At this year’s TCA, Roseanne Barr announced that on the forthcoming revival of her sitcom Roseanne, her character Roseanne Conner will have, like Barr herself, voted for Trump. She decried political polarization, and she and Sara Gilbert discussed the ways families are divided over this election; Gilbert insisted, “People feel like they can’t disagree and still love and talk to each other.” The late lamented Carmichael Show demonstrated that there is plenty of humor to mine from a family arguing about politics. But the idea that Roseanne and Dan Conner voted for Trump, for years a publicly ignorant bigot and violent misogynist, feels completely anathema to who the characters are. Rather than argue with canon like the worst kind of Star Wars fan, it may be instructive to take apart why it’s so hard to believe that the Conners would vote for Trump, and in doing so see what we can learn from this disbelief. (Full disclosure: Roseanne Barr once responded to one of my tweets – it wasn’t @ her – to call me a Nazi [I’m Jewish] then immediately blocked me. That was not one of the many tweets she deleted in her recent purge.)
Bruce Helford, the showrunner for the Roseanne revival, claims “there’s no agenda on anybody’s part,” which is both very likely and impossible. Network sitcoms try hard to avoid explicitly partisan politics because they want all their characters to be welcome in your home. Political characters are often balanced 1:1, so Tim Allen can insult Obama on Last Man Standing and have one of his daughters roll her eyes; liberal women like Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon need conservative mentors like Ron Swanson and Jack Donaghy. Even in Leslie Knope’s case, she was a feminist, but equally revered conservative and liberal women politicians. When Bruce Helford says “there’s no agenda,” he means he is not making the show in order to convince people of Trump’s competence. It’s been indicated that Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) will butt heads with Roseanne over Trump in the revival. What Helford ignores, of course, is the way that suggesting that beloved television characters could vote for the racist sexual predator Donald Trump is itself an agenda. “Trump isn’t so bad,” this programming automatically demonstrates. “Look: Roseanne and Dan Conner voted for him.”
There are a few things that make Roseanne a classic sitcom (and truly excellent for reviving). In the first place, of course, it’s just a really hilarious and moving show – one of those confusing Hollywood examples of an extremely toxic workplace producing excellent media. What’s kept it alive in the audience’s hearts, though, has more to do with its novelty. Both in 1988 when it premiered and since 1997 when it left the air, Roseanne was a rare sitcom about a family struggling financially. Studying sitcoms from 1946 to 1990, Dr. Richard Butsch of Rider University found that “of 262 domestic situation comedy series, only 11 series featured a blue-collar employee as head of house… when clerical and service workers are included, ‘working-class series’ are still a very meager 11% of all series.” Often sitcoms about working-class people use as their inciting action those people striking it rich or moving into a rich household (as in the case of Beverly Hillbillies, The Jeffersons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny, and The Mick, or even Roseanne’s final season). The Conners (for eight seasons) lived at or below the poverty line, and what’s more, their financial woes were visible. In a way almost never seen since The Honeymooners, when the Conners were broke their lives looked like it (here it’s worth noting that grounded portrayals of Black poverty tend to be exclusively relegated to television drama; upsetting and offensive stereotypes of Black poverty can be found everywhere in television comedy). The show never featured that sitcom staple of “the dad must choose between his high-paying job and getting to his kid’s ballet or football recital.” Roseanne even showed a household where both parents had to work – extremely common for Americans, bizarrely uncommon on television (The Middle is another ABC sitcom that’s engaged with this world). Like many Carsey-Werner series of that era, Roseanne was based on Barr’s standup, and that may be part of why it never felt like a show made by rich people to make fun of poor people – it felt like a sitcom by and about members of the white working class.
This is also what makes Roseanne so right for a revival. Working-class women are suffering tremendously and don’t see their experience reflected (let alone celebrated) much in sitcoms. In “Class Dismissed? Roseanne and the Changing Face of Working-Class Iconography,” Dr. Julie Bettie of UC Santa Cruz writes, “Unlike the bourgeois feminism of a Murphy Brown, Roseanne Conner’s ‘proletarian’ feminism expresses itself as a series of assertive responses to the daily personal injuries experienced by women who hold jobs with little power and prestige.” Women who talk and act like Roseanne Conner are rarely seen on television. Roseanne and Dan were never Leave It to Beaver parents with all the answers – or even people who made the best choices every day. They were doing the best they could, but they never lost sight of loving one another and their children. Families who curse and get angry and lose jobs but are stable and loving environments is another television rarity. Dr. Janet Lee of Oregon State University writes, “Despite the wisecracks and swift come-backs, there is a healthy demonstration of love and affection shown between family members, and… a relatively progressive modeling of male domestic behaviour on the part of Roseanne’s television husband, Dan.” People like the Conners are more often used as one-note guest characters than the main cast. This is a big part of why so many people feel so emotionally connected to Roseanne: It was one of the only places to see that kind of family as something other than a cautionary tale.
Writing for Vulture, Roseanne revival executive producer Whitney Cummings muses on the power of television to show us the lives of people we don’t know: “Turns out, many Americans never get to know or even meet people who aren’t like them, so putting them on a flickering box in their living room — full of vulnerabilities, problems, jokes, and dreams — is a great way to develop empathy toward a type of person they may normally not cross paths with.” This would suggest that the intended audience of Roseanne is not the disenfranchised working class, but wealthy Clinton voters unable to identify with the Trump-voting Conners. Conversely, Cummings describes her own experience of growing up watching Roseanne as “like oxygen for me. It was about a family who used humor to survive the smash n’ grab we call life.” Is the new Roseanne for audiences desperate to see their lives reflected on television, or for audiences who can’t relate to the Conners’s poverty at all? It’s certainly true that television is a powerful tool to help audiences empathize and identify with people outside their bubbles. The original run of Roseanne used its platform to demonstrate that a white working-class family could be more than the bigotry and hatred that Trump and the Republican Party embody.
