ROSEANNE: Social Responsibility on Television

If this feels like an addendum to my earlier piece about separating art from the artist, that’s because fate has taken a twist in that direction over the last couple of days. Roseanne, ABC’s successful re-launch of the hit 1980’s/1990’s sitcom starring Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a middle-American family, has been cancelled after the star herself wrote a horrendously racist tweet about former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett which rightly drew derision from all quarters. ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey swiftly responded with this brief statement:

Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.

While many have applauded Dungey and ABC for such a swift and decisive rejection of racist rhetoric by a star on their network, some such as Kathryn VanArendonk have made the point that the damage has already been done, that ABC don’t have a spotless record in terms of positive portrayals of race recently, and while Roseanne started as a huge hit upon its return, she subsequently had shed almost 10 million viewers by the season finale. Perhaps ABC found the excuse they’d been looking for to can the show.

Regardless of the reasons, Roseanne Barr’s banishment to the nether regions of disgraced celebrities is, without doubt, a long-time coming. While being a pro-Trump supporter for many would be condemnation enough, Barr has often gone one step further in promoting wild, divisive conspiracy theories which further suggest she has extremist views in line with many right-wing individuals who have taken Trump’s Presidency as a sign that their rhetoric has been validated. It should already have been clear that the gift of a revived TV sitcom career was misjudged and highly inappropriate.

This goes back to my previous piece, in which I used Roseanne as an example of being unable to separate art from the potentially unsavoury off-screen personalities of the people involved.

Now I have to raise my hands up and confess: I have never watched Roseanne. Much as I find myself disgusted by the episode in her recent series about the portrayal of Muslim neighbours, I have not seen it. I have no interest in the show and never have done. I therefore cannot judge it on its comedic merits. Some say it’s very good, or at least *was* very good, back in its heyday. Right now, the quality of Roseanne the show is not the point. Comedy is subjective, more so than any other piece of art. What is funny to one person may be abhorrent or deeply unfunny to another. Comedy also should not suffer censorship; satire is and always has been one the most powerful tools for exposing injustice or ignorance and shining a light on the corrupt. Comedy can be of great use in the same way drama, allegorically, can influence opinion and create debate. This is why, after so many years, television and cinema remain our key, mainstream art forms. We often do not just watch for surface, we are deeply tuned to depth.

This is also why television, certainly in the case of something like Roseanne, has an important social responsibility.

As many of you know, I grew up in Britain. I was born in 1982 so while growing up my comedy touchstones were distinctly 90’s shows such as Men Behaving Badly, Spaced or Bottom—most of which were either absurdist or post-modern. I was also exposed to the dwindling comedy of yesteryear. Much of it still, largely, stands up today; heartwarming, cheeky sitcoms such as Only Fools and Horses or spiky farce like Fawlty Towers, but behind these bastions of the 70’s and 80’s were dark and troubling examples of comedy expressly created for the lowest common denominator, which reinforced the kind of stereotypes that the multicultural Britain I grew up in, a Britain which elected New Labour when I was 15 and ushered in an era of greater diversity and tolerance, were beginning to find outdated and positively unpalatable.

Love Thy Neighbour in the 1970’s depicted a white working class London family struggling with a West Indian family moving in next door, with all the ‘hilarious’ culture clashes that ensued. Primarily this involved star Jack Smethurst referring to minorities in the show with names such as ’n*g-n*g’ or soubriquets as ‘Fu Manchu’ for Chinese people, or ‘Gunga Din’ for Asians. His wife was depicted as more racially tolerable, and admittedly his black neighbour also used derogatory terms such as ‘honky’ or ‘paleface’, but the entire concept of the show was geared toward highlighting what writers Vince Powell & Harry Driver clearly believed was an endemic British problem: fear and mistrust of the outsider.

This was an extension of the more critically acclaimed 1960’s series ’Til Death Us Do Part by Johnny Speight, which has been immortalised for the creation of comedy character Alf Garnett; a horrendous Cockney bigot and racist who would frequently refer to black people as ‘coo*s’. Garnett has always been recognised as a character intentionally created to highlight bigotry, but I absolutely remember my own grandmother using that derogatory term and not seeming to understand that by the time I was hearing her say it—the 90’s & 2000’s—it was incredibly unacceptable. Speight went on to create the charmless Curry & Chips in 1969, which featured Spike Milligan as a blacked-up Pakistani immigrant nicknamed ‘P*ki-Paddy’.

Yes, really.

These kind of TV series may have tried to challenge racist views of the white working class in Britain, but there is a strong argument that they did more harm than good in solidifying entrenched attitudes. We can wince at Garnett or P*ki-Paddy fifty years on, but how many people were nodding along in the late 1960’s?

My point is that these series were lacking any form of social responsibility. “But it was a different age!” cry defenders, or people who frequently use the right to defend free speech, or fight back against the ‘anti-PC’ brigade (now renamed ‘Social Justice Warrior’ or ‘Snowflake’ online). The key aspect of free speech is that it does not automatically entitle the right to *hate* speech. You may have the freedom to shout racist views from the top of your lungs, but to then self-righteously reject anyone challenging those views openly is itself antithetical to the very concept of free speech in a modern democratic society.

The difference with television is that we’re not just talking about a Twitter troll with 13 followers re-tweeting a picture of a swastika – what we see on the box in our living rooms, or on our tablets and smartphones, makes a difference in our lives and to our societal attitudes.

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, socially irresponsible television which fundamentally misunderstood how to take aim at racist polemic heightened tensions and further bred into a generation that it was acceptable to use words like ‘p*ki’ (which I heard far too often growing up in Birmingham in the 80’s & 90’s) or the N-word. Shows such as Roseanne are doing the same thing with a fractured, aimless America which has lost touch with its national identity (as indeed has Britain, but far less for reasons of race). The Muslim controversy episode should *never* have happened. It didn’t help. It would have entrenched beliefs in the same way those British examples did amongst a population and Republican voter base who already think voting for a man who wants to deport immigrant families and put up a wall to keep out Mexicans is a good idea.

In discussions I have seen online this week, and have even participated in here and there, I have seen a worrying amount of people suggest Roseanne is “telling it like it is” in terms of her comedy. Nobody I have spoken to has defended her racist tweets and conspiracy theorising outside of the series, and nor do I think the majority of them agree in any way with such right-wing rhetoric, but defending a show like Roseanne for reflecting an America already divided between a growing liberal/conservative split seems to be vastly missing the point. If we accept that Roseanne does not have any level of social responsibility in a climate where people who aren’t white are being deported or shot in the streets, or where kids are routinely being gunned down in schools, then we need to take a long look in the mirror as the supposed defenders of modern, progressive, democratic civilisation.

Being responsible for the messages portrayed in comedy and drama, in a world where tensions between races and societies and demographics are heightened, is no threat to freedom of speech or to creating something true and relevant to our modern world. We know people are racist, or sexist, or bigoted. We see it every day on that increasingly subjective artefact called the news. The work of television or cinema should be to remind us of what we can be, or should be, not what an extremist minority think we are.

Good riddance to Roseanne the show, and if we’re lucky Roseanne the personality. If we are to emerge from the muck and mire of modern society, our message to people like her should be simple: your world view has no place in it.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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