The message of this whole sorry episode is not that we need to stop listening to the white working class. The real lesson is that we need to start
In the current uproar in the US over the abrupt cancellation of ABC’s hit TV show Roseanne because of a racist tweet by the show’s star Roseanne Barr, few have mentioned a crucial fact. Cancellation deprives American television of one of the only sympathetic depictions of white working-class life in the past half century – in other words, since television began.
In a study of over 400 primetime American domestic situation comedies between 1948 and 2016, Richard Butsch found that only about 10% featured working-class families. Roseanne’s husband in the series’ first run was a drywall installer, but 90% of “sitcoms” involve upper middle class characters, from Father Knows Best in the 1950s to The Cosby Show in the 1980s to its contemporary remake Blackish. In the earlier shows, the male hero is slim, handsome and wise, benevolently leading the family and correcting the antics of his children (and sometimes his wife). The later shows typically feature a couple with two high-powered careers, and houses that are well-appointed and immaculate. “A fictional world in which success is so pervasive makes success the expected norm,” notes Busch perceptively.
The few blue-collar families are very different. The formula was set early on by The Honeymooners in the 1950s. Of course the family’s not successful: the husband is a loveable but inept bumbler saved from his poor judgment by his wiser wife. This formula was carried on virtually unchanged in cartoon series from The Flintstones in the 1960s to The Simpsons and Family Guy, which started in 1989 and 1999, respectively, and are still running. In the 1970s, All in the Family tweaked the formula: the father, Archie Bunker, was still dim-witted and fat but also irascible, narrow-minded, racist and sexist, often corrected by his wiser, college-bound son-in-law. But key elements remained: blue-collar men are depicted as failures both at life and at masculinity, with children and often wives more intelligent than they. Their slovenly, overweight bodies are emblematic of their lack of mature self-control.
Enter Roseanne. The original version was hailed for its gritty, working-class feminism and its frank depiction of a family living paycheck-to-paycheck in the deindustrialized midwest. Roseanne abandoned the blue-collar bungler stereotype and provided a rare non-insulting depiction of working-class families in American television. (Another, The Middle, was created in 2009.)
The Roseanne reboot added now-de-rigueur gay characters and characters of color, but continued the theme of precarity, as its characters struggle with disappointment and loss stemming from lack of decent jobs, pensions, and health insurance. The family home looks much the same as in 1997, with the same tattered couch. “It’s a decorating choice called poverty,” quips one character. The new show also makes an attempt to bridge the bitter divides in American politics, with Roseanne a vocal Trump voter pitted against her pussy-hatted sister Jackie. (Pussy hats emerged in the post-election women’s marches in which signs proclaimed: “Trump take note: this pussy grabs back.”)
Did the network do the right thing when it canceled Roseanne? Yes. The tweet in question compared an accomplished former member of the Obama administration to an ape. Americans have a history here. In our constitution, slaves were counted (with bizarre precision) as three-fifths of a person. Americans have had to work incredibly hard to get from that unseemly start to a society that sees and rejects the vicious racism in treating African Americans as subhuman. The contemporary stigma against racism in America is one of my country’s crowning achievements – flawed as our execution is, with police killings, mass incarceration, and blocked economic opportunities. The stigma against racism represents progress, and erasing it is unthinkable. No television show is worth going there. Nothing is.
All that said, race is not the only social hierarchy. Disrespectful images of the working-class whites are part and parcel of the cultural disrespect that paved the path for a demagogue like Trump. What my crowd so often misses is that Trump’s outlandish behavior makes him more attractive to many of his supporters. They have given up on government because it has stood by under both Democratic and Republican administrations as the American dream disappeared: virtually all Americans born in the 1940s earned more than their parents; today, it’s less than half. The rust belt revolt that brought both Brexit and Trump reflects rotting factories, dying towns, and a half century of empty promises. Those left behind are very, very angry; Trump is their middle finger. The more he outrages coastal elites, the more his followers gloat they got our goat. Finally, they are being noticed.
The Roseanne revival grew out of all this, as ABC realized it had overlooked a big audience. “We had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country,” commented Channing Dungey, the African American head of ABC Entertainment. Response to the show dramatizes the hunger for non-insulting depictions of working-class life, and conversation across political divides. The first show got 25 million viewers – numbers now unknown on network television. It was ABC’s first hit series in 24 years.
All that said, Barr has a history. This is not the first time she has called a powerful African American an ape; she called Susan Rice one, too, in 2013. Barr also tweeted or retweeted nutty conspiracy theories – that the Boston marathon bombing was an inside job designed to justify an attack on gun rights; that Hilary Clinton was running a sex ring out of a pizza parlor. “You can’t control Roseanne Barr,” ABC/Disney president Ben Sherwood laughed in March. “Many have tried. She’s the one and only.” “I was surprised [ABC] didn’t do anything about it,” said Barr’s ex-husband Tom Arnold, referring to Barr’s Twitter account. “I figured someone would take her phone away, or monitor, because it’s dangerous.” Given that this problem was well-known, I assume that Barr’s Roseanne contract had a morals clause that allowed the network to cancel her show if she spouted off in ways that threatened deep damage to the network’s brand.
This whole sorry situation began long before the election of Donald Trump, with the nigh-erasure of working-class whites in 50 years of sitcoms. That meant that ABC faced precious few candidates for revival once it decided to address the problem. I hope Roseanne’s unhappy end does not mean that we go another 50 years without working-class voices on TV other than demeaning cultural stereotypes. Because the real message of this whole sorry episode, in which many innocent writers and actors are being punished by a single self-indulgent star, is not that we need to stop listening to the white working class. The real lesson is that we need to start.
- Joan C Williams is the author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America
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