A defining characteristic of life in the Conner household was empathy for marginalized people. The Conners were a working-class family that was anti-racist and anti-homophobic, despite the persistent stereotype that bigotry is restricted to the poor. According to Laura Bradley, writing in Vanity Fair, “Roseanne [Conner] is both against racism and willing to critically examine her own behavior.” It wasn’t just that audiences welcomed the Conner family into our homes – we felt welcomed into theirs, too. To Roseanne Barr, though, that attitude of the Conners is secondary to her projection onto their class. Barr explained at TCA that “it was working-class people who elected Trump.” This is a pervasive myth, and easily disproved. As a matter of fact, most working-class voters voted for Clinton. Most white voters voted for Trump, but not even most working-class white voters voted for him. As Michael Harriot at The Root reported, there are poor Appalachian whites fighting against racism within their own community. Which is all to say: If Roseanne and Dan Conner voted for Trump, it is not because they are working-class. Suggesting otherwise does a tremendous disservice to the wealthy and progressive audience Whitney Cummings imagines, watching Roseanne to see the lives of people scraping by.
Roseanne Barr created the character of Roseanne Conner. She absolutely knows the character better than anyone else could. Now that Barr runs a farm in Hawaii, her own life resembles that of Roseanne Conner somewhat less than it once did. That Roseanne Barr voted for Trump may have more to do with what’s happened in her life since 1988 and less to do with what she and Conner have in common. It’s understandable that Barr would want her character to share her core values (abhorrent to the rest of us though they may be), but if Barr is going to claim that Conner’s economic class made the fictional character more likely to vote for Trump, we should ask if perhaps Barr’s own economic class made the real woman more likely to vote for Trump.
In a February 2009 episode of The Office, Michael tries to urge Stanley not to have a heart attack by yelling, “Stanley! Barack is president! You are black, Stanley!” Michael is, of course, casually racist, but he sees himself as deeply progressive, and his belief that Stanley would want to live because Obama had been elected was in character for Michael. By the time Steve Carell left the series, though, Michael’s history of abuse and offense had been glossed over (as Oscar sang to him, “I forgive you for kissing me!”). This evolution is understandable, if frustrating. The more time we spend with TV characters, the more we empathize with them, and eventually allow ourselves to love someone who, if we encountered in our real lives, we’d loathe. It’s just something the medium does well (along with its complement, the “bad fan,” someone who doesn’t seem to realize a TV character is loathsome because they themselves are somewhat loathsome).
Television writers can also be bad fans – when they ignore the consequences of their characters’ actions because they’ve come to care for the character too. Any thoughtful person in the 1980s would be utterly mortified meeting a teenage Reagan obsessive. Liberal fans of Family Ties, though, still have warm feelings for Alex P. Keaton, as did that series’s creator, the late Gary David Goldberg. Goldberg, a liberal, created the series to upend the conservative parents/liberal child dynamic he’d seen for years on television. In 2008, during the Obama-McCain election, Goldberg wrote for the New York Times that he’d been asked for whom Alex P. Keaton would vote:
Alex Keaton was a true conservative Republican. … Above all Alex Keaton was a firm believer in the power of ideas. … And so it’s difficult to recognize in this current incarnation of the Republican Party, a party whose legacy will include Terri Schiavo and Hurricane Katrina, a place where Alex Keaton might feel the least bit comfortable. … I think his natural inclination would have been to go for John McCain. But, that would have been John McCain in 2000, when he was still talking straight: Jerry Falwell was an agent of intolerance, and waterboarding is torture. McCain going back on those two key points would have certainly kept Alex from pulling the lever for him now. … He would be intrigued by Obama — impressed with his eloquence and intelligence. He would be unhappy with his plan to tax the wealthy at a higher rate, but keenly aware that eight years of neglect and corruption and no-bid contracts have to somehow be overturned. … I think that Alex might just be ready to take a chance.
It’s absurd to suggest that the bigotry and stupidity of the Republican Party of today – let alone that of 2008 – was unrecognizable to Reagan Republicans. It isn’t likely fondness for Reagan that provided Goldberg with these rose-colored glasses; it’s a love for the character of Alex P. Keaton, whom he created and wrote for years. Today, in 2018, the idea that a Republican would grow more progressive over the years is a bit laughable (not impossible, but very unlikely). The reverse is much more likely: as Keaton ages, he’s more likely to fall asleep watching Fox News. In recent years, more than a few people have watched in terror as their parents fell into Rupert Murdoch’s web.
Still, though, it’s hard to watch the fictional characters we love – sometimes the ones who taught us what being an adult means – get worse as they get older. Many people couldn’t cope with Atticus Finch aging into a segregationist, or refused to see that he may always have been one. To many readers, Atticus Finch’s racism was evident in To Kill a Mockingbird. White people have a tendency to believe that racism is only evident when a person explicitly states a racist opinion, e.g., “People of other ethnicities are not as smart as people of my own.” Some racist people can go their whole lives without saying that out loud; for others, moments of political turmoil pull it out of them. Laura Bradley wrote that Roseanne Conner’s politics “could even help some viewers understand why someone like Roseanne (the character) would vote for a guy like Donald Trump.” Unfortunately, we know why people would vote for a guy like Donald Trump. They are racist. It may be more important that white viewers begin to understand that someone like Roseanne Conner – someone we cared about, identified with, or looked up to – would vote for a guy like Donald Trump. What we do with that information is up to us.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout living in Riverside, California. He is also the writer of the webseries Doing Good.