Roseanne and TV myths about the working class

June 6, 2018

Roseanne is dead, and for good reason, but the dream of a show about working-class people that’s entertaining and honest isn’t, says Elizabeth Schulte.

TO START with: To hell with Roseanne Barr.

With her long career in show business, she has the money and power to send a message that reaches millions of people. She’s chosen to use that platform to spread racism, transphobia, right-wing conspiracy theories and support for Donald Trump.

Good riddance. Roseanne’s decade of right-wing tweets finally came back to haunt her when ABC announced that they would cancel the reboot of her 1990s show Roseanne — after her racist tweet against Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to Barack Obama.

Following the show’s cancellation, quite a few writers mourned the end of what many hoped would be the return of what the original Roseanne represented — one of precious few attempts to depict the everyday challenges of a working-class family.

Left to right: All in the Family and Roseanne
Left to right: All in the Family and Roseanne

Joan Williams, author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, wrote in the Guardian:

In the current uproar in the U.S. over the abrupt cancellation of ABC’s hit TV show Roseanne because of a racist tweet by the show’s star Roseanne Barr, few have mentioned a crucial fact. Cancellation deprives American television of one of the only sympathetic depictions of white working-class life in the past half-century — in other words, since television began.

Barr’s horrendous behavior is to blame for getting the show that bears her name canceled. But a TV industry that would rather not tell stories about working-class people is to blame for the fact that Roseanne was one of the few shows that attempted to provide a look at the world from a working-class point of view.

WHEN ROSEANNE first went on the air in 1988-89, it was unique — the Conner family didn’t look like or act like anyone else on TV.

The TV industry’s prevailing view of working-class people was disdain at worst and condescension at best. Certainly there were no families like the Conners — sarcastic and often self-deprecating, with humor that aimed its fire at the powers that be, not those without any power at all. And in a sea of “beautiful people,” Barr didn’t fit the TV mold in the way she looked or talked.

Before then, TV’s version of the working class was largely stuck in the loveable or not-so-loveable loser category — someone to laugh at, not with.

Probably the worst example was Married...With Children, which aired from 1986 to 1997, about a lazy shoe salesman and his mean-spirited family. It was part of a business plan by Fox, along with the Simpsons, to make its mark as the supposedly irreverent new network on the block.

In general, though, working-class people weren’t the stars of shows — unless they were cops, which was the TV industry’s main idea of a working-class job. TV cop shows, of course, aren’t about depicting working-class lives, but reinforcing the myth of police as protectors who face all kinds of difficult odds...while they prey on actual working-class people.

Otherwise, TV teemed with the “beautiful people” on nighttime soap operas like Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest — shows which epitomized the 1980s ethos of “greed is good” — to quote the banker Ivan Boesky, whose callous slogan was put to use in the 1987 movie Wall Street).

This summed up the TV of the 1980s — until Roseanne came along. A woman who worked at a plastics plant and her family were the stars. A New York Times reviewer had praise for the first show, but at the same time couldn’t control his own elitism:

Together Roseanne and Dan are a fetching pair of chubbies who think, with ample justification, that they’re pretty cute. It is possible that Roseanne and Ms. Barr won’t be able to keep up with a grueling sitcom pace, which is a bit like having to put together a whole new comedy act once a week.

During its first season in 1988-89, Roseanne quickly rose to the number-two show on TV, behind the most popular family sitcom of the time, The Cosby Show, about a considerably wealthier Black family, where any hint of rough edges was smoothed out, according to the standard TV formula.

On Roseanne, by contrast, the Conners dealt with serious issues such as domestic abuse, while always surviving one paycheck away from economic ruin. Its characters challenged the powers that be, whether it was a foreman at work or a principal who had complaints about their children. Their friends and co-workers were white and Black, and lesbian and gay.

In its later years, the show strayed further and further away from its working-class roots — and from reality. Roseanne won the Illinois state lottery, moved into a mansion...and most audience members stopped caring about what happened to the Conners.

THE 2018 reboot of Roseanne showed some signs that it might address issues as the old show had — such as when Roseanne’s racist assumptions about the Muslim family next door backfire on her, or when Dan discovers that she’s been hiding bottles of painkillers around the house to substitute for the knee surgery they can’t afford.

