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CNN could learn a thing or two about Trump by watching ‘Roseanne’

CNN is in urgent need of counselling. Since the 2016 death of Campaign Clinton, the poor old thing has suffered a collapse. Of course, it’s difficult for any of us to face the real life facts of a death, and we are often given in our grief to magical thinking. When, for example, my dear tabby Eleven passed, I irrationally attributed that end to many forces. Granted, none of them were Putin. Still, I do get how grief can confuse a girl.

I do not, however, understand the ongoing failure of US emergency personnel to save this network from its ongoing personal crisis. We know, of course, that even critical health concerns go untended in that nation, but, surely, the heartbreaking nature of a news channel unable to offer anything more sensible than “Russia!” or “She sliced up Libyans for their own good!” would prompt some pro bono therapy.

Five minutes of Roseanne communicates the shape of the US election more ably and more broadly than any of us fretting leftists.

But, with shrinks yet to volunteer, the delusion that the last Presidential win was not made by US votes but by Russia-Facebook-WikiLeaks takes hold in every program. Even the arts critics at CNN see through the Putin-filter. They can watch a perfectly decent TV sitcom and call it “abrasive”, less than “clever” and “nostalgic”.

Nostalgic? Oh, pot, kettle, CNN. It’s not that newly rebooted sitcom Roseanne is as stuck in the Clinton V.1 nineties so much as you are. The Third Way is over. No one believes compassionate neoliberalism can save us any more and even Francis Fukuyama tore up his own copy of The End of History. Roseanne, soon to debut on Ten here in Australia, is, in fact, quite good and our revulsion for the President, one not shared by the Roseanne character or her creator, doesn’t change that, or make the show unfunny due to “nostalgia”.

It’s true that the multi-camera family sitcom does feel a bit nineties. This is largely down to the fact of it being a multi-camera family sitcom. Yes, it’s very modern to get your kit off in New Wave-style closeup, like Lena Dunham in Girls, or dare to be unfunny without a laugh track, like Chris Lilley for the last ten years. Sure, we with Posh Tastes are habituated to the single-camera and I am completely with Larry David that Seinfeld would have been (even) better if produced for a non-network set-up. But, whatevs, as the kids are no longer wont to say. Big Bang, the Mother show and Will & Grace and that one that stopped being funny when Charlie Sheen left it all look nineties.

All In The Family or Good Times served the seventies with realism and diversity, none of them were able to do so as craftily or for as long as Roseanne.

Anyhow. Who would want to see Roseanne Barr in any context but this choreographed one? She excels in a format that demands the scowl, the gag and the narrative resolution on schedule. What she might do in a freer space is anybody’s guess. The nonconformist comic performer is often at their best when conforming to strict rules.

And, let’s not forget that Barr, however brutally offensive she may appear in social media etc., was a true nonconformist as producer and screenwriter. There was nothing much to match Roseanne on network before the 1988 debut of Roseanne. There are older US sitcoms remarkable for their portrayal not just of everyday working-class life, but of the different cultural groups to survive it. Even as big shows including Taxi, All In The Family or Good Times served the seventies with realism and diversity, none of them were able to do so as craftily or for as long as Roseanne.

Barr and her colleagues got away with a lot of uncomfortable moments and these would provided comfort to many. Or, to me.  By the time Roseanne kissed a girl (Sandra Bernhard) I’d kissed plenty, so I didn’t feel that mass culture reassurance I’m sure that others did. But, when Roseanne discussed the pill with one of her screen kids, it felt so friendly to me. I called my mother to check if she’d seen what felt like a half-hour tribute to our own exchanges on contraception. She had. The bargaining between Becky and Roseanne! The moral bargaining that takes place in the individual heads of working-class mothers and daughters! The pill episode was not some hollow injunction about love, Jesus or Making Him Wait. It was a crass, funny tip of the hat to the crass, funny talk often had between women of the white working-class. Some young women are not raised to disdain sex; there are loads of us eager to enjoy it, and to prepare. There are loads of older women who help us. I just hadn’t seen one, apart from my own mother, until I saw Roseanne.

I’ve no idea how Barr’s unique family survived all those network meetings to make it to TV.

Just how Roseanne did so much lawless stuff is anybody’s guess. Plainly, Barr is an obstinate person who sought to bring us a particular view of life. But, obstinate artists are hardly in short supply. There’s no explaining the the multiple shocks administered by Roseanne.

