The television show, “Roseanne,” ran in the U.S. between 1988 and 1997. Like many comedy TV series, it featured an idealized, traditional nuclear family. The biggest difference between “Roseanne,” and other shows before or since, is that it focused on a class of people in an area of the country who are not usually not well-represented in entertainment media. “Roseanne” was the first successful show to feature a poor to lower-middle class, small town, mid-western family and the first to treat the people of this huge swath of the country with respect and a sense of realism.
Many of the actors were originally from Illinois or other mid-western states. John Goodman (Dan Conner) is originally from St. Louis and attended college in Missouri. Laurie Metcalf (Jackie) and Lecy Goransen (Becky) are both originally from towns in Illinois. Goransen studied acting in Chicago and Metcalf was involved with Chicago live theater before she joined the cast of “Roseanne.” Natalie West (Crystal) is originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota and became involved in acting in Chicago. A few others involved in the show were originally from Chicago. Roseanne grew up in Utah and moved to Colorado at the age of 18, of course, neither of these locations are in the midwest, but they are all part of what is designated “fly-over country” by the liberal elite who were represented among most of the producers and writers for the show.
In the article, “And I Should Know,” New York Magazine, May 15, 2011: http://nymag.com/arts/tv/upfronts/2011/roseanne-barr-2011-5/ , Roseanne talks about both the sexism and the classism she experienced daily on the set of Roseanne. Since most of the decision-makers were from Ivy League schools and from one coast or the other, they lacked an understanding of both mid-western culture and the lives of the lower classes. If this is true, then it may mean that their other portrayals of mid-westerners in television series may be coming not from a place of mockery and disdain as much as it is simply a manifestation of their classist ignorance. (A classic example of this is the show, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” from the 1970s, which portrayed a small town in Ohio full of caricatures drawn from its class-bigoted New York City producer’s twisted vision of what working-class mid-westerners would probably look and act like.)
“Roseanne” takes place in the fictional town of Lanford, Illinois, which seems to be a few hours south of Chicago. It’s a place of limited educational and economic opportunities and it might be an amalgam of any number of small to mid-size cities in the mid-west in the late 1980s to early ’90s. Factories provide(d) the primary source of liveable income and after that the opportunities were limited to construction jobs (for men) and minimum wage jobs in fast food restaurants and banks (for women and men). In such places, blue and pink collar workers greatly outnumber white collar professionals (architects, doctors, accountants).
Roseanne Barr has commented that the Conner family represents a socioeconomic class that no longer exists as the income gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has widened. As portrayed in the television show, many factories and businesses closed in small and mid-sized mid-western towns in the 1990s with Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA and GATT, which saw an exodus of businesses to Mexico and overseas. Small towns like Lanford suffered very acutely as factories and businesses were lost and never replaced. The fall out of these job losses has continued for years until the present. Towns represented by “Lanford” became very depressing places to live and almost impossible to get out of. Being born and raised in such a town means a lifetime of limited opportunities and no way out – at least, no reasonable way. As you watch the television show, “Roseanne,” from one season to the next you see that the characters’ hope, especially Becky and Darlene, for achieving the feminist dream of self-realization and financial independence begins to fade more and more from one season to the next as the economy declines.
The circumstances of the Conner family’s lives are so dismal that by the last season, Roseanne as the main character begins to rewrite the story in an entire season of fantasy in which the impoverished Conner family wins the lottery, domestic-abuse survivor Jackie meets a real Prince, her mother learns to appreciate her own sexuality when she comes out as a lesbian, husband Dan has an affair instead of dying of a heart attack, Roseanne and Jackie use their lottery winnings to re-open the factory that was once the life’s blood of the town’s economy; and Roseanne single-handedly saves the world from misogynistic terrorists. The very last episode of the series revealed the truth and now we can see the nature of Roseanne’s unfulfilled dreams both as a person and a woman.
