When I immigrated to the UK from the US nineteen years ago, one of my first experiences of indoctrination was television. Specifically: soap operas. What better way to place my finger on the pulse of Britain than to watch one of its most popular forms of everyday entertainment? Imagine my Yankee shock when I discovered that the people in British soaps aren’t beautiful, skinny rich people.
That lady’s hairstyle looks utterly unfashionable. That man has a paunch and a combover. That house only has one reception room. Who are these people on my telly? What is this?
The first of many culture shocks. And yet, the idea of television portraying the lives of ordinary (though perpetually cursed with illnesses, adulteries and tragic secrets) working-class families wasn’t completely alien. I grew up with it in the form of Roseanne.
Now, of course, like Bill Cosby’s comedy sketches, Roseanne the sitcom will forever be tainted in my memory due to the unconscionable actions of Roseanne the actor. I have no interest in forgiving her or apologizing for her. Neither do I believe her racism is the result of sleeping pills. The American Broadcast Company did the right thing in swiftly, decisively cancelling the recent reboot of the show—completely on the basis of Roseanne’s racist tweets, I am sure, and nothing to do with abysmal ratings whatsoever. Because we can’t have racism represent America (*cough*Trump*cough*).
All the same, I am in mourning for the show and the woman I loved. Roseanne wasn’t always an anti-liberal, racist, anti-semite. Once upon a time, she presented a fresh, original brand of working-class, left-wing feminism that had not been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. I mourn the death of The Domestic Goddess.
Like the characters in British soap operas, Roseanne was not beautiful. When she burst onto the comedy scene, she looked like someone’s badly dressed, overweight mother in desperate need of a makeover. What a shock this was in the late eighties to a nation used to seeing media women portrayed in the glossiest light. Even now, her original image would stand out in a Kardashian world. Roseanne slumped onto the stand-up stage in her dowdy clothes and bad hair, whining that she didn’t want to be called a housewife, she wanted to be known as a “Domestic Goddess.” That line defined her for over a decade and spawned one of the most commercially and critically successful television sitcoms of late twentieth century.
Roseanne featured working-class characters from the Midwest—my area of America, and one that does not often appear in film or television unless a character escapes from the ignorant backwater farm to the fabulous big city. There were no rich or beautiful people on Roseanne. Compare this to the wealthy life of The Cosby Show characters or the unrealistic NYC of Friends. Only The Simpsons achieved similar popularity by portraying working class families at that time.
But Roseanne did more than show average-looking people living average-income lives. It refused to play by sitcom rules which dictate that any situation must be solved in half an hour. In one memorable episode, teenaged daughter Darlene spends days on the family sofa watching television and refusing to speak or move. By the end of the episode, even though the whole storyline revolved around “What’s wrong with Darlene?”, she’s still there, on the sofa, not moving or speaking. In any other sitcom, there would have been a touching, tearful reconciliation in which Mom and/or Dad get through to her and Darlene makes the cheerleading squad. Roseanne showed family life in a far more realistic, honest way.
And the show didn’t shy away from wearing its left-leaning politics proudly. It tackled issues of domestic violence, racism, governmental greed, poverty, unemployment, poor working conditions, labour unions, LGBT and feminism—endlessly feminism. Few sitcoms then or now feature a central female character, much less a working-class mother. I loved her for it. And I was not alone. Neither am I alone in mourning the loss of this icon.
Rosanne the show cannot be separated from Rosanne the actor. Not only was her stand-up the original inspiration for the show, her life was as well. Roseanne remained a guiding force, creative voice throughout Roseanne. For better and for worse. (Whose idea was it to let her sing the national anthem at a baseball game anyway? Surely, they knew what they were getting with her.) She has never been shy or unclear about who she is—though who she is has certainly changed.
I am not sure where things went wrong, when it all changed and how Roseanne became who she is now. Some argue she never changed—she was always a racist, ultra-conservative anti-semite, but this does not seem to match her clearly autobiographical creative out-put of the late twentieth century. The Domestic Goddess lived. Roseanne breathed that life into her and I don’t believe it was not a genuine expression of how she felt and what she had to say at the time.
Perhaps that is the key phrase: at the time. Perhaps fame changed her or age? Now she is a reflection of the ugly, altered face of Trump Era America. Regardless of her personal or political reasons, because of her recent actions, Roseanne is dead to me. I disown her. Disinherit her from my heart.
But I will always love The Domestic Goddess that was.