Feeding the Monster, a 1992 documentary on the sitcom, is, as I recall, a fascinating record, but committed to the Pushy Lady explanation nonetheless. Barr, it suggests, was fuelled to success by righteous ego. Which is probably true, but, name a showrunner who ain’t.  Then, name all the coarse, working-class women who won a primetime slot on the strength of their nagging alone. None, right? Again, there’s no explaining Roseanne. I’ve no idea how Barr’s unique family survived all those network meetings to make it to TV.  The Conners were not noble in their low-income struggle, per recently rebooted One Day at a Time. But, nor were the Conners bigots, per Married With Children. They lacked the virtue of aspiration but had gained the virtue of liberalism—not at all a common vision of the white working-class.

White working-class families are often a load more progressive than the culture industry permits them to be.

CNN gives Roseanne its due as a past defender of social justice, and even suggests that Barr’s once staunch support for oppressed persons, such as those in the LGBTIQ community, was the reason for her show’s 1990s success. (Possibly true. White working-class families are often a load more progressive than the culture industry permits them to be.)  It then argues that the current Barr cannot reproduce this success, due to her fondness for Trump, which, again, is too “nostalgic” to be credible.

Nah. Trump is only as nostalgic as any other demagogue. Yes, he has gained popularity with the dogeared fiction of an all-white all-racist past. No, this does not make him a thing of the past.

Nor does the seeming faith of Dan and Roseanne Conner in Trump make them “nostalgic”. Roseanne the real person may have some cynical Trump thing going on, but the Roseanne character is depicted as entirely naïve. The character’s support for Trump is not morally justified in the show, but it is politically explained. If CNN, and all those other ruling-class outlets, could just hit pause on their nervous breakdown, they might begin to understand how a formerly progressive white working-class woman comes to support Trump.

In episode one—which has eclipsed ratings records in the US—Dan and Roseanne are dividing up their medications. It is clear that their survival is threatened, and it is very clear that theirs was a desperate survivor’s vote for Trump. It is also clear that Aunt Jackie is, likewise, desperately buoyed by hopeless faith. In Democratic Party cosplay—pink pussy hat, pink Nasty Woman shirt—Jackie chides the couple for their failure to vote for the “good” nominee. She reminds them that their health is failing and their medication dwindling due to their own decision. Roseanne counters that Trump was the only nominee who spoke about work, whose security eludes her children, and, my god, all these statements are truer than the news, whether CNN or Fox.

The network sitcom is doing the work major news outlets have abandoned: making sense of the US election outside of two absolute positions.

Five minutes of Roseanne communicates the shape of the US election more ably and more broadly than any of us fretting leftists.  It says: this is a time of economic and political crisis. This is a crisis yet to produce its true solutions.

The new Roseanne has been widely criticised as transphobic by outlets who take the typical anything-close-to-Trump is bad liberal view.  In episode two of this new season, the young Conner grandson prefers an ambiguous gender presentation when he dresses each morning for school. Even as popular writer Roxane Gay seems, unlike others, prepared to concede that Roseanne’s advice to the little boy–basically “be true to who you are and wear a skirt if it feels right”—is not transphobic, she is unable to approve it due to Roseanne Barr’s vote, “for a president who actively works against the transgender community”.

The Trump-triggered nervous breakdown endured by pro-Clinton media appears to make TV criticism pretty tricky. Perhaps there is a learned interpretation of the scene in which a little boy who wants to wear a skirt is praised for wearing a skirt. Perhaps this scene is not, as I see it, a lesson in the absurdity of gender convention, but transphobic. Such argument has not been yet made in any mainstream publication. The feelgood scene is simply dismissed as bigotry due to either (a) its writer’s public bigotry or (b) the little boy’s identification as a little boy. Liberal critics, it seems, would have preferred him to transition. Perhaps ambiguity of any kind is not currently tolerated in the USA.

Roseanne is not the funniest thing on TV. It is, however, ambiguous. However inflexible Roseanne Barr may be—I was not personally aware she’d become a blaring Trumpet, thought she was still some pro-pot libertarian—her work is not.

The network sitcom is doing the work major news outlets have abandoned: making sense of the US election outside of two absolute positions.

19 responses to “CNN could learn a thing or two about Trump by watching ‘Roseanne’

  1. The real tragedy here is that Small Wonder still hasn’t been remade.

    A robot child pretending to be an adopted daughter? In Trump’s America? With Russian and Chinese cyber wars? And now Trump’s tariffs? The thing basically writes itself and would make both sides of politics’ heads explode. Not to mention Marx would’ve loved the idea of free mechanised labour creating more free time for the workers.