The “Roseanne” show portrays mid-westerners and their lives with sympathy and sometimes painful accuracy. It shows the limitations of people’s lives and especially on women’s lives in towns like Lanford. Roseanne’s life allows her an expression of feminism, but only within a restricted boundary. She hopes for a better life for her own daughters, but their opportunities, which once looked bright as small children, begin to dwindle and the light of hope dims as the series progresses. Becky, the academically gifted, studious daughter, is faced with the fact that because of job losses, she is unable to attend college as she had been promised by her teachers and parents as a reward for her hard academic work. This is a revelation to her that she has been lied to all along about her opportunities, which she now sees are extremely limited. Her choices are limited by her parents’ financial status, by the hopelessness of the economically depressed town she was born in and by her sex. Feeling that she has little other option, she marries a dimwitted man who, at least, can get a job that pays above minimum wage (meanwhile, her job opportunities involve being a cashier at the “Buy and Bag” where she is sexually harassed and called obscene names by her male boss) and he will take his place as her protector in place of her failed father (who just lost his bike shop to the worsening local economy and can’t afford to keep the lights on at the house).
“Roseanne” demonstrates the restrictions that being of a lower economic class place on a girl or woman’s ability to fully live her feminism. Women in working-class towns like fictional Lanford do not have the same degree of “choice” as women from more advantaged backgrounds. In fact, their opportunities to make good choices, which lead to their self-autonomy and self-actualization, are extremely limited and often non-existent, despite claims, especially among liberal feminists, that women have achieved autonomy.
“Roseanne,” also, demonstrates the limitations of women and feminist characters on television, which is a male-dominated industry that produces images of itself to a male-dominated society. As you watch the series from beginning to end, you see the greater autonomy acheived by Roseanne Barr, herself, to give a voice to working-class women. In the first season of the show, Roseanne was more submissive to Dan. She even purchases a perfume, called “Submission,” in an episoded called, “We’re in the Money.” The earliest episodes of Roseanne seemed to focus more on class than on women. But, this changes in the later seasons when Roseanne Barr wins the power struggle behind the scenes of the show.
In fiction, one way to demonstrate differences is to create characters that are mirrors of each other. In Roseanne, you see numerous mirrored pairs.
Married Roseanne’s feminism is mirrored by that of her single sister Jackie.
The tomboy Darlene is mirrored by Becky, who enjoys wearing make-up and dresses.
Darlene is, also, mirrored by the neighbor Molly, who flirts with David. This is seen especially in the episodes “Good Girls, Bad Girls” and “Pretty in Black.”
Roseanne is similarly mirrored by her snooty neighbor Cathy Bowman, as seen especially in “Trouble with the Rubbles” and “Tolerate Thy Neighbor.”
How her economic class effects a girl’s expression of her feminism may be seen in the episode called “Becky’s Choice (Season 1, Episode 17), in which Becky has been seeing a boy whose parents are middle class and Roseanne invites them to a fancy home-cooked meal at the house without telling Becky. The differences in lifestyle between the lower class Conners and the middle class Langs (Edgar, Bonnie and Chip) are demonstrated in this episode. The professional class Lang family is a mirror to the working-class Conners. We, also, have the chance to see how the differences in financial status between the Conners and the Langs might affect Becky’s dating choices.
It’s important to mention that in the U.S., class is not perceived as it is in other countries like, for example, England, where class has to do with circumstances of birth and is revealed through manners and speech. In the U.S., where there is a dying myth of class mobility, we usually think of class firstly as financial status.
There are other perceptions about class that have to do with race and personal appearance, but these are usually more subtle and manifest as stereotypes of blonde-haired, blue-eyed people as wealthy and advantaged and black-haired, dark-eyed people as poor and disadvantaged. These notions are based largely on ideas propagated through the media and the truth is that the largest portion of poor and working poor in the United States more closely resembles the fictional Conner family in terms of demographics. The majority are white people living in rural areas or hopeless, former-industrial towns like Lanford, Illinois, many of whom are employed, but still struggling to make ends meet. If you don’t know much about them, it is because, apart from “Roseanne,” they’ve never had a voice in the media. Roseanne Barr has said this is because “Hollywood hates labor and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.”
