A while ago Mr. Larue and I were discussing a certain Twitter/Tumblr-er who is reportedly writing a TV pilot. Mr. L was going about how unique she is because she was able to translate her experience as a mother into a comedy writing career. “It’s unheard of!” he gushed. “Name one other obscure housewife who has been given her own show.” I thought for a minute and replied “Roseanne Barr.”
After a six-year career as a stand-up comic, domestic goddess and mother of three (not counting a baby that she had given up for adoption and later reunited with, as well as a now-teenage son that she had with her third husband) Roseanne Barr launched her sitcom Roseanne in 1987 and changed the face of network TV. Roseanne wasn’t the first show to feature a working-class family and it also wasn’t the first to showcase a feminist protagonist. But I can’t think of another program that was created by a working-class housewife that focused on the reality of her own life. It’s also worth mentioning that Barr didn’t (and still doesn’t) look like a typical Hollywood starlet and never once apologized for her weight, her loudness or her opinions.
Barr is also topical right now because she’s being doing the talk show rounds (perhaps you saw her on Oprah) to promote her new book Roseannearchy. I uploaded the book to my Kindle and wasn’t too surprised by what I read. A lifelong feminist, Barr describes being raised by her two Jewish grandmothers, growing up as a chubby girl, obsessing over religion and theology, yearning to prove to the world how special and talented she was, marrying young, having children, being part of a feminist collective as a young mother and housewife, becoming famous and leaving her husband for Tom Arnold. She also describes the loneliness that fame brought, the emptiness that needed to be filled after an abusive childhood (at one point in her life she accused her father of incest, a term that she now rescinds), the pain that she felt when her public turned on her, and her struggles with mental illness.
Unlike a lot of mainstream female comedians both pioneering and of more recent generations, Barr self-identifies as a feminist and tries to be conscientious about the way she presents herself as such. This does not mean that she is politically correct – I don’t think it’s really possible to be a comedian and not toe the line between funny and offensive and she is, after all, Roseanne Barr. Throughout her book and what I remember from her act in the “˜80s and “˜90s, Barr does say some things that make me a little uneasy. As a person who is neither Jewish nor dealing with substantial mental health issues, I won’t pass judgment on the way that she talks about these aspects of her life, though I could see people taking issue with some of her language. There are a few points, political and otherwise that I disagree with (I’m sure Roseanne and I could have a very lively discussion regarding her support of Mike Tyson), but for the most part Barr’s message is about empowering oneself and being compassionate towards others. And for that, she has my respect.
Though she blogs regularly and is developing a reality show (and just published this book), Barr has been lying relatively low these days, living on a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii. Which means it’s about time that another domestic goddess makes her way from her modest home into the public consciousness. And I’m glad that “regular” women are speaking to the masses via blogs and Twitter. Just remember that Roseanne beat them to it and she did it much, much louder.
Book cover photo courtesy of Roseanneworld.com
13 replies on “Before the Mommybloggers, We Had Roseanne”
I just started rewatching this series from the beginning on Netflix. It is so brilliant. There hasn’t been anything like it before or since.
The themes are all there, right from the first episode: that Roseanne is a working, working-class mom who cares about her family at the same time she wishes she could find two seconds for herself — that not having flexibility in her work means financial stress and stress about fulfilling her “mom” role — that she has to deal with expectations of the second shift and “women’s work” after she gets off her day job and that creates tension between her and Dan — but that they are also sexually attracted to each other, love each other, and have fun together, even if they aren’t Hollywood-pretty or Hollywood-weight. They’re adorable. AND she’s funny as hell. (“You know the fastest way to a man’s heart, don’t you?” “Yeah, through his chest.”)
I miss the feminist sitcom women of the late 80s-early 90s: Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Julia Sugarbaker…
I love Rosanne and I loved the show. I was Darlene’s age when the show premiered. I can not begin to tell you how many people stopped me in the hall in high school to tell me that Darlene wore combat boots to her prom and they thought of me. (I was a famous combat boot-wearer.)
The feminist tones of the show are pretty apparent to me, but we should also take a moment to recognize that it was one of the last shows to accurately depict working class living on television. My friends and I were able to recognize ourselves in the characters on the show — I had a throw like the one the Conners kept on their couch and I recognized the outfits that Darlene and Becky would wear. There’s something really powerful about seeing practical feminism set in a life that many people could identify with.
