The Arbitrary Nature Of What Defines A Career Ending Scandal, Ft. Roseanne Barr
By Sam Doll | 11.03.2019
Ah, television reboots. Many series have been smart enough not to touch the concept of a reboot with a ten foot pole (Friends, The X Files, Murder She Wrote — I could go on). They let the original speak for itself, and choose not to gamble away the legacy of a great television series. Over the last two years, us television lovers have had to sit in front of our screens, with conflicting emotions conjured within us by a barrage of classic reboots. Are we okay with these reimaginings? Does the integrity of the show stand? Have our beloved characters changed with age? How will they fare in this modern world? Gilmore Girls, Will and Grace, Twin Peaks, Duck Tales — all garnering a twisted mess of mixed reviews. And then you have the reboot I myself, was most excited (and terrified) for: Roseanne.
When I first heard there was a Roseanne reboot in the works, I thought what I think anytime there is a new reboot, which is: “Oh GOD no, please no. Is nothing sacred? WHEN will this madness end???” Then I slam seven shots of Jack and pass out. I am one of the lucky few who scored a cheap Roseanne DVD box set for under 300 dollars, second hand on Kijiji (when DVDs were still relevant). I have seen the series in its entirety several times, mostly because I watch it whenever I am anxious about something. As someone who was never a huge fan of sitcoms (confession: I always thought Friends was dumb! I hate all the characters! They are all losers! Sue me!), Roseanne really satisfied the part of me that was craving the cheap thrill of a half-hour’s light hearted comedy while still encouraging viewers to use their brains. The writing was clever, the characters were relatable and realistic, and the show’s theme had its finger on the pulse of the common woman. Who wants to watch a show about average people in an average neighbourhood? Seinfeld is a show about nothing, but it had a different type of charm; the show took place in New York and Jerry was a famous comedian. Roseanne managed to combine empathy and satire to create ten seasons of smart, witty, comedy gold about a demographic that is not necessarily admired or romanticized: middle America.
Despite being a super-fan of the original series, when the Roseanne reboot did premier, I was not disappointed. In fact, unlike the Will and Grace reboot (wherein I lasted about two episodes), I tuned in every week to watch the new Roseanne, enjoying it as if I were watching the original series again for the first time.
With the wonders of the world wide web, it is now no secret that offscreen Roseanne Barr is an unstable individual (to put it kindly). Her list of controversies over the last twenty years is not a short one. So, when this year she allowed an Ambien induced stupor to get the best of her — rendering her temporarily braindead enough to unleash an onslaught of racist tweets that ultimately got her reboot (and at the time, ABC’s highest rated show) cancelled overnight — there were a lot of “I told you so”s thrown around in the media.
In 1990, Roseanne was asked to sing the national anthem at a baseball game, and did so while making faces, singing out of tune, and grabbing her crotch. Normal behaviour! In 1991, she claimed she was an incest survivor, before confessing to Oprah in 2009 that she made that up (when she was on drugs). She has also been known to dress up as Hitler, criticize suicide, run for President of the United States, and regularly hop on conspiracy bandwagons (for instance, that Chelsea Clinton is a Nazi).
Roseanne’s unforgivable tweet about Valerie Jarrett, which compared the former Obama administration advisor to an ape, was not even the first time she compared a black woman to an ape. The first recorded instance of this was in 2013 when she tweeted about another Obama adviser, Susan Rice, who she called “a big man with swinging ape balls.”
But no one seemed to care initially. No troubles bubbles, life goes on for Roseanne! Business as usual. Sure, “give her the show back,” “secure her on a major American network,” “forgive and forget her hateful behaviour,” and don’t even touch the fact that this woman has had spiralling substance abuse issues for the entirety of her career. Screw it! Freedom of speech or something, right?
Unlike many critics, I am not even of the mind that ABC “should have known” this would happen. For the neverending slew of press coverage about Roseanne’s antics, I think they did know and that they chose to turn a blind eye. Renewing the show demonstrates the network’s positive reinforcement to all of her past behaviour. ABC already sanctioned Roseanne’s actions the first time she compared a black woman to an ape by producing a reboot. This reboot also greenlit her behaviour over the last 20 years. We don’t even need to revisit the early 90’s for controversial Roseanne material; she called Hillary Clinton a “filthy nazi whore” in 2016 and signed a contract with ABC only a year later. Yet, suddenly, it is “too far” when she once again does what she has been doing for decades because it’s 2017 and ABC got haphazardly “woke.”
I am not arguing in favour of Roseanne. The comments she has made are unacceptable. The purpose of this article is to note how the boundaries of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, and when one is punished for it, have remained continuously arbitrary in the entertainment world. This is not Roseanne’s first misdemeanour, it is not even necessarily her worst misdemeanour — that is up for debate alongside a batch of bad behaviour. It happened, though, to be the one that took place while a network had a stake in her actions. The question I have been grappling with is: Could ABC not have demonstrated concern for the last 20 years of racial slurs by refusing to pick up the show in the first place?
As audiences, we’ve started to see this more frequently: the perfect storm ending someone's career who has been demonstrating that same inappropriate behaviour for years. The rumours of Louis CK’s alleged sexual assault cases were flying around long before The New York Times penned the story — forcing him to confess to his crimes. As a self proclaimed “masturbation enthusiast,” CK’s behaviour was known by many in the business, but he still got away with it.
I would call phenomena such as these classic cases of bystander apathy. Is the world actually a better place? Or are we just tricking people into thinking the world is a better place? Is being a sexual predator only bad when you get caught? Is being racist only bad when it affects your ratings? Can you only be punished if you have something to lose? Much like Roseanne, Louis CK was instantly dropped from Netflix. Where are the boundaries of good and evil in this public twisted mess of an industry?
That being said, I do believe there are a few legitimate policies being put in place in the entertainment world. It was announced recently that Wonder Woman 2 is going to be the first film to ever implement the Producers Guild of America’s anti-sexual harassment guidelines — which is both inspiring and scary. Like, seriously, there has never been another film to do this? EVER? And it’s just happening for the first time right now? This mandate will cover every single person on set, not just the celebrities, but the grips, the PA’s, the lighting girl, the craft services guy: everyone who may have had reason to be wary of reporting harassment (whether or not they are in the public eye).
The narrow-minded and all together messed up lesson that studios like ABC and Netflix have taught consumers (if there is any) is this: you can make multiple racial slurs and even get away with years of sexual assault as long as you do not have a show on a major American network while you act that way. The film industry’s present state is like that ass backwards paradox where strict parents like mine know I have sex, but under their roof I’m not allowed to sleep in the same bed as my boyfriend. “We know you’re doing this, just don’t do it in our house.” It is a convoluted, unproductive understanding. Get it all out beforehand, or wait until the show is cancelled and then do whatever you want! Only, instead of brushing the awkward sex talk under the rug, the emblematic parents guiding these networks are refusing to address actual human rights abuses performed by their cash cows.
Just a few months ago, ABC announced that they greenlit a Roseanne spinoff called The Conners — featuring the entire cast, without Roseanne. As if her exclusion makes the reboot of the show alright. As if it is now okay for ABC to profit off Roseanne’s empire because she is no longer on screen. Excuse me while I go to the bar, pound seven shots of Jack, and pass out. Except this time I am not tuning in.
More by Sam Doll
Click here for works cited in “The Arbitrary Nature Of What Defines A Career Ending Scandal, Ft. Roseanne Barr”