The original “Becky” reflects on the polarizing comic and Trump voter who indelibly changed what it means to be a TV matriarch.
Thirty years ago, I was just a 12-year-old kid sitting in the kitchen of my home in Evanston, Illinois, eating take-out Chinese food with my family, when I cracked open a fortune cookie that read: “You will be graced with the presence of stardom.” Minutes later, our phone rang: I had a callback for a sitcom called Life and Stuff, which would later be known as Roseanne.
The star of the show was a comedian named Roseanne Barr—I had never heard of her before, but I figured she was going to be the kind of TV mother I was accustomed to seeing at the time, like Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show, or Meredith Baxter Birney on Family Ties.
But as I sat in a soundstage at the Universal Studio lot, waiting to audition, I saw Roseanne walk onto the vast, cavernous stage. She was small and round, had no make-up on her face, and was wearing sweatpants. And then came the laugh: unabashedly loud and piercing. She wasn’t anything like I’d expected.
Later that day, I learned I’d been cast in the role of her oldest daughter, the smart and rebellious Becky—and my life changed. Because right after the show premiered on October 18, 1988, the critically buzzed-about ABC sitcom became an overnight success. Roseanne’s star supernovaed.
Yet, despite the show’s popularity, America didn’t easily embrace the “Domestic Goddess,” who often appeared less jolly and more Kali (the Hindu goddess of destruction). Indeed, from the pilot episode, the media—and the world—picked up on the fact that Roseanne’s version of “mother” wasn’t like anything we’d seen before. After just one episode, the New York Times wrote: “With a malicious glint in her eyes, Ms. Barr pounces on the absurdities of a tough no-nonsense woman trying to survive in a world of lazy self-inflated men.” Thirty years later, in Trump’s America, some things haven’t changed.
Both “Roseanne” the character and Roseanne the woman were strong and idiosyncratic and not the least bit interested in explaining themselves. But today, Roseanne Barr has become a cultural talking point for another reason: Her controversial political opinions don’t quite align with the mainstream Hollywood mindset, including my own. I long for the good old days, when people would at least ask, “What is Roseanne Barr really like?” They don’t have to ask now. She’s happy to tell them.
I was in Pasadena this past January, for ABC’s Television Critics Association press event, where journalists did not shy away from asking Roseanne about her well-known support of the Cheeto-in-Chief. “Trump says a lot of crazy shit. There are a lot of things that he’s said and done that I don’t agree with,” she told Vulture, and then added, “There’s probably a lot of things Hillary Clinton has done and said that you don’t agree with.”
And there are a lot of things Roseanne has said and done that I—and others—don’t agree with, but that doesn’t mean she’s not important to me, or that the show lost its stature as a cultural benchmark. I’m grateful for both. Roseanne has always fought to represent the overlooked or forgotten working-class America with integrity. Blue-collar America is not just a fan base to her, but a cause. It’s why she created Roseanne in the first place.
But I believe the real power of Roseanne comes from its honesty, and that includes showing the flaws in all of its characters, whether that’s teenagers making bad decisions or Roseanne supporting Trump. Not everyone sees it this way. In Wonkette, Robyn Pennacchia cursed the show’s choice to depict Roseanne’s character as a Trump supporter. “This evolution makes no sense for the character. It makes sense only for propaganda. There is something sinister in taking a feminist character who stood up for working people, who not only opposed racism and homophobia but thoughtfully addressed her own biases and worked to overcome them, and who—perhaps most importantly—did not fall for bullshit, and putting her on the freaking Trump train.” In the Chicago Tribune, Tracy Swartz speculated about the origins of Landford, Illinois, the fictional town where Roseanne is set. (It has long been believed to be based on Elgin.) Swartz asserted that “Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who grew up in the Chicago area, easily defeated Trump in Elgin Township in 2016, election records show. Clinton’s maternal grandfather is from Elgin.”
I am a proud feminist, and a Chicago native, and often read articles like these with tremendous interest. Yes both Roseanne Barr and “Roseanne” voted for Trump. As we know too well, a lot of white women did. And Landford, like the Conners, are fictional, vivid and relatable. But however you may feel about Roseanne Barr voting for Trump, the character “Roseanne” is part of a separate, fictional narrative. Those who watched it when it first aired may recall how groundbreaking it was not only in its depiction of a flawed, working-class family led by a strong matriarch, but by the way it shed light on issues from gay rights to mental illness. Should that be diminished simply because its star voted for a president whose beliefs are antithetical to what she represented? Real-life Roseanne may be polarizing, but Roseanne as a TV show remains a paragon.
