Can We Have ’90s Roseanne Back, Please?

We need the old Roseanne’s working-class heroism now more than ever. We’re better off with the reruns than the reboot.

Kate Aronoff March 26, 2018

Roseanne Barr is a messy, complicated and contradictory person. (ABC)

Roseanne’s white work­ing-class pop­ulism seems some­how sus­pend­ed in time. Set for a revival on ABC this spring, the hit 1988-to1997 sit­com sat, polit­i­cal­ly, some­where along­side Dol­ly Parton’s 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs and Bruce Springsteen’s entire discog­ra­phy. In the late 1980s it wasn’t impos­si­ble to imag­ine some com­bi­na­tion of Spring­steen, Barr and Par­ton gal­va­niz­ing the white work­ing class toward sol­i­daris­tic ends, with­in the con­fines of some­thing like Jesse Jackson’s mul­ti-racial Rain­bow Coalition.

Roseanne combined a common-sense egalitarianism with a strong feminist streak, lifting a middle finger to the powers that be—bosses especially.

His­to­ry took anoth­er course. As Roseanne Barr has argued in press jun­kets for the upcom­ing tenth sea­son, mem­bers of her fic­tion­al exur­ban Illi­nois fam­i­ly on the show, the Con­ners, might well have vot­ed for Don­ald Trump in 2016 — as Barr proud­ly did.

So what are we to make of Roseanne and Roseanne in 2018, the beloved work­ing-class hero­ine turned Trump supporter?

The series’ revival comes as jour­nal­ists based on the coasts take safaris into Trump coun­try to inter­view fam­i­lies not unlike the Con­ners, look­ing to anthro­po­log­i­cal­ly explore what makes myth­i­cal white, work­ing-class Repub­li­can vot­ers tick: Are they eco­nom­i­cal­ly anx­ious or sim­ply racist?

What­ev­er the new Roseanne brings, the series’ orig­i­nal run remains a valu­able inter­ven­tion to upend the stereo­types behind the debate. Work­ing-class whites have long been depict­ed as polit­i­cal­ly back­ward and con­fused. At its best, Roseanne skew­ered the idea that people’s pover­ty is of their own mak­ing, or that fam­i­lies that float around the pover­ty line could be slot­ted into neat stereotypes.

When it pre­miered, Roseanne gave view­ers some­thing messy and relat­able. The show set stan­dard prime­time house­hold hijinks against a back­drop where prob­lems were rarely solved in a night. Unlike oth­er blue-col­lar” sit­coms like Mar­ried With Chil­dren and All in the Fam­i­ly, the char­ac­ters weren’t car­toon­ish par­o­dies to be laughed at. The Con­ners were the joke-tellers, not the jokes.

Emi­nent­ly human, they faced issues that went beyond usu­al sit­com fare. Busi­ness­es failed, unplanned preg­nan­cies arose and boyfriends abused their girl­friends. Char­ac­ters cycled through bad jobs and bouts of unem­ploy­ment, diet­ing and depres­sion while strug­gling to pay the bills — the lat­ter so often that it’s a run­ning gag. One scene finds Roseanne (Barr) and Dan Con­ner (John Good­man) sit­ting at their kitchen table tal­ly­ing month­ly pay­ments. When they’re all paid up, Dan laments, they’ll have just $11.87 left in the bank.

Well, do you want extra mon­ey?” Roseanne quips, “’cause, y’know, I have my own sys­tem … First we send in the phone bill and we for­get to sign the check. … Then we send the water bill to the elec­tric com­pa­ny and the elec­tric bill to the water com­pa­ny. … And you know that charge card bill? It nev­er even showed up.”

Roseanne com­bined a com­mon-sense egal­i­tar­i­an­ism with a strong fem­i­nist streak, lift­ing a mid­dle fin­ger to the pow­ers that be — boss­es especially.

The first sea­son finale finds Roseanne and her female cowork­ers at a plas­tics assem­bly line, com­mis­er­at­ing on lunch break about their sex­ist, dom­i­neer­ing boss, Kei­th Faber (Fred Thomp­son). Faber wouldn’t get on my nerves so much if he’d just … die,” Roseanne’s sis­ter and co-work­er, Jack­ie, says. No, that’s too good for him,” anoth­er says.

Roseanne con­fronts Faber on her own about unre­al­is­tic pro­duc­tion quo­tas, and he makes her pledge loy­al­ty and sub­servience in exchange for low­er quo­tas. He said he’d low­er the quo­tas if I low­ered myself,” she con­fess­es to Dan lat­er, prompt­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about what quit­ting would entail giv­ing up, includ­ing health­care. Faber soon goes back on the deal and rais­es the quo­ta. Because I can,” he explains. The final scene shows the women on the floor fol­low­ing Roseanne’s lead and clock­ing out for good.

In anoth­er scene, Roseanne and Jack­ie pick up a hitch­hik­er who teach­es them about riot grrrl — ear­ly 90s fem­i­nist punk rock. Spot­ting a truck decked out in sex­ist para­pher­na­lia, they pull up and get in a shout­ing match with the male dri­ver. We’ll show him a lit­tle Biki­ni Kill,” Roseanne says (ref­er­enc­ing a riot grrrl band) and flips him off, after which Jack­ie unleash­es a string of exple­tives and Roseanne yells, Women rule, dirtbag!”

While deal­ing with weighty sub­jects, Barr’s bit­ing, rapid-fire wit kept the show from turn­ing sac­cha­rine. At one point Roseanne leads her mor­ti­fied daugh­ter Darlene’s home eco­nom­ics class on a field trip to the gro­cery store to learn about shop­ping on a bud­get. Pick­ing up a box of corn flakes, she advis­es: We have to go for the gener­ic. It’s noth­ing but sec­ond-best for our family!”

Lat­er, Dar­lene approach­es her moth­er. I learned some­thing kind of impor­tant today,” she says earnest­ly. Your job is impor­tant and it’s tough. So I’m going to make a lot of mon­ey or I’m going to mar­ry a rich guy so I don’t have to do any of it.” Roseanne ten­der­ly lifts Darlene’s chin. Ah,” she dead­pans, the stu­dent sur­pass­es the teacher.”

Since Roseanne went off the air, Barr’s pol­i­tics have been all over the map: She ran for pres­i­dent on the Peace and Free­dom Par­ty line in 2012, telling Sean Han­ni­ty, We need a lit­tle bit more social­ism in this coun­try.” But in recent years, she’s accost­ed pro-Pales­tin­ian activists on Twit­ter and spo­ken at anti Boy­cott, Divest­ment, Sanc­tions (BDS) con­fer­ences, and in 2016 she vocal­ly sup­port­ed Trump for president.

Barr has jus­ti­fied her tit­u­lar character’s Trump sup­port on the basis of real­ism, a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly ques­tion­able claim: Trump enjoyed his strongest sup­port over­all from white, mid­dle-class vot­ers mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than the aver­age Amer­i­can — the kinds of snooty, uptight neigh­bors and par­ents the Con­ners often clashed with.

It’s hard to sep­a­rate art from artist, espe­cial­ly when the two are so close­ly bound. Roseanne Barr is a messy, com­pli­cat­ed and con­tra­dic­to­ry per­son. Roseanne depict­ed a messy, com­pli­cat­ed and con­tra­dic­to­ry fam­i­ly. Regard­less of the qual­i­ty of the reboot, the reruns remain worth watch­ing — espe­cial­ly any time you find your­self tempt­ed to read anoth­er think­piece on the white work­ing class.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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