I can’t think of any show on the air now where the ‘poor’ or ‘working’ class character resemble anything I can recognize
Hmm, it’s funny because when I wrote this I was trying to think of shows about working class Americans that came *before* Roseanne and I could think of a few. Sitcoms seemed to be set in modest houses and apartments all the time in the ’70s and early ’80s. But it didn’t cross my mind that not very many shows about working class families came *after* Roseanne.
Well after Rosanne even shows about working class people like ‘Reba’ or ‘King of Queens’ clad their characters in expensive ‘normal’ clothes and lived in huge houses that were well decorated, and inconveniences like a car breaking down was a 1-episode story.
Remember when Dan’s business went under and Rosanne worked 3 jobs for, like, two seasons? And Dan worked 2 jobs? And they shopped at thrift stores? And worse the same clothes over and over again? I seriously cannot think of another show since then like that.
Which is one of my pet peeves about most TV shows and movies. Characters are supposed to be “poor” but they’re living in homes that would cost more than half a million dollars in most places in the country. And then they show an exterior shot of the house to show how crappy it is and it’s about three thousand square feet and in great condition. No wonder so many people take insane mortgages and buy homes that are far beyond their means when TV is teaching us that unless you live in a million dollar house you’re existing in miserable squalor.
Sorry, totally off topic, but your point about Dan and Roseanne’s financial woes going on for years is spot on.
ETA: And I always loved the way they set decorated the Connor’s house. It looks like a real home.
Also, fun fact: Joss Whedon was a writer for Roseanne! (just the first season I believe)
Whenever I would take those “What TV mom are you most like” quizzes I would always get Roseanne, and I am totally comfortable with that.
Also Amy Sherman-Palladino and according to Roseanne’s book, Judd Apatow. Not quite as awesome: Tom Arnold.
I believe he penned the awesome poem Darlene “writes” beginning “To whom it concerns.”
I read an interview with Amy Sherman Palladino once who said it was like TV boot camp–one of the most demanding showrunners she ever worked under, but an amazing learning experience.
Yes yes yes! The entire Roseanne series just became available on Netflix Watch Instantly. I caught them in reruns as a teenager when I totally identified with Darlene and now I enjoy the episodes from Roseanne’s POV. Especially poignant is how Season 4/5 deals with the Conner family’s money problems. I just saw the episode where they get their lights shut off for non-payment and Roseanne says, “Well, middle class was fun.” Very funny and still relevant to what middle America is going through right now.
Being a young’un, I never really watched Roseanne–I was just too young for the storylines, even though I probably would have related a lot had I been even five years older.
As people are talking about it again and it’s come into the Netflix listings, I’ve been thinking about diving in.
You really should! The first six or so seasons are the best, and it famously went completely off the rails in the last season, but I promise you’ll laugh yourself silly.
You absolutely should! There are also reruns on every night. I was a little young to really “get it” during it’s original run (since I was born in 1986) but I remember watching reruns in the ’90s and liking it. I’ve since started watching it more avidly in the past year or so and it’s really a great show.
I remember thinking something like this last fall, when there was that Marie Claire magazine blogger’s clusterfuck about that show Mike and Molly? About how OMG so gross to see FAT PEOPLE making out on TV? (link, shakesville coverage) Because one of the things I really appreciated about Roseanne was that it made me feel like Rosanne and Dan genuinely loved AND were attracted to each other, and specifically that Dan thought she was beautiful–and as someone who remains unconvinced that anyone finds ME beautiful, that still really affects me,
I also think the episode where Darlene gets her first period is one of my favorite half-hours of TV, ever–not just sitcoms, not just “feminist” topics, just across the board. So many hilariously realized lines (“Mom kept bringing home pamphlets from the Red Cross. . .for two weeks I thoughtn what I had was a national disaster!”, Dan punching her in the shoulder and saying “. . .Way to go!?!”) and then the end when Roseanne stops Darlene from throwing away her baseball stuff and says “You think I make Becky wear makeup and pantyhose? She does it because that’s the kind of woman SHE wants to be,” still makes me all verklempt.