Roseanne’s Cancellation and the Danger of Dog Whistles

Roseanne Barr. Getty Images/Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

When Roseanne first aired in 1988, the television landscape had a weird emphasis on escaping into the fantastical, not just with the grand romance and soap operatics of Beauty and the Beast, but also with the fast-talking and glamorous lawyers of LA Law. Even working class-centric shows like Cheers were largely just hang-out farces.

But then Roseanne came along and tackled working class issues head-on, and it felt refreshing as hell. It wasn’t just Roseanne‘s willingness to show messy suburban houses, overweight people and money issues; many forget the show was considered progressive for its time (at least against certain conventional wisdom). For instance, Barr was rather outspoken about gay issues during a time when that stance was far less popular (her sister is gay), and she legitimately seemed to have empathy when it came to generational divides. I don’t think I ever related more to a kid on TV than I did Darlene. And if all that weren’t enough, Roseanne was responsible for developing a cadre of young writers who went on to become superstars: Amy Sherman Palladino, Joss Whedon, Chuck Lorre, and Norm Macdonald. The show even featured the work of Carrie Fisher.

Season one of ‘Roseanne.’ ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

These fine qualities of Roseanne earned it a lot of goodwill. And when the recent string of television revivals like Will & Grace turned out to be lucrative —not to mention the fact that networks were looking for four-quadrant programming in the age of President Donald Trump—ABC considered it high time to bring back Roseanne.

The revival drew huge ratings, was praised as a centrist representation of current political divides, and even got a salute from the president himself. Then yesterday, Barr tweeted a stream of racist horseshit, including saying Valerie Jarrett was the product of the “muslim brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.” These comments first prompted her apology, then her decision to leave Twitter (temporarily), and then ABC’s decision to cancel the revival. But the larger question remains: how could we have known Barr would say something like this?

The sad answer is “because of literally everything about her.”

The truth is that there are so many kinds of ignorance at play here that it’s almost hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the fact that there were so many (especially writers of color) who lambasted ABC’s decision from the start. Because while much of America quite simply forgot about Barr, there were many who noticed she had become a very different kind of “normal” person on social media. She touted conspiracy theories, displayed rampant Islamaphobia, went on anti-trans rants, and let’s not forget the time she dressed up like Hitler (Barr is Jewish, and the shoot was for Heeb, but it’s not difficult to deduce that her real intent was shock value).

But her bad behavior on Twitter didn’t stop when the revival came along, as Barr went after Parkland student David Hogg by insinuating he was giving a Nazi salute in a photo. This had all been happening for a while but didn’t prevent the show from running. The fact that her obviously racist tweet is the proverbial “line in the sand” reveals the much more insidious idea that decorum is more important in modern society than intent.

I’m going to be clear: I hate the notion of decorum. You could maybe chalk this up to growing up in salty New England and having parents that swore like sailors, but the real reason is that it puts emphasis on manners and polite speech instead of the real morality of the belief itself. This means that you can hate gay people, but if you don’t say a slur, you are being “civil,” which just means that decorum belies intent. And when I look at the intent of the new Roseanne, I can tell you something abundantly clearly: the goal was to take all of Barr’s outrageous political sentiments, smooth out the edges, make her palatable, put in some faux centrist mantra, and ultimately normalize her. And that’s absolutely what the revival did.

When you watch old episodes of Roseanne and compare it to the revival, they may seem similar, but they are vastly different in terms of the dramatic modus operandi. As much as her character would “tell it like is” before, Roseanne and Dan were often willing to be the butt of the joke in the story’s ultimate point, especially as their children grew up and steamrolled them along the aforementioned generational divide.

But the revival has been chock-full of a sneaky switch of tack, where entire plotlines are built around people attacking Roseanne’s character before a moment of smug self-satisfaction and proving how she is not racist or whatever the heck they were saying! In other words, it’s not a lesson learned; it’s designed to prove her right no matter the criticism. But along the way you get all the information you really need to prove otherwise.

