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How Roseanne Lost My Working-Class Family

I still live in the home my mother and her eight siblings shared with their movie executive father. From the way they talk though, it seems like I’ve missed the golden age of my own family — the parties, the money, the trips, the delivery men who spent the better part of the 20th century bringing luxury groceries to our door. Essentially, my grandfather retired; a lot of the “old guys” died; and as people often commented, the house was just different.

“It’s not that the house was ever clean,” my mother contends, but in its heyday, the sheer volume of people seemingly distracted from our lackadaisical approach to dust and grime. By the time I lived there, the carpet was old, and cobwebs adorned the entryway. If I spotted mold in an abandoned closet, my mom told me to ignore it. And one feral cat or another was always giving birth in the empty pool the backyard. Meanwhile, my lovely father, born into a different class and culture than my mom, had begun populating our driveway with vintage cars. Over the years, he’d continue to drag spare trucks and motors onto the premises until it began to resemble the “pick-your-part” junkyard, one of his favorite places in the world.

In this way, despite my access to a more storied family history and my proximity to wealth and nice houses in fancier L.A. neighborhoods — where my mom would splurge on lunches with her decidedly non-working class siblings, despite her economic anxieties — my life didn’t feel unlike what I saw on Roseanne.

My parents fought — loud, well and sometimes frighteningly — and money was always a concern as my mom complained about my dad’s own disposition in regards to gainful employment (or lack thereof). Like most American working-class families, it always felt like we were waiting for the other shoe to drop — in this case, one of my dad’s tattered work boots. All the while, my mom would smoke weed and listen to Bob Marley and repeat his/her mantra: Everything’s gonna be alright.

Already, my dad was suffering from significant physical pain. He had puffy, working-man hands filled with sheet metal. When I was about six, he’d been asked to handle fiberglass while on the job in a metal factory without the instruction to use gloves. Many nights thereafter, I would walk into his room to find him crying, writhing in pain or both, carving an X-Acto knife into his skin, trying to remove the intricate ribbons of glass the doctors had told him were impossible to extract because of their ubiquity.

As for my grandparents, my grandmother had become so depressed that she didn’t leave her bed for years. I’d hear my mom beg her to get up for a bath — the sour scent of this divine matriarch’s body wafting through the house in a way that made it intense for her other children to visit. But when she was hospitalized, I became obstinate, refusing to go to middle school and insisting on rewatching Roseanne at incredibly loud volumes, so much so that the indicator bar would reach the “L” in the text that read “volume” on the TV. I was convinced that because “Life” and “Love” began with “L,” I could somehow save her by keeping it frozen there.

In general, TV was very important to me — probably because I could watch whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted. I had no rules, and my parents didn’t believe in censorship — or discipline, which my mom says is for “creepy fucking power freaks.” (The one time my dad did try to spank me, I ran to my grandmother, still alive and dependably in bed, and told her we had to sue. He never tried that again). And while I had an encyclopedic knowledge of a bevy of adult programs by the time I hit the third grade, nothing did it for me quite like Roseanne.

A large part of this was because no one better represented my mother — confident, knowledgeable and self-assertive — than Roseanne Barr. Not in style or looks — she prefers the Gena Rowlands and Anna Nicole Smith comparisons she always gets — but in the power of her presence. Like Roseanne in her home in Lanford, Illinois, my huge L.A. family orbits around the center of our universe — my mother. Simply put, my mom’s like her dad, a bulldog, the kind of person you don’t fuck with, all of which is very Roseanne, too.

Probably the best example I can think of: Circa 1998, I was holding our spot in line at Blockbuster, while she switched out one VHS tape for another. When she joined me back in line, a man behind us accused her of cutting, something my mom, a territorial bitch, would never do. She shook it off with a shrug and a laugh, but the guy wouldn’t quit. “You’re ugly!” he screamed, desperate for her react.

“Fat? Sure. Ugly? Never!” she roared.

But while I grew up radically intimate to my parents — so much so that I joke that they’re the first poly couple I was ever part of — in the tradition of great Irish-Catholic repression, we never really talked about anything. There were no family meetings or “teachable moments.” They both think “lessons” are condescending. Even when they told me about the existence of a half-sibling I’ve never met, they didn’t ask me to pause the movie I was watching first. I still hate Home Alone for this reason.

Instead, like regular, healthy Americans, we watched TV — Roseanne most of all — and let professional actors — in this case, some combination of Roseanne, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson/Sarah Chalke and Michael Fishman — manage our emotions for us. Whether it was losing a job, battling depression or battling the depression that comes with losing a job, Roseanne often granted me access to more nuanced versions of conversations I only heard in truncated, expletive versions at home. And unlike real life, Roseanne always tied things up, even if the resolutions weren’t in tidy sitcom acts.

