Roseanne Conner remains a unique and groundbreaking character decades on from her inception. Working class and toiling in unglamourous—thoroughly unHollywood—jobs like serving loose meat at a down-market diner, Roseanne was the physical embodiment of a stiff middle-finger to noose-like expectations that leading women be thin, sweet, polite and temperate. And she was a feminist! There in hell her prime-time sitcom glory was a ballsy, brash woman talking about menstruation. A woman who not only contributed to her family but oftentimes kept it afloat. Roseanne was a show revolutionary when it first aired and in 2018 old episodes still look fresh.
The original run ran between 1988 and 1997, so for me, between the ages of 8 and 17. ‘Formative years’ is a stretch—to give that much power to any one media item is excessive—but it was a show I enjoyed and which I still consider important.
Of course I’d watch the reboot. I watched it, I enjoyed it, and I wrote about it. Subsequent episodes would interest me less and less—making me question whether the truly sweet spot for the nostalgia reboot is giving us a little of our past but never too much—and pleasant feelings of déjà vu were gradually replaced with further evidence that the heyday for sitcoms is long gone.
Not that I believe we should have to justify our media consumption. Nonetheless, part of my rationale for watching a show made by a Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist was a commitment to separating art from artist. Chinatown for example, is every bit as good a film, or as bad, once we know about Polanski’s crimes. Ditto The Cosby Show, House of Cards or ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’ played on a wobble board. While our enjoyment of the material might be forever changed, the art itself remains the same.
Separating art from artist though, is easier to achieve when the song or the painting or the movie is long completed and the contribution to the canon already determined. Doing so becomes trickier when a bad person creates new material. If I support their new art, I support that bad creator and, tacitly, their bad values. Sure, in the case of the Roseanne reboot I was also supporting a host of other people connected to the show who were Trump detractors, but ultimately it’s Barr’s show. Watching the reboot, I knew I was helping build her audience, build her platform and also accepting that opportunity cost reality that in producing Roseanne, ABC wasn’t devoting resources to something ‘better’.
Flash forward not even two months. I’d wake up to yet another Twitter rant—this time Barr’s instead of Trump’s—and news that ABC is dumping Roseanne. My first thoughts were thorough relief that the to-watch-or-not-to-watch decision had been wrenched from me. That thought was quickly replaced by another thorny one: thank God for capitalism.
I teach and research about politics and gender studies so spend an inordinate thinking about the role of capitalism in the equality struggle. I generally believe capitalism will always oppress the underdog. That doesn’t of course, make it without merit. ABC’s cancellation of Roseanne is an example of one those rare occasions when our reverence for the almighty dollar can actually steer us towards a better place.
When Netflix fired Kevin Spacey from House of Cards, when Ridley Scott edited him out of All the Money in the World, no part of me thought these corporations had suddenly become the foot soldiers for an emerging feminist movement. I thought then, as I do now, that it was an economic decision. Spacey had started to stink. He’d been tried and convicted by a court of public opinion that included Netflix subscribers and cinema-ticket buyers, so Netflix and TriStar made decisions that would best position their wares in an increasingly woke marketplace. It was a well-executed PR move that made these companies look responsive. Netflix and TriStar are remembered for doing what the courts were unlikely to do: punish Spacey.
When ABC pulled the plug on Roseanne, the network won on two fronts. It distanced itself from a woman who, to put it mildly, failed to rein in her nonsense, and took a public stance against values that conflicted with their business model: a model which means making material appealing to the largest number of people. In a climate where truly heinous behaviour oiled a path to the White House—where it gets rewarded every day that Trump is permitted behind the Resolute desk—we’re increasingly looking to other sources for inspiration when it comes to values and on this occasion ABC stepped up to the plate.
I’ll always be uncomfortable with corporations having such a potent role in shaping our culture. That said, today I’m less scared about the role of corporations than the role of our political leaders. ABC’s stance, be it with an eye on their bottom line or a genuine beef with Barr’s bigotry, gets us to the same place: calling time, saying enough is enough, and loudly identifying that America hasn’t gone so feral as to not realise when a line has been well and truly crossed.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and co-host of ABC Radio National’s weekly show ‘Stop Everything!’ and Mamamia’s ‘Sealed Section’ podcast.