The second episode of the revival of ‘Roseanne.’ Adam Rose/ABC

There are two moments of the show that stand out in particular. The first happened as Dan and Roseanne sat on the couch and noted how they missed a lot of shows about black and Asian families (which was just some meta commentary on ABC’s lineup of putting Blackish and Fresh off the Boat around them), which prompted a response of “they’re just like us, now you’re all caught up.”

There were many who found the remark harmless, particularly as it does not seem malicious and could even be (falsely) argued to promote the idea of equality. But it is anything but harmless not just because it seems to confuse the point of these shows with the three-decade old messaging of The Cosby Show (“your family is like my family!”), but because the ultimate point of these new shows is to speak to the exact opposite: to display that even though we are truly the same in our human wants and needs, that life can be outrageously, painfully different because of where you come from or the color of your skin. So what was said was not just a casual dismissal of a show; it was a blanket dismissal of the pains of racism.

The second example gets at both a deeper ignorance and a more insidious purpose, which is the main plotline about Roseanne’s black granddaughter. Throughout the episode, Roseanne’s relatives decry her for voting for a racist, but then at the end Roseanne defends her black granddaughter in a specific situation, which is meant to show that she is not racist! It’s supposed to prove she is a decent person and everyone else is wrong. But to anyone outside their family’s view of normative, this moment will feel incredibly familiar. Because your non-normative existence is viewed as an “exception,” it’s proof these people are whatever the heck they are accused of being, whether it’s racist, sexist, or anything else of that variety.

But this proves nothing, really, because they’ll happily use racist thought and belief for the litany of strangers in the world before them, and also vote accordingly. We can chalk it up to not understanding systemic thought, but in effect it is nothing out of both sides of one’s mouth and ultimately using a family member’s existence and struggles as a mere prop, a shield.

The granddaughter in the show is not there to be a character with her own wants and needs, nor to be understood in terms of why life is harder for her. She is there to explain why Barr is not racist, which is the ultimate denial of the things she (clearly) actually believes in the world at large. It’s a hypocritical contradiction so jaw-dropping yet so normalized that most people don’t even notice it. And that’s the whole point, really. Both moments in the show represent the kinds of everyday, seemingly innocuous ideas that speak to much deeper problems within.

They are dog whistles.

In case you’ve never heard the term before, it refers to “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” Yes, that was a Wikipedia definition.

That sounds pretty sneaky, but there are rather broad applications. For instance, Fox News has really made a go of it in the last few decades, where fears are meant to be stoked through the use of terms like “urban,” which is used venomously to mean “black people,” just as “immigration reform” means “kicking out Mexicans.” There’s never any discussion of actual policy or the real issues. It’s always just “a Mexican did a crime again, so we have to get harder on immigration.” Again, I go back to the notion of decorum, where we belie our real intention through politeness and softening the edges, precisely because it always brings us deeper down the rabbit hole.

When Trump calls people “animals,” (which is barely a dog whistle) he intends to dehumanize, to foster a slow slide toward the kind of racist authoritarianism he so desperately wants to employ. And nowhere are dog whistles more complex or esoteric than in the deep online culture of the alt-right. Even the movement’s name is an attempt to soften the edges by not calling its members what they are: Nazis and white nationalists. They are masters at dog-whistling. Seriously, read this article to come to horrifying grips with how a whole array of white power and nationalist language is being employed through comedic memes. 

Roseanne Barr with host Johnny Carson on January 23, 1987. Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

This is stomach-churning stuff. Also scary: this article came out a year ago, and the language is already outdated. With our continued ignorance, the hate can grow in perpetuity. People can throw out blatant Nazi memes at work and no one will ever know. This is exactly why after Charlottesville the alt-right went back underground so they could work within the system in secret. Believe me, I’m as horrified as anyone that Captain America: The Winter Soldier turned out to be so prescient, but here we have “hydra” hiding their way into society’s leadership positions. It’s all part of this stuff being accepted in the mainstream that folks like Barr became validated in plain sight. This shows that the real danger of dog-whistling is that it can be painfully subconscious for a lot of people, even for those who perpetrate it.