    Screw it. I’ll write it myself.

  2. Sam: Roseanne the person is not racist or anti-Semitic – she is in fact Jewish. Your sweeping judgements of the “other” side confirm what Helen Razer has been saying since November 2016.

    1. Roseanne the person is undeniably anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-Palestinian, and pro-Israel (after she wasn’t). Her comments about Jews who are not Zionists are on record. Just because she’s Jewish doesn’t mean she can’t be anti-semitic.

  3. Roseanne is not the funniest thing on TV.
    That was my opinion of the original show. Actually, I considered it was lacking in humour altogether. Thanks to your comment I shall be able to avoid the new version without any regret.

  4. Sam, judging by the authoritative tone of your letter regarding ‘realities’, ‘motivations’ etc and your last paragraphs’ “no one voted for Trump without one of those” I’m guessing that you either have a God complex or simply believe you know the minds of everyone who voted in the election in question? Either way you are coming across as dinosaur-like and white-male like as that section of society that you appear to detest.

    1. My authoritative tone is no different from Helen’s, Felipe. The difference is that I live and work here in the United States, which, I would suggest, gives me a slightly broader picture of this country’s people than that of an Australian watching CNN and reading various blogs. I have spoken to many, many Trump voters. Have you? Has she? Have either of you spent any time in Alabama? Michigan? Colorado? Even New York? Well, I have.

      I may be a dinosaur, but I am not oblivious to the reasons that some of my own colleagues, who have never voted Republican in their lives, voted for Trump. Those same people were fine with a black president, they just hate Mexicans. I know why some of my Democratic friends didn’t vote for Clinton – not because of neo-liberalism, let me assure you, but because she was THAT woman. They just “didn’t trust her” (but they trusted Trump?)

      All I am saying is that Helen makes assumptions as to why people voted for Trump that are not borne out by my experience, or those experiences of almost everyone else I know with whom I have discussed this. In fact, she’s dead wrong. So while she may be partly right, she’s also just as deluded as the media she criticises. Their theories are just that. At least I have a sample size.

  5. Roseanne, the person and the show, convincingly “play” domineering, deplorable bullies. That they have appropriated Trump as a hero is no surprise. The show offers its creator another opportunity to extract wealth from its naive subjects/viewers. Otherwise, it is empty, the perfect show in the shadow of Facebook.

  6. Helen, I feel compelled to once again chime in on your analysis of US politics. Let’s leave aside the Roseanne issue for a second, because what you’re really saying in this article is what you’ve been saying since November 2016:

    1. People voted for Trump because they were voting against neo-liberalism. If we don’t get that, we’re idiots and destined to repeat.
    2. CNN fails to understand this truism, and thus clings to Russia and racism to make itself feel better / relevant / superior.

    Roseanne the show is not significantly different from Roseanne the person. She can argue all she likes that her character voted for Trump (like the person did) because of hatred of Clinton, or jobs, or whatever. But Roseanne the person is a racist and anti-semite. You can’t separate the racism from the voter, just like you can’t separate the misogyny from Trump (“There is no one with greater respect for women than me”). Roseanne the character voted for Trump for the same reasons Roseanne the actor did – which, by extension, is inseparable from their racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.

    Like your criticism of CNN, the sitcom is thus making sense of the US election by glossing over the reality. As CNN tries to figure out why people don’t understand climate change, or why they cling to their guns, they miss the complex reality: racism, xenophobia, sexism.

    And by not calling out those realities, of what motivated those people to go out and vote for this dude – not love of Trump, not jobs, not healthcare; but sexism, racism, xenophobia and dog whistles – both the sitcom and CNN are equally off base.

    You say the election was “complex”, but you dismiss the complexities: the reality of Russian interference (and no, that’s not collusion; and no, that’s not fake news), the inanity of the electoral college, the whiteness of Trump’s base, the deep-seated hatred of women in our society, the oppression of African-American voters, an impending tax cut for the rich, a devolving regulatory system, etc.

    It wasn’t any one of these things, it was lots of them. And, just to be clear, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Because no one voted for Trump without one of those, too. That, Helen, is the kicker.

    1. Sam, that is a long, long bow you’re drawing. Trump was elected because there was/is a longing for change in the USA. His victory against Clinton came from a deep well of resentment, from enough voters, to carry him to the presidency.
      Racism, xenophobia, sexism are not exclusive to Americans. The Hillary camp thought to win by assumption, assumption that she is a better person than Trump. Maybe she is but not enough people trusted her. Ergo, she lost.
      American Liberalism needs to take a deep breath and look at reality.