Education can, also, be an indicator of class and it often is in the “Roseanne” show with the divide being between (“them”) the professional, white collar people who have attended college and the laboring classes, (“us”) who only achieved a high school diploma or maybe a G.E.D. (passed a test, usually in adulthood in order to receive a General Equivalency Diploma). Having lots of children and being over-weight are, also, subtly associated with being lower class in the U.S. The difference between Roseanne and Bonnie Lang is highlighted in this episode when the Langs talk about their strict dietary habits. In another scene, Mrs. Lang, also, comes to the door dressed in an aerobics outfit, apologizing for her appearance because she’s just come from a class.
These differences in class still have financial class basis because people who have enough money can buy higher education, high-quality food, and a gym membership, which those in the lower financial class would, of course, also like to have, but cannot afford. We, also, see that there is little or no upward mobility in “Roseanne,” and both wealth and poverty are talked about as being inter-generational.
In this episode, Becky has secretly made a date to meet another boy, Johnny Swanko, whom we’ve never heard of before. When Roseanne brings the groceries in, she announces to Dan that she invited Bonnie and Edgar for dinner that night. She’s bought dinner candles and a special marinated swordfish, which she doesn’t really know how to prepare. But, she’s trying to make a good impression on them and to thank them for taking Becky out to eat at many nice restaurants. Roseanne says to Jackie, “You never know, Sis. Bonnie and Edgar could be family someday.” This is an expression of hope for Becky’s upward mobility through marriage.
Dan jokes about the billiard table, the study and expensive liquor, which they don’t have. Darlene who has just been practicing her pitching, complains that she has to wear a dress (not just something nice, but specifically a dress) to dinner. We are reminded that gender role conformity is something prized by the middle and upper classes. In fact, all the girls and women are in dresses for dinner.
When the Langs arrive and Dan offers them a drink, they assume that the Conners have a big, wet bar stocked with plenty of liquor when Edgar requests a complex mixed drink. Bonnie says mineral water would be fine with her. Both of these are luxuries the Langs take for granted everyone has in their home, but they are not things the Conners can either afford or prioritize in their life style. Dan and Roseanne offer them domestic beer and tap water, instead. Roseanne jokes, “I’ll have some of that Muscatel in the fridge.” Muscatel is a cheap, sweet wine favored by winos.
While they’re waiting on dinner, the two families try to make small talk. But, they find there is a gap of lifestyle and experience between them, which seems to be more noticeable to the Conners than to the Langs, who seem oblivious to what the Conners lack.
Edgar jokes that he and Dan have something in common. They both do “digging” because Dan is a contractor and he is a dentist. The Langs’ friends are dentists and other white collar professionals. The only relationship the Conners have to such people is when they need their services and we see from the conversation that they, in fact, do not often visit dentists since they don’t know that theirs has moved to a new professional building. Edgar talks about the new building full of his many professional associates. Bonnie says that a friend of hers decorated it. (Interior decorating is a job associated with middle-class, suburban housewives) and, by way of contrast, Dan says that his friend, Rocko, poured the foundation for the building.
Again, seemingly oblivious to the Conner’s financial class, the Langs talk about their exciting vacation to Hawaii, a place the Conners have never visited and probably have no hope of ever seeing. The Conners have difficulty contributing to the conversation because of their limited life experiences – limitations deriving from their economic class. Meanwhile, Roseanne discovers she has burned the swordfish and Becky is nowhere to be found.
Roseanne yells for Becky, which is not something a middle-class woman would do, so this is a demonstration of her class. After yelling, “Becky,” at the top of her lungs in the living room, she goes outside where she finds her making out with a lower class boy, Johnny Swanko. “Becky, get your butt in the house now,” she says, which is also telling of her class because this is not a phrase you’d expect to hear from a middle class woman like, for instance, Mrs. Lang.
The title of this episode, “Becky’s Choice,” may not mean simply the choice between two different boys, but two different classes of associates. Since the Conners are not able to reciprocate the generosity of the Langs, this may lead to feelings of discomfort for Becky. By dating a lower class boy, one of perhaps even a lower class than her own, she is letting herself off the hook. She states at the end of the episode that her parents like Chip and she must certainly feel the pressure to go with a boy of a higher socio-econmic class, since this is one way she could realistically achieve upward mobility. Certainly, Becky must feel resentment, perhaps toward the Langs and certainly toward her own parents for trying to push her together with the boy.