The fact that this is happening in the real world is why it matters in narrative now more than ever. This is only part of the reason why I spend so much gosh darn time talking about themes, semiotics, and dramatic reinforcement. Stories help shape our view of reality and reinforce our existing world views. There’s a reason Roseanne shaped my sense of my younger self, just as the revival reinforced a problematic view for so many Americans today (it’s the people who don’t think stories affect them that I most worry about).

Narratives are full of intent. You can think Death Wish is “just” an action movie, but it is absolutely about fulfilling the conservative fantasy of going into “urban” centers and killing black people for artificially created “just” reasons. But if Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis never says the n-word, will it be read as racist? Would it be okay to just say “animals?” This highlights that the difference between people who say the n-word versus those who believe in the spirit of it and act accordingly is meaningless. It’s all the same intent.

Sure, Barr finally went all out and called a brilliant African-American woman a monkey. But I can’t help but fear what would have made the sentiment more palatable. If she used a different flirtation of wording? If she said it to a random nobody online, instead of someone who worked in politics? People treat the difference in the decorum of these things like it’s the difference between committing a crime versus not committing a crime, but it’s always about the core intent, thematic and otherwise.

Roseanne Season 2 Spoilers

The case of ABC’s ‘Roseanne.’ ABC/Robert Trachtenberg

Barr has been this person for years now, and this just makes ABC’s decision to try and normalize her all the more problematic. If Roseanne did not tweet what she did, ABC would have gone blissfully along making more money off this dog-whistling, excuse-making anthem.

It may sound silly to say this is all a matter of language, but it is. Even Twitter called her comments “controversial,” which is defined as “giving rise or likely to give rise to public disagreement.” Um, what exactly is controversial about calling a black woman a monkey? Calling an obviously racist comment “controversial” only legitimizes the racism, as if the statement can be debated and disagreed on. This is all part and parcel of the erroneous belief that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle, or the journalistic intent to remain “neutral” in the face of ugliness. But how can you remain neutral when one side moves so deliberately toward hate? It turns out this false belief is exactly how you just end up moving the proverbial middle in a more pained direction.

The narratives we believe in our lives are excruciatingly important, like when I said the landscape of television in 1988 “seemed like” it was obsessed with fantastical escape. The truth is it was another false perception of my younger self, along with our collective memory.

There was a plethora of shows about white middle class existence, whether it was the ennui of Thirtysomething, the working moms of Cagney and Lacey, and divorce in Kate & Allie—not to mention the humane societal treatment within shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. This means the idea that Roseanne was especially “unique” was another false narrative, one that so many white people tell themselves again and again in the desperate need for all culture to be “theirs.”

Roseanne and Tom Arnold during at a Taping of “Larry King Live” in West Hollywood, California on July 9, 1990. Ron Galella/WireImage

It’s a narrative that feels especially gutting when you look back at a show like Frank’s Place, the Tim Reid vehicle that came out that same year. It dealt with a young African-American professor coming home to work with his family in New Orleans, and facilitated what still feels like an outrageously modern conversation about black culture, the socio-political geographic makeup of the country, and our own preconceptions of all of them. The show was great. It even got nominated for best comedy… and it was cancelled after just one season.

So when we talk about the lie of what conversations were and were not happening in this country, along with the lie of who and who was not actually represented, we have to remember that we are still a country that wants to nap through the existence of non-white families.

I say this not from a precipice of morality or understanding. I’m a damn white dude and therefore have a trail of messing this up behind me. The understanding comes in understanding how little I actually understand. Because in the era of dog-whistling, there are so many things I won’t even think about or recognize, so above all I must be sensitive and listen.

This is about our ability to evolve, change and accept the idea that our language matters so much because it reveals our intent. As long as our society continues to be so bad at dealing with dog whistles, our racist president will call racists to congratulate them for their racist shows, and this horrifying dance will go on. It makes the real lesson tor racists all the more clear: “just don’t push it too far in public.”

I can think of few things scarier.

Roseanne’s Cancellation and the Danger of Dog Whistles