I never, for instance, got the grief therapy I probably needed after my grandmother eventually died, but there was that hilarious episode where Roseanne and Jackie’s dad dies and they have to call other family members to let them know what happened. In particular, Jackie tries to let some distant aunt in on the news, but she can’t seem to understand her. “I said, ‘Dad has passed away… He’s passed away!… Dad is gone!’” Jackie insists. “‘Dad’s dead!… He’s dead!… NO, *DEAD!*… *DAD!*… He’s fine! He sends his love! Bye!”

Her show also was political, but at the time at least, her politics felt revelatory and important. Her willingness to criticize her husband, her shamelessness in vying for time away from her children and her fat body made her both a very new type of TV mom and every loser macho man’s worst enemy. In fact, in the Roseanne pilot, she spends her lunch hour at the plastics factory using a chocolate donut covered in nuts to demonstrate how to fix men up until they become suitable partners. She picks off one nut for every one thing men need to shed, most notably “the male ego.”

In watching rewatching episodes from the show’s original run, I’m still inspired by how unabashedly Roseanne and the series’ other female characters take up space, no matter how rough around the edges they are. In a world where “nice girls” still usually get to play the hero, Roseanne is lasting evidence that loud-mouthed hardasses like my mother had stories worth telling too. (Fittingly enough, my mom, born in the 1950s, still harps on how the idea of “nice girls” is bullshit in the first place.)

All the while, Roseanne was uniquely friendly to the LGBTQ community at a time when most of the country, including the blue-collar Midwesterners reflected in the show, weren’t exactly allies to gay people. Admittedly, all of the show’s core characters were straight, but important subplots involving beloved characters like Nancy (played by my other hero Sandra Bernhard) and Leon (Martin Mull) treated same-sex relationships and sexual fluidity as a fact-of-life. (It’s also worth mentioning that in 1994, Roseanne kissed a lesbian on the show, which definitely was a sitcom mom first.)

Bernhard’s Nancy was one-half of the first lesbian couple I ever saw on TV, when following her relationship with Tom Arnold’s character Arnie, she starts dating a blonde bombshell played by Morgan Fairchild who works at the beauty counter — an on-the-nose attempt at establishing her as lipstick lesbian. For context, this 1992 episode aired five years before Ellen DeGeneres came out to her therapist on her sitcom, an episode advertisers like JCPenney and Chrysler famously boycotted, and the murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay teen whose death prompted the ratification of hate-crime legislation in the U.S, didn’t occur until 1998.

Back then, Roseanne’s style of activism wasn’t to position herself as the expert on these topics, or even as inherently empathetic to them, but to use herself as a vehicle for change. (In real life, Roseanne’s brother and sister were both gay, so her inclusion of queer characters was just part and parcel of her own family’s reality.) For example, when she plans Leon’s wedding to Scott (played by Fred Willard) in “December Bride,” the first gay wedding ever shown on TV, she stereotypically fills the banquet hall with pink triangles and streamers and hires drag queens and male strippers for the ceremony. Leon, a conservative Republican, flees the hall and even kisses Roseanne in hopes of turning straight, given that he hates all of the gay tropes Roseanne planned in his honor.

Roseanne’s handling of queer characters was so effective because it was all so normal. Leon, for example, was simply her boss. Who she hated — because he was her boss, not because he was gay. His storyline didn’t feel like an afterschool special, but a previously ignored dispatch of gay Republican life in Illinois in the late 1980s. As Willard told NPR in 2012, “I said I’m going to go on and I’m not going to be the cliche, you know, flaming. We played it very real.”

To her further credit, Roseanne actually tried to sell ABC on a spin-off in which Leon and Scott would raise Leon’s teenager daughter. Her hope was to have Don Knotts and RuPaul play the intergenerational, interracial couple next door. Could you imagine that?!?! (Unsurprisingly, ABC didn’t think viewers would be interested in a show about a gay couple, as reported by Steven Capsuto in his book, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television.)

This is the main problem with the new season of the show. While Roseanne the series is still inspired by the experiences and identities of Roseanne and her family, her perspective is no longer progressive, refreshing or meaningfully inclusive. Sure, Darlene’s son likes to wear dresses, and Roseanne and Dan support him in different ways, if begrudgingly at first. But besides feeling more overtly topical in construction than the most politically potent episodes of past seasons (meaning the pill wasn’t hidden in the pudding, the pill was the pudding), the storyline read as classic “pinkwashing” to me, meant to minimize or assuage Roseanne’s support for Trump and — both the character’s and the comedienne’s.