The fact is, the hero is not a hero at the beginning of her story. That is the purpose of her journey and narrative: Whether “Roseanne” becomes a hero by the end of season 10. And that is debatable. But maybe it is worth debating.
As much as the choice of investing one’s time, energy, and money in art and/or an artist is integral to being a conscientious individual in society, so is the right to exist with a nuanced, personal politic, and the freedom to artistically depict characters with complexity. Polarity may, arguably, work in a justice system or a democracy, but it serves neither the individual nor the art.
Roseanne lasted nine seasons (222 episodes) from 1988 to1997, and was one of the most watched shows in America for the majority of its run. There’s no disputing that success, even if it wasn’t always fun for us. Roseanne is both an auteur and a collaborator, but she is not one to acquiesce, particularly when it comes to a funny joke or the integrity of one of her working-class characters. As a teenager, watching her tirelessly assert her authority was equal parts intimidating and inspiring. I remember back then, when I wanted to complete my “grunge look” with a cute, pixie haircut and the producers said “no,” Roseanne took the liberty of grabbing a pair of scissors and chopping off the base of my pony tail in the hair-and-make-up room, right before the live-taping. As horrified as I was at the time, I understood her lesson: Sometimes it is right not to compromise.
The writers had it the worst. Every Monday, after reading a new script around the table, I recall the anticipatory “angel of silence” that fell across the room. “This isn’t funny!” Roseanne would exclaim. The writers, down but not out, would retreat back up to their room, with Roseanne in tow. Some of them would not make it to the next season. (Though some writers who were fired back then, were asked to return this season—a testament to what 20 years can do to heal old wounds).
I don’t know whether Roseanne sees herself as a feminist. But, to me, the idea of feminism is to simultaneously exist within society and be independent of it. Ultimately it assures each of us a right to our own respective voices and power. And gives each of us a platform for discourse, despite whether it makes others uncomfortable. I don’t know anybody who understands this better than she does. But when I recount to her my memories of her heroism, the many times I watched her stand up to the Hollywood Boys’ Club and stick to her guns when it came to our show’s blue-collar integrity, she recoils.
Whether we are talking about Roseanne-the-Comic or Roseanne-the-Character, both always have been consistently controversial, radical, and, for the most part, anti-establishment. When I was a teenager, strangers would often cross a crowded room and go out of their way, just to tell me how much they hated her or the show. You’ll likely recall her rendition of the “National Anthem”; I remember the aftermath, of how tight security was on our lot the weeks that followed.
Arguably, what makes Roseanne a good show—what has always made it great—is not the politics of its lead character, but the conflicts that exist within all the characters that ultimately make the Conners believable and, therefore, relatable. While Dan may defer to Roseanne, he never loses his authority. Jackie’s life may perpetually be in shambles, but she often interjects a depth and wisdom. Becky is a straight-A student who is primarily driven by rebellion. Darlene’s dry humor only masks her true vulnerability. And DJ’s innocence is humorously met with a world-weariness. However the characters might be described, one is hard-pressed to categorize them in stereotypes.
Like any great drama, Roseanne holds up a mirror to the American family. The Conners not only struggle with outside circumstances, they struggle with each other. And more than hate or criticism, I often hear from fans who say that watching Roseanne with their respective families gives them permission to address uncomfortable and painful issues with authority, sincerity, and moreover, humor. I hope, even in this chaotic and often isolating social-media climate, that our show continues to allow for cathartic discussion among its viewers.
Roseanne herself is as complex as the characters she created—both a comic and a writer, a collaborator and a tyrant, a genius and an everywoman, a mother and a grandmother, and a bright and brazen force of nature. That is what Roseanne is really like.
As for the Roseanne you’re about to see, I can say this with absolute authority, it is thoughtful, well-written, extremely funny, and faithful to the story it began with: a portrait of an imperfect family as they struggle to find levity in an imperfect America.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. You can help by supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism. Because it matters who covers the news. And it matters who covers women’s issues in the news. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.