The fact that the show got back on the air in the first place was shaped by Donald Trump’s election. ABC executives admit they met the day after the 2016 election and started to strategize. “We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s a lot about this country we need to learn a lot more about, here on the coasts,’” Ben Sherwood, president of Disney and ABC’s television group, told the New York Times.

Their answer was to bring back Roseanne, now a Trump supporter — like the real-life Barr — and make her sister a Hillary Clinton supporter. The aim was to mimic what network executives thought was going on in working-class America — or at least what they thought was going on in white working-class America.

“We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender,” Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, told the Times. “But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country.”

But just like the pundits who analyzed Trump’s victory and fell back on recycled myths about the “white working class,” this re-enforced misconceptions about the working class or how Trump got into office.

It was easier for TV execs to develop a “heartland strategy” by fitting the result of 2016 into neat categories, where Clinton supporters = the liberal elite, and Trump voters = disenfranchised white racists.

Actually, the results of the election reflected something different — a deep dissatisfaction with the pro-corporate, status quo candidate that the Democrats put forward, and deeper bitterness with the political establishment in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike. As Sharon Smith wrote in the International Socialist Review:

The mainstream media’s “white working-class revenge” account was soon be factually incorrect. Perhaps most importantly, the typical Trump voter was middle class, not working class. Trump supporters in the 2016 primaries earned an average of $72,000 per year, well above the national median household income of $55,775 — indicating a solid middle-class component among Trump’s core backers. Trump voters in the general election mirrored this income distribution, with two-thirds earning above the national median income...

Just weeks after the election, early studies of voting data had already begun to disprove the claims of a white working-class outpouring for Trump. After studying the exit poll data in the Rust Belt states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — which all went to Trump — academic researchers Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr concluded, “Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the Rust Belt collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party. Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them.

In other words, Roseanne Barr may have voted for Trump. But that doesn’t mean Roseanne Conner did.

And let’s not forget another case of amnesia for the TV industry: the dissatisfied and struggling working class isn’t just white and straight, but is Black, Latino, immigrant, LGBTQ and women.

AT ITS best, TV can help illuminate the society we live in, often by shining a light on our everyday struggles. And it can also be influenced by those struggles.

In the 1970s, turbulent times inspired TV show creators and writers to introduce characters and plotlines that could debate out the important issues of the day and take stock of the sea change in U.S. society.

Shows like Maude talked about abortion and civil rights, and Mary Tyler Moore depicted a single woman who was happy to stay that way — a shocking statement for its time. Good Times centered on a Black family living in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project.

These shows didn’t always measure up to their potential. In the case of Good Times, actor John Amos, who played the father, later said his character was killed off by Norman Lear and Amos fired because he had become a “disruptive element” — by raising his disagreements with the show’s focus on his son JJ’s goofy hijinks.

The show All in the Family likewise represented these contradictory dynamics.

Its characters interacted with the political events of the times — Black Power, women’s rights, the antiwar movement — and brought debates and discussions happening in society at the time into people’s living rooms in ways the old sitcom formula never did.

At the center of it all was the family patriarch Archie Bunker, who epitomized the TV stereotype of a white, blue-collar worker — narrow-minded, racist, sexist and suspicious of change.

His character was meant to satirize reactionary attitudes about the “good old days” that were being challenged by shifting attitudes. But it also reinforced a narrow idea of what the working class looked like and thought — as if workers weren’t influenced by changing times as well.

While a massive transformation went on in the world around him, Archie Bunker sat in his chair in front of his TV, like an insect preserved in amber.

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Later on, in the era after Roseanne, shows were created with a more inclusive idea of working-class families, shaped by changing attitudes about race and gender. Once again, this was thanks in large part to activism in society at large — such as anti-racist struggles or the movement for equal marriage — which forced even TV executives to attempt to represent more voices.

Because of this, there are diverse working-class families depicted in shows like Speechless and Ugly Betty, and decidedly wealthier versions of diversity in the shows Black-ish and Modern Family.

But for the most part, the entertainment industry is still in desperate need of portrayals of working-class people when they are at their best. Maybe we need a good strike wave...

Further Reading

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