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Pondering Roseanne On Its 25th Anniversary

Features
by Alyssa Rosenberg
September 5, 2013 2:00 PM
3 Comments
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roseanne

As we stare down the beginning of another grim new crop of fall television shows, the prospects this year seem even worse in part because of a looming anniversary: twenty-five years ago this October, Roseanne Barr brought us Roseanne, a revolutionary look at working-class life, and more specifically, the experiences of working-class women. In recent years, Barr's tried to recreate the magic of the show she fought so hard for, and accomplished so much with, in between reality shows, a run for president, and an erratic Twitter presence. But whether Barr could hit the comedy jackpot again--and NBC is working on a 10/90 series with her and Nurse Jackie veteran Linda Wallem--is almost beside the point.

There are plenty of people monitoring whether there are female and gay characters on television, and what kinds of parts they're given to play. But there's far less consideration of class in a genre where displays of affluence have become the norm--even a teacher like New Girl's Jess lives in a loft with luxury amenities. We need a lot more stories about working-class Americans and their families, and we shouldn't get hung up on the idea that Barr's the only person capable of telling them. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roseanne, then, here are five ways the economy and social norms have changed in ways that might affect the Conners, and that are worth considering for any television creators who might want to follow in Barr's footsteps.

1. Her character might not be married--but she might still have kids: The back-and-forth between Roseanne and her husband Dan was one of the main drivers of action on Roseanne, but if the show was to capture the lives of poor and working-class women today, it might feature a character who wasn't married, but had children. Marriage rates and the rates of births outside of marriage have changed dramatically since 1990, and the New York Times estimated in a 2012 feature that these shifts "may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality." The marriage rate has fallen to 31.1 per 1,000 single women in the U.S.

And for white women who hadn't graduated from college, the rates of birth occurring outside of marriage rose from 18 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2009. That spike is almost as dramatic for women who--as was the case for Barr in real life--haven't completed high school, rising from 38 to 60 percent.

That doesn't mean that marriage is less desirable. Instead, as Amanda Hess writes in Slate in a piece arguing that marriage has effectively become a luxury good, something you do after you're settled instead of as a way to secure stability, "For working-class Americans, personal stability sometimes requires staying single and avoiding the risk of abuse, abandonment, and even more economic and emotional disruption." That doesn't mean women who have children without marriage don't have long-term relationships with their partners, but it does suggest that working-class women may be struggling to determine at what point it makes sense to make a permanent commitment to those partners.

Recent shows about working-or lower-middle-class families, including Raising Hope and The Middle, have focused their lenses on families anchored by married couples. Chuck Lorre's Mom, which premieres this fall, features Anna Faris as a single mother struggling to balance her job as a waitress, her romantic involvement with her boss, and the level of attention her teenaged children actually require from her. But it would be interesting to see a show examine a long-term relationship between two people who have children together, but who aren't married and never have been, and who maybe don't even live together.

2. Instead of working in a factory for a season, she'd probably have a service job: In the first-season finale of Roseanne, Roseanne and her colleagues quit their jobs at Wellman Plastics en masse when they're faced with unreasonable production quotas and an abusive new boss. Roseanne goes on to hold a number of service jobs much like those that might be available to a woman with her education and flexibility, but today, it would be remarkable if she had a manufacturing job at all. The number of jobs available in manufacturing has declined more quickly than in any other sector between 2001 and 2011. If Roseanne was going to lead a walkout today, she might be more likely to do so in fast food, an industry that saw strikes in 50 American cities in late August--and over an issue more difficult than an obnoxious teenaged boss. Or she might have ended up working as a guard in that prison that was under construction near her hometown--private prisons are a fast-growing industry.

3. Roseanne and her family might experience long-term joblessness and a reversal of gender roles: Roseanne took a smart look at all sorts of workforce issues, from the miseries of telemarketing, to ageism, to the rise of the requirement that job applicants have some level of computer competence. But even when Roseanne was moving from job to job or Dan was cobbling together construction jobs, the show suggested that there were opportunities out there, even if you had to work hard to get a shot at them.

One feature of the present recession and recovery, however, has been extremely long-term unemployment, and its impact on people who run through benefits that are meant to see them through to their next job before they find new work. There are 4.2 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, a long-term unemployment rate 15 percent higher than the one the U.S. experienced in the 1980s. Another factor in the recession is the way it's impacted the gender balance at work: initially, the recession seemed to have put more men out of work than women, bringing the U.S. close to a true gender balance in the workforce, though the unemployment rate ended up falling faster for men than it did for women. 

A smart take on women, family, and work would incorporate all these dynamics, including the End of Men narrative advanced by Slate and The Atlantic's Hanna Rosin and new research that suggests that men lose confidence when their partners succeed professionally. A number of shows like the dreadful sitcom Work It!, which featured men adopting drag to try to land elusive jobs they thought were going to women, have tried to address these issues in clumsy ways. But just as Roseanne was unusual for portraying the many families where both partners needed to work to stay afloat, an intelligent show set today might acknowledge that both partners aren't able to find work, even if both of them need it.