The first two episodes of Season 5 are called,”Terms of Estrangement” Parts One and Two. By this time, we see that Becky, now a high school senior preparing for college, really has had very few choices and opportunities. By this time, the Wellman factory has closed for a while and the entire town is facing a sharp economic downturn with the “trickle down” effect of the loss of stable labor jobs. Dan can’t keep his bike shop open much longer. Rodbell’s in the mall, where Roseanne was employed as a waitress, closed last season and now she is struggling to find a new job, to take care of the house and children, and to help Dan sell motorcycles at the shop, all at the same time. Since they took out a second mortgage on the house in order to open up their bike shop, the Conners are now in danger of losing their home to foreclosure. Roseanne and Jackie peruse the classified ads and Roseanne jokes about “crappy jobs” and Jackie says, quite seriously, that it’s too bad there isn’t a holiday weekend coming up, which is an expression of the very real hopelessness when there are so few jobs available that someone has to die before you have a chance.
Becky realizes that there is no money for her to attend college on. Certainly, she can’t afford tuition by working at the Buy ‘n’ Bag (where she is sexually harassed by her boss in another episode). Life at home is miserable and since the bike shop is closing, this means her boyfriend, Mark, is also out of a job. When he is offered a job as a mechanic in Minneapolis, Becky begs him to stay in Lanford. Darlene ridicules Becky for keeping him in “this hole,” Lanford, when he has an opportunity to get out.
The first episode of the season ends with a big surprise when we learn that Becky has dropped out of high school and eloped with Mark. Dan is upset because he feels his failures are the cause for Becky’s poor choices. Although, Becky’s choices aren’t stupid, if you consider what her options are. “It’s all ’cause of you,” Becky tells her father. “If you knew how to run a business, he’d still have a job and he wouldn’t be leaving. Now, I don’t have Mark, I don’t have college, I don’t have anything! You blew it, Dad. You blew it for everyone in this family.” These were her last words before storming out the door.
In the next episode, Becky and Mark return married. The Conners have never liked Mark, who they describe frequently as a “punk.” He is of a low class, similar to their their own, although possibly even a little lower. He’s drunk in a few episodes, including one in which he is drinking underage using a fake I.D. and punches the glass on a juke box at the Lobo Lounge. He pressures Becky to have sex with him. It’s not clear if he finished high school, but he was thrown out of the house by his alcoholic parents at age 16. In a later episode, he flunks out of trade school and Roseanne constantly makes jokes about how stupid he is.
If not for the financial circumstances of the Conner family, Becky probably would have made different choices. But, her opportunities are limited and she takes the only avenue out, which seems to provide a ray of hope. After all, he has a good job and maybe she can go to community college in Minnesota.
By Season 6, Mark and Becky are arguing a lot because of money and Mark’s macho ways. By the 7th season, he’s lost his good job and they end up moving in with Dan and Roseanne.
Finally, Becky’s life hits rock bottom when she and Mark move into a trailer, thus fulfilling the stereotype of white trailer trash.
To what extent is this poverty Becky’s fault? She married an idiot. But, what were her options in a town with no decent jobs and no opportunity to escape?
She had no reasonable options – only unreasonable ones. For example, many young women from places like Lanford end up working in strip clubs and this is their only way out of the trap. In fact, when I was Becky’s age, I took a look at the landscape in the nearby town, saw all the low-class men, and many people either of a much lower economic class who I had little in common with in terms of dreams and aspirations or of a much higher one than mine, who were very traditional, conventional thinkers. The strip clubs were my only way out and while it worked for me, it isn’t for everyone (like, for instance, it helps to be groomed for several years in a pedophile-run religious cult) and it was simply a matter of survival because I could not live like the people around me. I simply refused. The “Roseanne” show has ended about 15 years ago and now, even those opportunities aren’t there, since the money simply isn’t there and lots of the dancers have been replaced with prostituted women (some with pimps who beat them up and burn them with cigarettes) because of the increasingly restrictive laws against dancing in many states.
Another way out for a woman like Becky might be an upwardly mobile marriage. But, this is not a reasonable option, either. We see in the episode, “Becky’s Choice,” that she is aware of the limitations of her class and she’s not a “gold digger” who will marry for money.
