Roseanne Barr’s culminating act of self-destruction, at least until she parlays martyrdom into a lucrative spot on the right-wing media circuit, is as revealing as it was predictable. Anyone surprised that she compared an African-American woman—Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama’s former senior adviser—to an ape either wasn’t paying attention or selectively forgot that she made the exact same comparison in regard to Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, in 2013.
Condemnation for Barr’s tweets yesterday was swift. Roseanne writer Wanda Sykes quit via Twitter, and co-star Sara Gilbert rejected Barr’s comments. Then, within hours, ABC canceled the show. This response, however, looks less laudatory when considered in light of the more important question: Why did the network, cast members, writers, and producers allow someone with a demonstrated track record of racism, anti-Semitism, and dangerous conspiracy theories to have a platform on network television in the first place?
The Jarrett comment hardly comes out of nowhere. Barr has based much of her career on sledgehammer subtlety, especially after the initial run of her eponymous TV show. Brief lowlights include her screeching, crotch-grabbing national-anthem stunt (which conservatives overlook, apparently, because she was not kneeling), her smearing the Parkland shooting survivors, making casually racist “jokes,” and being a conduit for anti-Semitic lies that play disturbingly well on the right.
Everyone who helped make the new Roseanne show happen ignored all of this. The simplest, least satisfying explanation of why this happened is money. An industry reduced to mining nostalgia for an endless parade of reboots, remakes, and sequels could not resist reviving one of the essential, culture-defining sitcoms of the nineties. In this light, ABC saw the new Roseanne as no different than Fuller House—mindless, derivative, easy to churn out, and profitable.
The more complicated answer involves the media’s drive to “humanize” and explain those who see Trump as their long-awaited salvation. Like the endless journalistic forays into the Rust Belt to profile Trumpers with shuttered steel mills as a photo backdrop, the Roseanne reboot intended to show what the media kept calling the “white working class” sympathetically. The latest iteration of Roseanne Conner would demonstrate that the real-life people her character represents are not racist caricatures. This is, after all, what we would like to think about our fellow Americans—that we have differences, but we can still come together as one nation. Halfway through the first episode of the new season, Roseanne Conner and her Jill Stein–voting sister Jackie Harris, played by Laurie Metcalf, have already reconciled after an argument about Trump, hugging out their political differences.
But so often the actual Trump supporters ruin that narrative. Journalists and researchers are now finding that the veneer of “economic anxiety” among Trump supporters is built on a foundation of hate. Fans of Trump say little about the president’s Gilded Age economic policies, but boy do they fume over kneeling NFL players. And because this racism, xenophobia, and paranoia is not what we want to find, we go looking again and again until we find an answer that is more comforting.
Roseanne is inseparable from this quest to find evidence that Trumpers are ultimately good, kindhearted people whose fears and economic insecurity are being exploited by a charlatan. It makes us uncomfortable to face the reality that tens of millions of Americans need no encouragement at all to support authoritarian and racist politics. Try as we may to tell ourselves that the masses are tricked into supporting far-right regimes in the United States or Europe, the uncomfortable reality is that many are willing, even eager.
It is in this context that Roseanne was greenlit despite the lengthy trail of evidence that she is a person whose opinions range from vicious to idiotic. If the real world cannot show us likable Trump supporters when reporters go looking for them, then by golly Hollywood will make some. ABC saw this show as a potential success, of course, but also as a way to show America the kind of prole the consensus-, “both sides”–obsessed media want to see: A brassy Archie Bunker, not a hate-spewing conspiracy theorist.
This is the most charitable interpretation of the thought process that led ABC executives to approve the show, despite what Barr had revealed herself to be in recent years. They set out to create idealized characters representing the reality we’d like to see.
It worked briefly. The show was lauded initially for being “incredibly honest” about who Trump voters are. Conservatives loved the ratings success of a show they saw as a rebuke of leftist Hollywood. After the initial surge of interest, the show appeared to settle into a consistent ratings generator for ABC.
Ultimately, the real Roseanne undermined the fictional one. Roseanne the character could humanize the show’s white, Midwestern, salt-of-the-earth types only if Barr kept up appearances, at least well enough for viewers to suspend disbelief. She could not. Rather than celebrate the network and the show’s famous co-stars for speaking out now, it is better to reconsider their initial motives. If they did this simply for the money, they are unprincipled. If they did it to show audiences relatable and “normal” Trump-loving Americans, they are misguided.
Barr may have wanted to use a fictional version of herself to prove that white people who love Donald Trump—people like her, in short—are not racists who traffic in ludicrous conspiracy theories and detest anyone who isn’t like them. She failed because that is exactly what she is. ABC, in abetting this mess, found that even Hollywood magic can’t make sympathetic characters out of such people, although I suspect it will keep trying. The alternative is confronting the fact that the beliefs of a substantial number of Americans are malevolent and dangerous, not mere differences of opinion that can be resolved in 20 minutes, with a hug.