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Why I’m Giving Roseanne Barr the Side-Eye

In Roseanne Barr’s recent article for New York Magazine the actress recounts her years as the star of the ’80s laugh-track sitcom Roseanne and how, contrary to her reputation, she found fame to be the real bitch along with all the bitches in the television industry that will tear you down, rip you off and sell you out.

Most of what she wrote I don’t doubt for a second, least of all that Roseanne Barr knows from Hollywood crazy. What I do doubt is the portrait that she paints of herself as a “feminist pioneer,” or perhaps more accurately her assumptions about what a feminist pioneer is. Because that’s not how I remember it at all.

Throughout the article Barr makes a number of conspicuously awkward attempts to insinuate that she has some kind of credibility in or particular affinity for Black culture. First there’s the Dave Chapelle shout-out, which ok”¦they’re both comics and it’s relevant to the topic of celebrity driving someone off the rails. But then there’s the bit about “cutting” “white bitches” and the random shout-out to her “favorite” cameraman from the show who it is important we know was “African-American.” There’s also a bit of fawning praise over The Cosby Show, which to me seems most ironic.

When Roseanne debuted in 1988 I was 9 years old. The Cosby Show had been on TV for 4 years and along with the rise of Spike Lee, afrocentric trends in fashion and dance and the global celebrity of a handsome young entertainer from my Dad’s hometown of Gary, Indiana it painted a picture for me of what intelligent, charismatic, enterprising people of color could achieve in the world and how excited the world was to receive these gifts. With one honking, flatulent laugh Roseanne Barr signaled a cultural sea change that would end all that.

Roseanne is apparently intent on taking all the credit for the concept behind her show but perhaps she would like to reconsider. In fact, it is probably reasonable to surmise that Carsey-Werner and/or NBC were already looking for a show that would even out their demographics and keep them from losing their White audience as A Different World spun off and Black folks began to take over the Thursday night prime time line-up. Either way, Roseanne was the answer. She was to The Cosby Show what Sarah Palin was to Barack Obama in 2008: a folksy, anti-intellectual, rube unable to control her ill-mannered children that made lower/middle class White people who were probably never destined for private colleges or professional titles feel good about themselves. Suddenly Blackness and sophistication were out. Being a crass, wise-cracking cracker and lazily mocking ambition was the new way to be cool.

For all Roseanne Barr’s self-congratulation on breaking barriers by masterminding “television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom” – an accomplishment with which Diahann Carroll might reasonably disagree – it bears noting that in nine seasons there was only ONE character of color who appeared more than ten times (at that he was a minor character with very few lines and even if you count extras it’s still only up to four). If Roseanne really did manage to gain creative control over the show in later seasons, such that she could fire people she disliked at her whim, could she not have also hired more actors of color? Did she have trouble figuring out where they would fit into a plot narrative about working class people? If she really did consider The Cosby Show to be “some of the greatest and most revolutionary TV ever,” why did she not continue to promote the revolution? For all the talk in her article about sexism and classism and “Patriarchal Consumerist Bullshit” she never discusses the fucked up dynamics of race in Hollywood, which incidentally is at least 51% of what drove Dave Chapelle out of the business. For all her power fist-raising she conveniently neglects to mention the fact that her show’s eclipse of The Cosby Show meant less work and less visibility for actors of color at the time, including those who were women.

But somehow I don’t think these concepts have entirely escaped her. One thing I learned about Roseanne Barr from this article is that she is a great writer and not at all unintelligent. It seems instead like she belatedly noticed this glaring stain on her record and hastily, guiltily tried to gloss over it with shallow platitudes, appropriated jargon and painstakingly nonchalant references to her Black friends.

(Then again there was the Hitler thing, so maybe she’s just another privileged, narcissistic White woman with no perspective on other people’s struggles.)

While I admire any woman who achieves her level of success in a male-dominated industry I still have a big problem with those who claim to champion a feminist cause while simultaneously marginalizing or altogether ignoring women of color. Just as Roseanne says she distrusts male-oriented women in positions of power who serve as the tools of the Patriarchy, so do I distrust White women in positions of power who serve as tools of racial hegemony. They may “present themselves as sisters in arms”¦” but “”¦they are never friends to other women [of color], you can trust me on that.”

And I should know.