These struggles of working class women and their daughters are exactly what Roseanne Barr set out to show us. Women can only express their feminism within certain limitations, based on economic class. Becky expresses her feminism mostly in her ambitions and aspirations, all of which were dashed to pieces by the economic downturn. She never has the chance to become the independent, educated, well-traveled woman she wants to be.
For me, the strip clubs were an expression of feminism within the boundaries I was permitted by the limitations of my sex and economic class and it was a means to an end, to an education and a final escape. It was something I had to do in order for my feminism – my most radical feminism, especially – to eventually be able to express itself. It is not a reasonable choice and it was not an especially free choice. It was a terrible option and a last resort, but one I am grateful for since it was all I had and it really was my ticket out of a place a lot like Lanford.
We don’t see this option presented in “Roseanne” and the closest thing we see to it is when Becky, living under Roseanne’s roof, again, takes a job as a waitress at “Buns,” which seems to be something like “Hooters.” Dan is angry that Mark would allow her to work there because he’s “seen the kind of things that go on in that place.” Roseanne is surprised that he’s been there, which alludes to the misogynistic secrets men keep from women, especially their wives and daughters. Becky is working there because she’s earning $15 an hour to support her family. So, we see that even though the Conner’s are poor, they only believe in degrading themselves so far for the sake of money, and their “dignity” is not “for sale.”
Darlene is probably one of the most obviously feminist characters on the show and the real reflection of her creator’s (Roseanne Barr’s) own early feminism. She is most resistant to gender role stereotypes, especially as the show progresses and the writer and actress, Roseanne Barr, begins to gain more power over the script and other aspects of the show.
Each of the girls seems to have a moment when she realizes something is terribly wrong. For Becky it seems to be in Season 2, Episode 2, “The Little Sister,” in which she finds her father’s Playboy Magazines. Later in the episode after a big family blow-up, in which Darlene goes to stay with Aunt Jackie, we see Becky looking very sad, leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder and asking why men want to look at women in magazines? Roseanne doesn’t provide any serious answers because the truth – that men, even beloved, trusted and respected fathers, exploit women for their own twisted pleasure – is not something that could be said during prime time. Becky says she feels sorry for the women in the magazines and Roseanne quips, “Me, too,” although with an expression and intonation that leads us to believe that she actually envies them.
Becky fits the idealized image of the feminine woman more naturally than either Roseanne or Darlene. Moreover, Darlene’s interests are outside the bounds of her gender. She’s referred to as her father’s “son.” He calls her “Sport.” But, he calls Becky “Princess.”
There are numerous episodes devoted to Darlene’s either inability or unwillingness to conform to female gender stereotypes. But, the episodes that most reveal Darlene’s dilemma in trying to adjust her true self and what she wants to be to the gender and class restrictions placed upon her are the several episodes that deal with her sinking into a depression in Season 4, from which she does not recover until she befriends Karen, a woman who runs a bookstore and encourages her to write science fiction stories. (Incidentally, Sci-fi is a genre that is particularly hostile to women as writers.)
The first one of these episodes is Season 4, Episode 4, “Darlene Fades to Black,” in which she is seen lying on the sofa, “watching one dumb rerun after another,” about which she quips: “And I do it as well as any man!”
This episode is partly about Dan’s resistance to Becky getting a little motor scooter because she’s his “daughter.” Becky says that it isn’t really about the scooter, but “women being exploited by men for centuries,” which is followed by audience laughter.
We don’t know exactly why Darlene is depressed and she reveals in a later episode that even she isn’t exactly certain what is wrong. She simply wants to be left alone. She stops playing basketball at school after not making first string. She begins spending a lot of time in her room, dressing in black, dying her hair black and not coming out of her room. Dan and Roseanne seem to think this is related to her quitting the basketball team. Roseanne even accuses her of using drugs.
