a blouse, the character Roseanne asks him if he feels like a boy or a girl, and accepts him when he says he identifies as a boy. That’s nice, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. In real life, if someone like Mark were to express a female gender identity, support from Barr and her followers would evaporate instantly.

They would reject the child’s identity. They would refuse to use preferred pronouns. They would put the child in some sort of reparative therapy intended to convince her to accept the sex assigned at birth, and ask, “Why can’t you just be happy being a boy in a dress?” They would refuse the child access to medical care, even if they grew desperate and suicidal. They would not defend their child from discrimination at school, nor ask for formal legal protection, and would support the school’s decision to treat this child as male, or to simply segregate her from the rest of the school body.

There is ample evidence of both how cruel and dangerous such treatment is. Transgender children have gender identities every bit as valid as their cisgender peers. Youth in unsupportive environments (like the one suggested above) have far worse mental health outcomes and are at substantially increased risk of self-harm. Simply respecting a transgender youths’ preferred names and pronouns significantly improves their mental health.

The character of Mark may seem like a positive portrayal to observers unfamiliar with Roseanne’s hostility to transgender people and the ideology she’s aligned herself with. On any other show, this would be a celebration of gender diversity. But in reality, Mark’s gender nonconformity on a show starring the openly transphobic Roseanne Barr plays into a dogma that uses slightly expanded tolerance for (cis)gender expression as cover for rejecting the legitimacy of gender identity altogether.