      1. I don’t disagree with you, Brum, at least in some cases. Resentment was the cause. But Helen thinks that resentment was primarily against neo-liberal economic policies. I do not. I think it was also against immigrants, Jews, Muslims, women, and people of colour.

        And, going further, I feel comfortable saying that almost every Trump voter is either racist, xenophobic, or sexist. In addition to anything else. Because I have met many of them. They don’t couch it in terms of hating women (just “that” woman); or in hating Mexicans (“But that NAFTA sent all our jobs to Mexico”); or hating immigrants (“but those Muslims come here and want to destroy our freedoms”) – I could go on.

        You know this in Australia – as you say, it’s not exclusive to the USA. How did Howard stay in power? How did Abbott destroy Gillard? Did Howard keep winning because the country was “relaxed and comfortable”? Or because of fear mongering? Or maybe a bot of both?

        Talk to a Trump voter, who isn’t a media personality. Ask them why they voted for him. I think you’ll be very surprised.

        1. I was travelling the US midwest in 2015 and 2016 and also spoke with many Trump supporters. Not many had a great belief or liking for him but many, many hated the idea they were supposed to vote Democrat for the female factor, the fairness factor and “better the devil you know” factor. They did not buy into those reasons. And I don’t believe they were driven by issues of gender, race or religion. I think Americans are motivated by the same things we all want. Security, happiness and a better world for their kids.
          I was convinced DT would win by mid 2015.

          1. Anyone who voted for Trump on the basis of security, happiness, and a better world for their kids did so because Trump was going to stop Mexicans or Islam or a woman from taking power. I am not judging their motives; I am simply saying that you can’t take out the racism, sexism, or xenophobia from the decision-making process – whether they tell you that or not.

        2. FFS, Sam. Read some history. It’ll save us both time.
          In times of economic hardship for the masses, demagogues are wont to stir up hate politics to give real-life resentment a focus, one that is either fictional or has some historical basis.
          It’s not either/or. I didn’t say it was.
          You’re boring me with your insistence on taking one view or the other.
          Two things are possible at once.
          Jog on if you’re going to keep repeating yourself. Plenty of places where people will agree with your “white working class is racist and bad” assessment.
          Racism is a tool of the powerful inserted in the consciousness of the many over time. Clintons were pretty good at wielding it, too, incidentally.

          1. Sorry, Helen, I thought it was you who was insisting on the “either / or”. I agree it’s a combination of many, many things, but I am under the impression that you and some of your readers won’t accept that racism, sexism and xenophobia were and are INTEGRAL to the decision to support Trump, by the working class, or the middle class, or the rich.

            I have never suggested that the white working class is racist. Just those people, of whatever class, that voted for Trump. Many more working class people voted Democrat, let’s not forget. Just not as many white men.

            And I am not for a second going to suggest that the Clintons weren’t racist.

            Where we seem to disagree is the role of neo-liberalism in the election result. If you think that Trump was elected by the working class masses, rising up with anger about neo-liberal economic policies in favor of the deeply conservative, reactionary policies espoused by the GOP, you’re very, very wrong. They responded to racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

            As for that history lesson, it’s the middle classes that start the revolution, not the working classes. That’s why it hasn’t come yet.

          2. And lest there be some confusion among your readers as to the “two things happening at once”, this is from the non-partisan Pew Research Center, in the week after the election:

            – 79% of Trump voters said illegal immigration was a “very big” problem in the country today, while 20% of Clinton voters said the same.
            – 74% of Trump supporters saw Islamic terrorism as a very big problem, compared with 42% of Clinton supporters.
            – 53% of Clinton voters said racism was a major problem in America, and 37% said that about sexism. That compared with 21% and 7%, respectively, among Trump voters.

            Now, if someone voted for Trump, and thus likely believes that neither racism nor sexism is much of a problem, and immigration is a “very big” problem, do you believe them when they say they are neither racist or sexist or anti-immigrant? In America, FFS?

          3. Slice and dice it any way you will, Sammy. More than half of the working population of the US earned less than 30K at the time of Trump’s election.
            Private debt and its hardship afflicted those in higher income groups.
            You can keep saying that there is some enormous middle class in the US if you will . Dream on, dreamer. There’s not. The majority of people in the US live a hard life. The experience is one of poverty. If you reckon that this is not a fact, I admire your ability to fantasise.

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