The patriarchy and the obstacles that it erects for women are like trees in a forest. When you encounter the first few trees it’s hard to put it all together, to realize how big, deep and labyrinthine the forest is. Darlene has encountered a number of these trees: She’s “Too short to be quarterback, too plain to be queen,” as she writes in a poem from an earlier episode (Braindead Poet’s Society). In “Darlene Fades to Black,” Roseanne confronts her directly and asks her what the problem is. Darlene responds, “It’s school. It’s my friends. It’s the way I look. It’s you. It’s Dad. It’s everything.”
Darlene’s character is a little reminiscent of George Elliot’s character, Maggie Tulliver, in her famous book, “The Mill on the Floss,” who failed to be the idealized Victorian daughter in her classic novel. Like Maggie Tulliver, Darlene’s beauty is unconventional, her hair is “uncontrollable” and she becomes “bad tempered” and “sharp tongued” when feminine gender role stereotypes are cast upon her. She expresses her feminism through wise cracks and insults, very much like her mother does, in a frustrated response to her surroundings.
Both Becky and Darlene resist patriarchy, but to different degrees and in different ways. None of the female characters in this series truly succeeds in overcoming the detrimental effects of patriarchy.
Ultimately, Darlene is the daughter with the best chance of breaking the cycle and finding even greater expression for her feminism. We see in the episode, Season 8, Episode 8, “White Sheep of the Family,” that she turned down a great job as an advertising copywriter, making $500 per week (not really a lot of money, but a lot to the working class Conners). The family is appalled that she would turn down such a lucrative opportunity. But, Darlene argues that she wants to finish college first, then she can get an even better job.
This particular episode is a lot about class and the lower classes’ envy of any class above themselves. In it we see another obstacle for Darlene to escape the traps of her sex and class, which is her own family and their working class values. Mark and Becky are living in a trailer and the Conners are struggling for money with Roseanne and Jackie doing odd jobs, like giving out samples in the grocery store.
Although, Dan and Roseanne have always hoped their daughters would “make it,” at the same time they are resentful toward the small successes that Darlene has achieved. They begin to interpret her usual sarcastic comments as a slam against their working-class family. In this episode Roseanne gives a short speech to Darlene about her failures as a feminist and acknowledges her resentment.
“First of all, I’m really glad that you’re going to school and getting an education like I never got because I got caught up in all that love and peace crap from the ’60s. Then 10 years later I realized I should have listened to all those women who said learn to support yourself or you’re going to be screwed.” She admits that she resents that she had to work in factories, salons, and restaurants to help Darlene get that far.
Darlene talks about how she’s surrounded by rich kids who don’t have to work hard because “Daddy’s there to bail them out.” This is a statement about the fact that college is a thing that usually runs in families and Darlene is an exception being from a working class family in which both she and her sister dropped out of high school.
In the background of this episode, D.J. tries to seduce a girl at school using a trombone he bought with some inheritance money. Dan approves, but Jackie and Becky try to explain to him that this is wrong, which is also met with laughter as D.J. makes a sexual gesture with the trombone before going into the other room with the girl.
In the next episode, Becky realizes that she may have made a mistake by dropping out of school and marrying Mark. She’s not sure she wants to stay married to him (and we can understand why), she wants to go back to school and dreams of becoming a doctor.
The Roseanne Show ended at Season 9, which was all a fantasy written by the character Roseanne. It highlights the various aspects of the plight of the working class Conner family, which we’ve seen coated in humor for all the preceding seasons. Not only does Roseanne become a feminist heroine, but the family becomes fabulously wealthy after winning the lottery and we do not see if Darlene graduates college or if Becky ever gets to go back to school. But, Darlene becomes pregnant and marries David, which seems to bring an end to her personal ambitions.
Roseanne’s feminism is demonstrated within the context of the patriarchal restraints of the traditional nuclear family and the limitations of her class.
My favorite episodes of “Roseanne” involve the snooty neighbor, Cathy Bowman. Cathy is blonde, slim, and married to Jerry Bowman, with whom she has a son. Cathy doesn’t have to work outside her home to support her family like Roseanne does and in the first episode introducing the Bowmans, “Troubles with the Rubbles,” we see the contrast between the parenting styles of the two women, which is a reflection of each woman’s class.