4. The characters might be downwardly mobile: Last year, Barr was developing Downwardly Mobile, a show about a family hit by the housing crisis who had to move into a trailer park for NBC, but the pilot didn't get picked up. She was on to something, though: research from the Pew Charitable Trusts found in 2011 that a third of Americans who were raised middle-class end up falling out of that economic strata as adults. That's a terrifying thing for many Americans to contemplate, and it's not surprising that we still haven't really seen much television grapple with what it would be like to downsize your life and accept a diminished class status.

Roseanne itself constantly grappled with the idea that it was difficult to rise above your class status, and its characters struggled with how to feel about pursuing dreams even as modest as enrolling in the police academy. Two of the Conner children do end up attending college, and even if they start families very young, there's some implication that they'll manage to scramble at least a little further up the class ladder. It would take an extremely deft show to portray the reverse trajectory, and an even defter one to do it as a comedy that doesn't treat its main characters as if they're stupid or somehow deserving of their bad fortune. But it would capture a real reversal of the American dream, and one it's important for television, which is full of safely upper-middle-class characters, to be able to acknowledge.

5. It would be easier to portray gay characters--but harder to talk about abortion: One of the many ways Roseanne bent the curve on television norms was Barr's insistence that her show include LGBT characters, including Nancy Bartlett Thomas, Roseanne Connor's co-owner of the Lanford Lunch Box, Leon Carp, her former boss, and, as revealed in the season finale that explained that the series was a fiction written by Roseanne to help make her life more manageable, Roseanne's younger sister Jackie. Barr's explanation for why she fought for the inclusion of gay characters on the show was straightforward: "My show seeks to portray various slices of life, and homosexuals are a reality." But given that Roseanne debuted in 1988, in the midst of the surge in homophobia linked to the AIDS crisis and rampant misinformation about the disease, Barr championing of gay characters was an act of considerable political and creative courage.

She'd have more support today: shows with gay main characters are now greenlit on a regular basis, and the cancellation of such shows doesn't seem to lead executives to conclude that gay characters are audience-killers. This fall alone, Andre Braugher is playing a gay police captain on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Sean Hayes is playing a gay single father in Sean Saves The World, and Back In The Game features a potentially gay boy who's on the baseball team coached by the main character. It's not just the commercial landscape that's changed: GLAAD monitors the portrayal of gay characters on television and has created a high-profile awards system that provides strong social incentives for networks to do the right thing.

But progress doesn't always proceed in a straight line. And one place where Roseanne might seem even more remarkable today is in the show's willingness to discuss abortion, and to have characters go through with the procedure. In a television landscape where even a show like HBO's Girls can tackle pornified sexuality but still has a character have a conveniently timed miscarriage rather than call Planned Parenthood, and where a teenage pregnancy can be a ticket to reality show stardom, the fact that Roseanne actually discusses whether to have an abortion with her 12-year-old son, and talks to him about respecting women's decisions about terminating pregnancies, would still stand out as profoundly radical.

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3 Comments

  • Carrie | September 6, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    Good essay. I think I watched quite a bit of that show. I like the idea of a show portraying non-married with kids households. That seems to be an unreported trend that I have seen in the past decade.

    I think there was a point in the series where Dan went AWOL to account for the actor pursuing other opportunities. I think that's around the time that the daughters got married and the changing dynamic was engaging.

  • Kathy | September 6, 2013 12:25 AMReply

    I'm glad you wrote this article. Many of the comments were very perceptive. However, I am disturbed that you didn't list respect for feminism and feminists as a requirement for a new Roseanne show. I want to see a 21st century Roseanne proudly call herself a feminist and do women's rights activism. Also, I do not want an End of Men narrative advanced by Slate and Hanna Rosin. The End of Men unwittingly showed that we're not at the end of patriarchy and ultimately, it perpetuated male privilege. I would want Roseanne's partner to take equal responsibility for patriarchy and deal with his ego issues like a mature adult.

  • Catherine | September 6, 2013 11:53 AM

    It's important to note that feminism looks different for women of different classes. What we typically see portrayed as 'modern feminism' in the media - be it our television shows or newspaper articles, various social justice movements, etc. - is generally a more (upper-)middle class, liberal experience of it. Working class people simply don't tend to have the time to spend on this middle class feminism, when their primary concerns are whether they can feed their family, pay their rent, or if they are about to have their car repossessed.

    Now, what a good show would do is highlight how gender impacts on these economic factors. Being able to say the 'f' word would be a very important part of that, because linking feminism to class and capital is something that is so rarely done that it threatens to erase working class women from feminism entirely. Experiences and concerns are different. There may be overlap, but the realities of life draw different priorities into sharp focus depending on your economic situation. To have a working class woman in a show focus on the types of things that (upper-)middle class women spend their time being activists for would miss that point entirely. Far better to approach gender in terms of how it affects poor women - which is overwhelmingly in terms of economic capital - and give that the exposure that it is sadly currently lacking.

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