Roseanne and the Changing Working-Class

The original cast of the series Roseanne (circa 1988) on their famous couchWhen ABC’s Roseanne premiered in 1988, it arrived in the era of Reaganomics with policies that stripped power from unions, sent blue collar jobs overseas and flattened wages throughout the Rust Belt.[1]

Roseanne Barr, creator and star, argued the show intended to “speak directly to working-class viewers in an active feminist voice over the people’s airwaves about the true nature of Reaganomics on their lives.”[2]

For nine years, audiences watched as the Conner family scrapped to get by in a world that never let them get ahead. Only in the final season, when Roseanne wins the lottery, do the Conners experience financial relief. However, this is revealed to be a fantasy in the series’ finale.[3]

They’re Back …

On March 27, 2018, the Conner family returns to their familiar couch for nine episodes. However, Roseanne enters back into pop culture in a different political moment. Reaganomics acts as the official “faith” of the Republican Party, whereas working-class culture – and racial resentment– have been weaponized to mask their economic fleecing by financial elites. After the surprise victory by Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election, elite cultural outlets like The New York Times and Bloomburg have endlessly puzzled how to determine the motivations of the archetypal “Trump voter.”[4]

Roseanne Barr, an outspoken political advocate and one-time presidential candidate for the Green Party, revealed that she voted for Trump in 2016.[5] Furthermore, she has been deeply invested with right-wing conspiracies, including Pizzagate and Seth Rich.[6]

While it’s often difficult to distinguish between Roseanne’s desire to troll liberals and her support of the right-wing agenda, it’s clear that Roseanne’s personal politics cannot help but influence Roseanne’s politics. In a recent interview, she shared that her character will be revealed as a Trump supporter in the reunion season premiere, which caused Roseanne to split with her liberal sister Jackie.[7]

This familial fragmentation, personified in many white, working-class families throughout the Rust Belt, will be a show theme, demonstrating the ways in which the original series also dealt with controversial (and difficult) political topics.

A Political Litmus Test for 2018

Roseanne show family on the famous couch circa 2008While Roseanne’s 2018 politics remain to be seen, it is clear that the cultural reception of Roseanne will be substantially different. Initial responses to this season have fallen, unsurprisingly, along tribal political lines. In other words, Roseanne will be put to the political litmus test, as many of our cultural objects are today, based on whose viewpoint it supports and why.

But Roseanne also arrives as a relic from another time as a big tent, multi-camera sitcom. Much like Netflix’s One Day at a Time reboot, the original series gave space for characters to express various biased and dehumanizing viewpoints. Only through the dialogue within the show itself did these views get resolved – or at least addressed.[8]

For example, in Season 7’s “White Men Can’t Kiss,” Roseanne and her husband Dan are forced to confront their inherent racial prejudice when their son DJ refuses to kiss a black girl (Geena) during a school play. Roseanne says the “right” thing when she yells at DJ that “Black people are just like us. They’re every bit as good as us, and any people who don’t think so is just a bunch of banjo-picking, cousin-dating, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white-trash like us!”

While it’s often difficult to distinguish between Roseanne’s desire to troll liberals and her support of the right-wing agenda, it’s clear that Roseanne’s personal politics cannot help but influence Roseanne’s politics.”

But, she also realizes her own inherent prejudices when she initially refuses to let the girl’s father into her restaurant late at night. The episode ends in this uncomfortable moment in which the white audience is forced to sit with their own racial inherent biases and prejudices without a clear narrative reconciliation to let Roseanne, or the audience, of the hook.[9]

Oh, the Possibilities

The new season of Roseanne offers the possibility of representing working-class politics realistically. If the reunion can take cues from the original series, we can hope to have more uncomfortable conversations – and uncomfortable endings about class, race and gender as the show unfolds over the next several months. [10]

[10] Darlene, Roseanne’s daughter, has a gender non-conforming child. Furthermore, DJ has a daughter, Mary, with Geena from Season 7.

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