The episode opens with Roseanne complaining about the fact that she has three children and a husband and still ends up doing all the grunt work. Roseanne’s kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, nor does it have an inset shelf in the living room by the front door. Roseanne’s furniture is old, the sofa is worn with its iconic, acrylic, multi-colored afghan laid across the back of it and her kitchen table looks like it came from the ’60s. The kitchen walls and cabinets look aged.
By contrast Cathy’s house has neat, modern furnishings and a modern-looking, bright kitchen. At the end of this episode, a hilarious contrast is made, with corresponding musical background, to the two homes, showing the differences between the living rooms and kitchens in the otherwise identical houses.
Roseanne is a bad house keeper, while Cathy’s house is neat and orderly. Cathy speaks quietly and makes cute, small sneezes. But, Roseanne is loud with a grating voice.
Cathy is humorless. She is a Stepford Wife and Roseanne makes a contrastng joke about “the Lanford Wives,” in the episode, “Tolerate Thy Neighbor.”
In “Troubles with the Rubbles,” Roseanne enters Cathy’s home for the first time and says, “Man, this is the house I could have had if I’d married someone better.” In a later episode we learn that Cathy did not marry up, rather its her family who provided a job for her husband back in Chicago. But, until then we were left with this sexist assumption.
Cathy appears to be a traditionalist. There is nothing very feminist about her character, which seems to be drawn as a mirror of Roseanne’s class and the traditional role of wife and mother..In fact, because of her relatively privileged economic status, she is a stay-at-home mom and seems even more traditional than Roseanne who has to work to help support her family. She confronts Roseanne over the lack of supervision her son receives when he stays at Roseanne’s house. She clearly perceives Roseanne as a lower class of person and a less capable parent.
In a final episode with the Bowmans, their house is broken into in broad daylight. This is the last straw for Cathy in this low class neighborhood. She wants to move back to Chicago and we learn toward the end of the episode, “Tolerate Thy Neighbor,” that she controls her husband through sexual intercourse. He doesn’t really respect his wife and regularly disrespects her with Dan’s encouragement.
The contrast between Cathy and Roseanne is not so much about a traditionalist vs. a feminist or one type of feminist vs. another, but the contrast between two relatively traditionalist women of two slightly different classes. Roseanne’s class envy manifests as she calls Cathy “a witch” and “a bitch.”. When she sees Cathy’s house being broken into, it doesn’t occur to her that the house is being robbed, instead she believes that Cathy is just giving things away “to show off.”
A major feminist moment in the show for Roseanne occurs in Season 1, Episode 23, “Let’s Call it Quits,” when Roseanne tries to reach a compromise with an abusive supervisor at Wellman’s, but instead ends up leading a walk-out of the women workers at the factory.
Roseanne and Jackie
The biggest mirror of Roseanne’s character throughout the series is her sister, Jackie, who is single and, for most of the series, does not have children.
Roseanne is always trying to match-make, but the matches don’t often turn out well. In fact, Roseanne and Dan are the only successful couple in the series with the exception of “happily married” Vonda and Phil from Seasons 2 and 3. D.J. mentions in one episode that he’s the only kid in his class whose parents are still married to each other. Roseanne’s father messed around on her mom. Dan’s father messed around on his mom. Roseanne calls men pigs a number of times, but she still tries to shove her sister together with a number of men. She, also, manipulates her daughters, especially Darlene, to be with particular men.
This represents the kind of cognitive dissonance many of us have experienced at one time or another as women in relation to men when, despite all information to the contrary, we continue to hope that there is just one who is not a degenerate.
Jackie, too, bangs her head against a wall repeatedly, believing that there is something wrong with her because she can’t find a man. This is something that both Roseanne and her mother constantly harass Jackie about. Roseanne spouts Oprah-style psycho-babble at Jackie in Season 4, Episode 18, “This Old House,” when she says that their father’s abuse is why she is fat and Jackie “can’t have any decent relationship with any man.” Of course, Jackie isn’t really the problem and their father’s abuse is not happening in a vacuum – but they can’t tell us this on television! The men Jackie dates and eventually marries are representative of a variety of different types of male abusers. One of them beats her up, one is her sexually harassing boss at the factory (played by George Clooney) and in one episode she becomes the victim of date rape at the hands of Arnie, which is such a normal thing that it made a big joke of in Season 4, Episode 3, “Why Jackie Becomes a Trucker.”
