Ad for the "Roseanne" reboot in the New York City subway, April 2018. Photo by Flickr user The All-Nite Images.
If I were writing a script about being working-class in 21st century America, I would begin by defining “working-class” this way: You live paycheck to paycheck, just one bad break away from being in real trouble.
Comfortable people have lives that offer a banquet of choices. Ask a child in a comfortable home what she will do when she grows up, and she might reply that she wants to be a doctor, a ballplayer, a YouTube star or the president – and she will really believe that she can become what she dreams of being.
You might get the same answers from a child in a working-class home, but often they will not come with the same degree of confidence in their possibility. No matter how devoted and protective the adults around her have been, a working-class child observes early on that life is about the need for compromise and the lack of choice. You can dream big, but you may have to settle small.
The charm of the recently and all-too-briefly rebooted television series “Roseanne” was that it presented working-class life in a sympathetic and nonjudgmental light. Modest wallets and educations did not imply small hearts. The members of the fictional Conner family stick together mainly out of love, but also because there is no other option. None of the characters is confident of even surviving, much less thriving, outside the family circle.
Tolerance in this setting is not a politically correct choice; it is a practical necessity. It always was. One of the first same-sex kisses shown on network television appeared in the show’s first iteration (in the episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which aired in March 1994).
Roseanne Barr long ago moved beyond any working-class financial conditions in her own life, yet she managed to destroy the franchise built around her fictional persona by embodying the very stereotype that “Roseanne” the show rejected. It was wannabe working-class Roseanne choosing to play-act today’s working class by mimicking the worst working-class stereotypes she could find.
Barr triggered widespread outrage by tweeting about Valerie Jarrett, a high-ranking aide to former President Barack Obama. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the tweet (since deleted), made nasty work of Jarrett’s race and birthplace as part of a thread about President Donald Trump’s claims that federal informants infiltrated his 2016 campaign. Barr has since apologized, and noted, in another later-deleted tweet, that she should not have been tweeting at 2 a.m. while using the sleep aid Ambien. She initially said she planned to leave Twitter, but later indicated that she has no immediate plans to shutter her account.
While the tweet in question was racist, to call Barr a racist more generally is probably oversimplifying, although I don’t know her personally so I cannot be sure. She has built a career by calling attention to herself whenever possible and by any means necessary. In contrast, her “Roseanne” co-star, John Goodman, has built a far more prominent and successful career by keeping a low personal profile and letting his work speak for itself. I suspect Barr is every bit as good a performer as Goodman, but she never trusted herself to the point where she could let that be enough.
So, at a minimum, Barr made a bad choice. Now everyone associated with the show had no choice at all. Within hours, her fellow performers publicly rejected her; the influential and talented consulting producer Wanda Sykes quit; and ABC canceled plans to renew the series next season. (The revival’s first season, a hit for the network, ended last week.) Even apart from the universal revulsion at Barr’s remarks about Jarrett, ABC would have been hard-pressed to find any advertisers who would have associated their brands with the star’s thoroughly tarnished image.
Scores of people who worked on the show now have to make other plans. Some will no doubt suffer financially for the job loss. Only Goodman and his agent know what opportunities he passed up to help his now-grown-up TV daughter, Sara Gilbert, relaunch the series; Gilbert, with Goodman’s help, was often cited as the principal moving force behind the “Roseanne” revival.
I feel terrible for all of these people. They may not all be working-class, but none of them had a choice in what became of their collaboration.
I also feel bad for a young person growing up in a working-class family who might have looked at “Roseanne” and seen something warm and familiar, a rare on-screen reflection of her own life that still emphasized how much can be found in a household that has little in the way of material wealth or financial security.
You have a lot more choice when you are only playing a working-class mom on television, rather than inhabiting the role in real life. Roseanne Barr may have thought she was giving voice to a supposed working class on her Twitter feed. All she was doing, however, was showing that she does not have any class at all.