“It’s always cool to have a show where there are conversations that show real viewpoints, but at the same time, what are the viewpoints we want to be talking about right now?” asks Michelle Badillo, one of my best friends, a fellow original Roseanne stan and a staff writer and story editor on Norman Lear’s Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time, on which the Latina teen protagonist’s coming-out story is largely based on Badillo’s own experiences. (Badillo is Puerto Rican and Argentinian who was raised Jewish.) “The stuff about Trump voters is always like, ‘What could these white people be thinking? We need to hear from them!’ But it’s like, ‘We’ve always been hearing from them.’ We haven’t heard enough of what an immigrant’s perspective on immigration is, and I don’t think it’s as important to hear about how white people who aren’t immigrants feel about it.”

“Nobody’s listening to the Muslim elegy or the DACA elegy. There’s a double standard,” adds Wajahat Ali, a writer, lawyer and columnist for the New York Times focusing on “religion, family life and politics in America.” “When Roseanne first came out, the show gave people a refreshing window into domestic life in the Rust Belt. Today, the problem is that people ask, ‘How come no one listens to the angry white man anymore?’ instead of, ‘What about the poor immigrant of the Rust Belt?’ If the voice isn’t critical enough, a show like this today could create the sense of an equal playing field where there’s not equivalence.”

Nor is the rebooted Roseanne progressive because it shows white people with slightly different political beliefs arguing over Trump. Case in point: Aunt Jackie, the show’s token “liberal,” repeatedly expresses her support for the troops when addressing DJ, Roseanne’s son who is fresh home from Syria. In this moment, the idea that Jackie is the show’s great political foil totally lost its credibility — what “progressive” do you know supports the U.S. intervention in the Middle East? A pink pussy hat doesn’t help either. All that shows is that Jackie is a Hillary fanatic more obsessed with her own plight than that of others (Syrians, for starters).

“I grew up in the 1980s, and in the 1980s, Muslim was like this brown bouillabaisse of evil in the Middle East,” says Ali, who a couple of years ago wrote “What I Learned Trying to Write a Muslim-American Cop Show for HBO” in The Atlantic, recounting his experiences trying to sell and produce a show with a Muslim hero for a major network. (The show, about a Yemeni family in the Bay Area, was centered around MJ, a cop and Berkeley graduate (like Ali) who was bad with a gun.) “Chuck Norris killed swathes of us in Delta Force. Even in Back to the Future, all of a sudden Libyan terrorists pop up out of nowhere. Then Aladdin in 1992. If you remember the first 30 seconds of the movie, which Disney has since cut out, the song lyrics went, ‘If they don’t like your face, they cut off your nose. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.’ Growing up, you’re just rooting for the good guy, and in my case, the good guy never looked like me.”

I’ve heard a rumor from someone who attended a taping of the new season that an upcoming episode involves Roseanne calling her Muslim neighbor a slur, only for the neighbor to later do something that helps Roseanne, earning them humanity in her eyes. If true, this would certainly romanticize her hate in a scary way. After all, Lanford, Illinois, may not be a real place, but a vocal Nazi, Arthur Jones, is currently a candidate supported by Trump voters in Illinois. It’s 2018. Don’t we need stories that create more empathy for the people attacked by oppressive candidates than stories that create empathy for those who voted for those policies?

That’s why Badillo says she feels the same about Roseanne right now as she does certain family members: “I think about them, or idolize them, in one way, and then in other ways, I reject their values. Roseanne says these foul things, but then five minutes later, she says some other things — and we’re all confused by what it is she actually believes. After watching the first couple episodes of this season, I guess the only hope left would be that she’s pulling the biggest bait-and-switch ever. ”

As for me, I’d be lying if I said that when Season 10 premiered a few weeks ago, it wasn’t helpful for my family. My aunt was sick, and my uncle had called earlier in the day to tell me she wasn’t expected to live much longer. My dad already knew about his little sister’s condition, but my uncle was calling to share the update with my mom and I so my dad could be properly supported. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to say as we played the worst kind of waiting game, and my mom was even more tongue-tied. (Like I said, we don’t do a good job of talking about the hard stuff; we’re better at laughing about it later.)

So instead of hiding away from the awkward sadness and gloomy anticipation, I joined my mom and dad in watching the new Roseanne. We sat there around the TV, as we always have, ignoring the elephant in the room, and watched the family we once saw ourselves in experience life in 2018. My favorite moment was when the show cut to a commercial, and my dad, who had been more or less quiet to that point, reacted to Dan’s emotional reaction to Becky’s decision to act as a surrogate. “What’s he getting all bent out of shape about?” my dad asked, agitated.

He was truly confused by the fact that a father would have an opinion about his daughter’s reproductive life. And while I sat there coming to terms with how far away Roseanne had drifted from the progressive legacy I once loved her for, it was nice to see my own family inching toward our own.