Jackie frequently expresses her envy of Roseanne’s mostly happy marriage to Dan. In “An Officer and a Gentleman,” she takes Roseanne’s place while their dad is in the hospital and performs a parody performance of June Cleaver in “Leave It to Beaver.”
But, Jackie’s independent nature and her refusal to conform to certain gender role identities often stands in the way of her relationships with men who want to dominate her or who disrespect her humanity in other ways.
Perhaps one of the most repellent men Jackie is paired with is Fred who, in Season 6, Episode 17, “Don’t Make Room for Daddy,” tries to sue her for custody of her unborn child. “He’s suing me for custody of my stomach!” Jackie says. He insists on being involved in “his” child’s life. He tries to control Jackie in various ways even after their divorce. With her cognitive dissonance in relation to men, Roseanne interferes and pushes Jackie together with Fred. Jackie is very reluctant at first. She just wants to raise her child alone without interference. Eventually, Jackie succumbs to the pressure and, against her better judgement, she marries Fred who she doesn’t really know. Fred expresses a lot of sentiments that seem to come directly from “Father’s Rights” advocates. Fred says, “I’m fighting for my rights and my kid’s rights.” He even refers to himself as a “nice” guy at the end of the episode.
In “Don’t Make Room for Daddy,” we see how deeply embedded patriarchal ideas about male/female couples are in Roseanne’s mind. We see that women who rebel are always brought into line one way or another. She says to Jackie: “If you don’t snap out of this man-hating stuff of yours, you’re going to be old and alone and thinking you can stay with me!” Jackie says, “You don’t know what I went through.” Roseanne defends men, “They’re not all like Fisher. They’re not all like Dad.” So we see how traditional Roseanne is compared to Jackie. In the last scene, we see that Jackie is in bed with Fred, again, and talking about how he’s a “nice guy.” The patriarchy triumphs despite Jackie’s resistance to it.
Jackie best expresses her feminism through her pursuit of jobs that are traditionally “male only.” She becomes a Landford City police officer and she becomes an over-the-road truck driver. She, also, stands up for herself against her boyfriend, Gary, who wants her to quit the Lanford Police Department. She asserts herself for the last time against Fred when they agree to a divorce.
I’m amazed that “Roseanne” is considered to be a feminist television show because, apart from the fact that Roseanne Barr is an amazing, powerful woman and a strong feminist, this show is about a very traditional nuclear family. But, the feminism of this show has to be considered in the context of what has been allowed on television in the past. It is a testimony to the fact that women have not come a long way.
For women, television is the modern-day equivalent of the Medieval European witch burnings. It’s a way to keep women in line on a mass scale. The trauma, humiliation, subjugation and violence meted out to women on television has a similar effect on the subconscious that seeing the brutal eroticized torture of women by men had on European women in the Middle Ages in that it keeps women “in their place” by mocking and reinforcing our subjugation at the hands of men. Women are not only objectified, they are seen in traditional roles or, at least, sexual roles.
I believe Roseanne Barr did the best she could to give a voice to women, especially women of the lower classes, and really to a whole bunch of people (like myself) in the middle part of the country, which is very much ignored except when it is maligned by elitists in the media situated on either coast.
Some other aspects of feminism in Roseanne, which I’d like to analyze in the future, are the promotion of allopathic medicine (obstetrics and gynecology) to women and the promotion of the male protection racket.
Roseanne Interviews Gloria Steinem:
Roseanne Barr on Democracy Now! – Part 1 of 4:
“Mary, Roseanne and Carrie: Television and Fictionalized Feminism,” by Rachael Horowitz – http://michiganjournalhistory.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/horowitz_rachel.pdf
“Too Short to Be Quarterback, Too Plain to Be Queen,” Journal Volume XI Issue II Spring 2011, April 4th, 2011, Taylor Cole Miller: http://gnovisjournal.org/2011/04/04/too-short-to-be-quarterback-too-plain-to-be-queen/
Note: The above article is a reprint from by private blog, which was first published on November 4, 2014.