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.