26 replies on “Why I’m Giving Roseanne Barr the Side-Eye”

I did as you suggested. I checked quite a few on-line references for etymology, definition and uses for the word cracker. Cracker seems to be widely defined as a pejorative referring to poor whites in the southern United States, synonymous with ‘redneck’ or ‘hillbilly’ and in a broader geographical use as derogatory term for white people in general, synonymous with ‘white trash’. The use of the word cracker as a slur dates as far back the American Revolution. I also read there is a theory that suggests cracker was used in Elizabethan English to denote a braggart or someone who was boastful for entertainment. However, that particular possible meaning of the word wasn’t mentioned for contemporary use on any of the sites I visited.

If you know of a more detailed or explanatory site for me to visit, I would love to check it out. However, based on what I’ve read so far I’m still surprised to see you call a white woman ‘cracker’ in article that decries that same woman for racial insensitivity. Even if you intended ‘cracker’ to be read as meaning a braggart, given the fact that particular (and perhaps only theoretical) meaning of the word is so far out of date that most readers wouldn’t know it and the fact that the contemporary meaning of the word is a racial slur, it strikes me as insensitivity of the same sort you are railing against.

http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2007/10/down_memory_land_to_tobacco_road.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cracker_(pejorative)

“Cracker seems to be widely defined as a pejorative referring to poor whites in the southern United States, synonymous with ‘redneck’ or ‘hillbilly’ and in a broader geographical use as derogatory term for white people in general, synonymous with ‘white trash’.”

Well despite the fact that the show is set in Ohio, poor White redneck culture is precisely what the show was glamorizing and celebrating. I note that you (conveniently?) left out a particularly relevant section of the Wikipedia entry:

“”Cracker” has also been used as a proud or jocular self-description. With the huge influx of new residents from the North, “cracker” is used informally by some white residents of Florida and Georgia (“Florida cracker” or “Georgia cracker”) to indicate that their family has lived there for many generations.”

I think you can safely call the depiction of working class White culture in Roseanne “jocular”. And if you look at the sentence in which I use the word it is the self-referential pride to which I am directly referring. To wit: the effect of the series Roseanne was to make White people happy to claim and identify with everything that term implies.

You are right. I didn’t reference native Georgians or Floridians calling themselves ‘cracker’. But it wasn’t out of convenience. Honestly, I didn’t even consider it because it does not apply to this argument. The fact that one group of people decide to take a slur and use it to describe themselves does not justify someone not of that group using the same slur against them. I think Meghan Williams put it best in her post “The Etymology of Slurs”.

In her post, Ms. Williams is referring specifically to the ableist use of the word ‘retard’, but she quite deftly addresses the re-appropriation of slurs by specific groups:

If those who actually have intellectual disabilities want to reappropriate the word, then they are free to do so—but they are the only people who can make that decision, just as members of the GLBT community were the only ones who could decide to reappropriate “queer,” and African-American people are the only ones who can reappropriate the n-word. It has to be on their terms, not the terms of some slacker who wants to get away with failing to take the 2.5 seconds it requires to think of another word and lend some gravity to the feelings of others.

Another reason that selection from Wikipedia is not relevant to this argument is the very specific geographic use it describes. Those white natives of Florida and Georgia use the term to show that they and their family have been in a very specific geographic location for generations. As you point out, the Roseanne Show was set in Ohio and Ms. Barr herself is from Utah. Not Florida. Not Georgia. It seems to me you are suggesting that just because Floridians and Georgians call themselves Florida or Georgia Crackers makes it okay to use ‘cracker’ to describe Roseanne. That argument doesn’t hold water.

While I do agree with the salient points of your article, I still believe using a racial slur to describe a woman you are accusing of racial insensitivity is in itself racially insensitive and hypocritical. Also, I believe, it takes away from the depth and strength of your anlysis making it seem more like mud-slinging.
Even if , as you say, “the effect of the series Roseanne was to make White people happy to claim and identify with everything that term implies”, does not give you the license to use that racial slur to describe the woman or the character.

I think, as a white lady myself, that it’s a stretch to call “cracker” a racial slur. Other slurs represent centuries of oppression, discrimination and othering. On the using-words-to-discriminate continuum, “cracker” is somewhere around “blabbermouth” and “four eyes”.

I’m struggling to find the right words to say this next part, so forgive me if it’s clunky, but I think a little humility on the part of those of us without centuries of horrid treatment because of who we are can go a long way. For all the racial slurs white people have invented, we can and probably should tolerate being called crackers.

As a caucasian woman I don’t see why I should have to tolerate being called a cracker. Just as I don’t think any person of any race should tolerate any sort of racial slur.

