Roseanne: Trump Without the Teflon

PACIFIC STANDARD-Two television stars take to Twitter to spread hateful and often racist conspiracy theories. One has her show suddenly yanked off the air. The other becomes president of the United States. 

Strange times we are living in. 

The intertwined stories of Roseanne Barr and President Donald Trump "are important to see together," in the view of historian Matt Delmont. He notes that the reality show host who became president and the sitcom star whose show was abruptly canceled Tuesday both dramatically raised their public profile through a steady stream of offensive tweets. 

Trump was, in effect, rewarded for his willingness to express racist thoughts. So was Barr—until she suddenly wasn't. 

"I think racist sentiments are a through-line of American culture," says Delmont, director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. "They ebb and flow in terms of how publicly they are expressed." 

"I certainly think the ascendency of [Barack] Obama to the presidency made it more acceptable for people who are frustrated about their own standing in life to be openly racist," he added. 

Thus, it seems oddly appropriate that Roseanne's downfall should come in the form of an Obama-related tweet. Specifically, she compared Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's top aides (and an African American), to an ape. 

Why did ABC executives decide enough was enough, and what are the larger implications of their decision? Delmont discussed those topics Tuesday afternoon. 

I hesitate to use the term "turning point," but this seems like a significant moment. Do you feel it is? 

It's certainly very unusual—particularly how quickly they did it. Controversies swirling around stars usually take weeks or months to play out. This was handled in a matter of hours. 

Of course, this isn't her first nasty tweet. Did she finally cross a line? 

From what I've been able to gather, she did cross a line—and the executives were unsure how many more lines she was going to cross, and when. 

They knew the kinds of comments Roseanne Barr, the real person, was making before they relaunched the show. I think that's part of what they were banking on that when they decided to relaunch the show to appeal to "Middle America" Trump voters. They wanted to court that danger, but also contain it. 

Well, they were able to contain it for the three or four months the season lasted. But after this most recent tweet, they could only imagine what could come out next week, or two weeks from now, or in September when the new season launches. Having her back on Twitter, saying these things more regularly, changed their calculation. It was something they couldn't tolerate. 

They were trying to walk a careful line and balance a competing set of demands. Ultimately, it just wasn't sustainable. 

So, was this more of a business decision, or a moral one? 

I think primarily it was a business decision. Fundamentally, commercial television is about trying to attract advertisers. That's why they were so excited about the show's massive ratings. As recently as two weeks ago, they had Roseanne speak to the advertisers. 

I think what changed is they imagined advertisers would start feeling pressure [to pull spots from her show], at which point the commercial prospects of the show would decline. 

I think the fact that Channing Dungey is now the president of ABC television—the first African-American woman in that role—is a factor. I suspect she moved more swiftly than a white male executive might have. She is more attentive to the damage this could do to the overall ABC line-up. No matter how popular a single show was, its star making these kinds of statements on Twitter threatened the entirety of their line-up. 

Being tagged as the networkwith a racist starcould do long-term damage. 

Absolutely. It's one thing to strongly court a certain demographic; it's another to do it in such a vile way that it threatens your relationship with all the other attractive demographics—people who have money to spend, and lots of other programming options. 

What larger message does this decision send? 

The message it sends is that the big broadcast television networks still see themselves as being mass-media entertainment venues that need to avoid polarizing positions. At a time when a lot of media outlets are skewing in different directions politically, ABC decided this wasn't a road they were going to go down any further. There is a lot that's bad about the middle-of-the-road orientation of the main broadcast networks, but in this case, they're holding the line on what's unacceptable for one of their stars to say. 

So there are some lines that can't be crossed without consequences? 

There are lines that are not prudent to cross if you're trying to appeal to a national audience that's increasingly diverse. 

There are enough people of color who are consumers, and watch television, who would be upset by this that it just wasn't viable for the network to stick with her after she crossed those lines. 

Do you believe television, in the main, has been a force for tolerance? 

At its best moments, it has. It has provided Americans with different images of what life in our country looks like. That has helped to normalize different ways of life, and different identities, in a way few mediums can. Television reaches way more people than other media forms. So it can be a force for broadening social horizons. 

The Roseanneshow had the potential to do that, in terms of white, working-class culture. That's what the original iteration of the show did: It brought a working-class perspective to a medium that usually presents people to be middle- or upper-middle class. This most recent [revival] tried to do that as well, but in the end, it couldn't be separated from the person Roseanne Barr is now. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

(Tom Jacobs is the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard, where he specializes in social science, culture, and learning. He is a veteran journalist and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily Newsand the Santa Barbara News-Press.)