If I heard someone of a different race or even another white person call me a cracker I would be seriously offended and highly pissed off.

Just because there are morons out there who come up with offensive racial slurs doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it and you shouldn’t either!

Selena, I can appreciate where you are coming from and I don’t think your comment was clunky at all, but I don’t really agree. I think a racial slur is any derogatory word or comment aimed at a specific racial group. ‘Cracker’ isn’t a general use put down. Its an offensive term used to describe white people. Therefore, at least I believe, it is a racial slur.

As for the second part of your comment, I myself am struggling with how to form my thoughts. I think that tolerating the use of racially hateful or disparaging words for any group or by any group is wrong and does us all a disservice. It propagates not only hate and antagonism, but a belief that that sort of behavior is acceptable on some level. I do not think it is acceptable on any level.

This next part I’m afraid is going to come out all wrong, so forgive me if you will. I can tolerate being called a cracker, but that doest not make it right. I have all the respect and reverence that can be brought from the depths of my soul for the depravations suffered by people of different color, people of different ethnicity or heritage, people of different parenting, ability or lifestyle choices than the ‘mainsteam’ of which I am a product. However, debasing myself, denying my own right to pride of person, does not redress the wrongs of the past or present. How can I honor and respect others unless I honor and respect myself? I would not tolerate the use of a racial slur used against others, so how then can I tolerate a racial slur used against me (and I’m not saying MizJenkins called me a cracker, I’m just soapboxing)? How can I expect myself to act, speak or think with integrity and respect if I do not expect the same from anyone (and everyone) else? If we strive for equality, it must be a two way street. I respect my fellow human beings so I expect their respect in return; I expect my fellow human beings to respect me (me, the person, regardless of the history that may have lead to me) so I will respect my fellow human beings. If one side of that coin is diminished, the whole looses value.

I read the New York magazine article a few days ago and really liked it; I immediately added Roseanne to my Netflix Instant queue after reading it. I appreciate the alternative perspective in this piece, but I think that it is perhaps being unnecessarily harsh on “Roseanne,” the show. “Roseanne” may not have depicted as much racial diversity as would be ideal, but I think it is noteworthy and commendable for its depiction of class issues, as well as for having a not-stereotypically-attractive woman as its star. And it is so amazing to see a blue collar family that dressed like a blue collar family! (It would always drive me nuts that Lorelai Gilmore is supposed to not have so much money in the early seasons of Gilmore Girls, but she and Rory are always wearing Marc Jacobs and the like). One could also complain that The Cosby Show did not pay enough attention to immigration, or class issues, but I think most would agree that those are nit-picky criticisms. The Wire is one of my favorite shows, not just for its craft, but also for its deft handling of race and class. I’d love to have seen Simon & Burns deal with gender, but they didn’t, and I think it would be short-sided of me to dismiss the great and revolutionary things about the show just because they didn’t*.

*It should be noted that Roseanne is no The Wire. Nothing is!

I absolutely agree with the article that Roseanne’s cast was lacking in diversity–that wasn’t clear in my original post. What I was responding to was what I saw as an implicit assumption in the article, that racial diversity is the only or the most important way to judge the politics of a show. Roseanne had crummy race politics, but I still think its gender & class politics were ahead of its time and I enjoy it for that.

To be clear I was not commenting merely on the lack of diversity but also on the way in which Roseanne Barr went out of her way to congratulate herself on being a champion for ALL women (and especially her odd references to Black people) which is an oversight notorious among the mainstream Feminist movement. My assumption was not that racial diversity is the only or most important way to judge politics, but that it is short-sighted and narrow-minded to applaud any gender political movement that blatantly fails to include entire races of people of a given gender.

it is short-sighted and narrow-minded to applaud any gender political movement that blatantly fails to include entire races of people of a given gender.

THIS. I wish I could heart you. I’m so tired of the part of the feminist movement that considers race an afterthought, or a side project. Or presents race v gender as a legitimate choice for women of color. Race&gender go hand in hand, they’re equally important, and you can’t slight one for the other.

I enjoyed reading her article (and I love the Roseanne sitcom, it still makes me laugh — the writing in it is tremendously clever). I have to admit though, that the very items you’ve mentioned here did strike an off-note for me when I was reading it; except I wasn’t sure exactly why they stood out … if that makes sense.
Great article!

I also gave that article a few side eyes because I was an avid consumer of television in those days, during the Roseanne years, and don’t remember her speaking in depth about these issues. In fact her life seemed to be a series of strangely staged vignettes of strange interludes with her then partners, from first husband, Bill, Tom Arnold, to Ben Thomas, as well as he struggles with past memories, her sexual orientation, bi polar disorder.. If she had those thoughts then I don’t remember reading about them. Were they edited out by P.R. teams? Maybe she was silenced. Perhaps it is now that she is coming to terms with those long held views and airing them? I can’t tell for sure. There were hints in the few episodes I’d viewed of her TV talk show. Not a Roseanne expert here.

I greatly enjoyed the early Roseanne the domestic goddess when my dorm mates and I discovered her on David Letterman one night in 1985. We howled and screamed in sympathy and thought we had found a new icon. I was happy for the show. It was a breath of fresh air compared to the perfect famiilies of the Seavers, Keatons, and the Full House. The show offered much more than the other Beige families for sure. But there were other families, as you said, such as the Cosbys, and the college kids’ on “Different World”. I’m thinking of Whitley’s society mama, Marion Gilbert, played by the fabulous Ms. Carroll.

Lastly thank you so much for mentioning ” Julia” because I have a few memories of that show, watching her young son Corey. There was one particular episode that I remember involving painted turtles, but most significant to me was that Corey was playing side by side with a White friend. That was an indelible image.

wow, love this piece. what I remember is that abruptly, without warning, A Different World was cancelled like wasn’t it mid-season and also the Cosby Show, and also Arsenio Hall. I think there was some kind of word out in Hollywood, no more black shows and that was around the time of Rosanne’s reign. All there was a talk show where he was asked about her weight lost and asked if she wanted anything else for her body, and she said she wanted a “big ole black booty”. I don’t know why this stuff comes to mind, but reading your article it does. I suppose I always looked at Roseanne as a wannabe.

I read the article. She didn’t discuss the fucked-up racial dynamics in Hollywood because they didn’t affect her. Roseanne is focusing this article on her woes, and race wasn’t one of them. Her comment about threatening to kill the “white bitches in heels” and the note about the African-American cameraman married to a white woman, is just a weak attempt at showing that she is totally Not Racist (TM), and that she Gets It. An attempt that, obviously, disproves her point.

Separately, I can imagine her frustration at the way she was treated and I can only imagine the anti-woman culture that pervaded and pervades showbiz, the way it lingers in my and other professions. And for weathering that, she deserves plaudits, full stop. But not for creating a crass and offensive sitcom. Roseanne laid the foundation for shows like Two and a Half Men, and today’s glorification of the boorish and ignorant American. Sorry, that’s not something to esteem.

In Roseanne’s defense re: The Hitler thing, she is Jewish and is actually very well studied in Jewish theology, so that whole photo shoot was about something different than a “privileged, narcissistic White woman with no perspective on other people’s struggles.” Not saying that I think it was cool, but that’s not exactly where she was coming from.

I think its both. She dealt with some hardcore shit that rattled her, but she also seemed to not recognize her privilege and power then, nor now. As she ended up being in a greater position of power ( and with power comeeeessss….) it just seemed more about her personally sticking it to the network, doing things on her terms and less about okay, what can I do to break the way this thing functions down so its more accessible.

I like Roseanne and I liked the article. But there were the tokenized trotted references. Why are POC used as props in her narrative ? When she refers to “white bitches with blonde hair and power heels” its problematic. More white folks need too take responsibility for fucked up things that white people say/do, so yea, call it out Roseanne. But- can you separate yourself from it ? No. Can you criticize it ? F-yea. Does somehow saying that b/c they are white bitches with heels and blonde hair make some sort of distinction between her and the rest of what supposed ” white women” are ? I think that was the intent – to create a better “authenticity” for her as opposed to “them”. Authenticity as “African-American camera an” and ” Bill Cosby”.

I think thats just what it simply boils down too -its about her struggle, experience and her. And that seems to be the problem with Barr and feminism in general – its been a “me” movement instead of a “all” movement.

Awesome piece.

MizJ’s piece gave me a lot to chew on. I don’t remember the start of either show, partially because of my age, and partially because I was sheltered from pop culture (not sheltered in general, just pop culture) as a kid.

But I really like what you said with this:

And that seems to be the problem with Barr and feminism in general – its been a “me” movement instead of a “all” movement.

More so than just a “me” movement, it’s a movement that takes the “me” and makes it the “us” without any real input about whether that’s applicable. Roseanne’s piece was a “me” piece, but I think it too often hit the territory of “I speak for all of us.”

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