Roseanne Connor is willing to threaten an entire class of elementary-school children, in public, for Mark’s sake, yet she voted for, and still defends, a politician who would invalidate Mark as a full American citizen.
On Tuesday, March 27, the reboot of the ABC television sitcom Roseanne debuted to 18.2 million viewers. The original show (1988-1997) is one of my favorite sitcoms. More or less contemporaneous with Friends and Seinfeld, two other iconic comedies, the show was grounded in a working-class, dysfunctional-family dynamic that distinguished it from Friends’ whitewashed, fantastically affordable New York and Seinfeld’s absurdism. When I learned that ABC would reboot the show and ignore Dan’s (John Goodman) death in the original’s final season, I felt both trepidation and elation. Roseanne was back! But would they screw it up?
In terms of comedy, they did not. The first two episodes mostly met the old show’s standards in terms of jokes per minute, familial conflict, money problems, and issues specific to the given time period—in this case, insufficient healthcare, political divisiveness, a willingness without listening.
In terms of reflecting our times, it depends on whom you ask. In her New York Times opinion piece, Roxane Gay argues that the show glosses over the very issues it evokes—why Roseanne voted for Donald Trump, how media-driven conversations about “the American middle class” usually focus on white people, a simultaneous evocation and erasure of race, and LGBTQ issues. In a more personal piece on TVLine.com, Michael Ausiello, a gay man, declares himself a hypocrite for loving the revival, citing star Roseanne Barr’s support of Trump. How, he wonders, can I enjoy a show when the star is complicit in an attempt to erase me?
Being pansexual, I have asked myself that same question, especially as it regards the character of Mark, Roseanne Connor’s daughter Darlene’s gender nonconforming son. In the first episode, Mark’s high voice, flouncy body language, and gender expression—his love of colors traditionally associated with femininity, his wearing tights and skirts instead of jeans—is played for laughs. Dan, traditional cisgender patriarch, seems particularly bothered, leading to some laughs, but whether we are supposed to laugh at Mark or at Dan’s caveman view of gender is uncomfortably vague.
By the second episode, Dan clarifies his position: He is fine with Mark’s gender and (and possibly sexual) nonconformity but is worried about the child’s safety. These statements allow us to sympathize with Dan even as they tackle a real-world issue—how our acceptance of our loved ones’ difference does not guarantee societal acceptance. Though viewers may or may not agree with Dan’s wish for Mark to stay in the closet for safety, we can, at least, understand the sentiment. Mark, however, refuses the comfort of false belonging. To this young man, staying true to himself is more important than physical safety, and he wears his “girl’s clothes” proudly. The show paints this decision as brave and honest and strong, which it is, but I am also left wondering if, intentionally or not, the episode also suggests that LGBTQ people who choose to stay closeted are weak, cowardly liars. I wish someone would have told Mark that any choice is understandable as long as he makes it for himself.
Another problem with the show’s handling of Mark’s gender nonconformity is Roseanne Connor’s reaction to it. The character shows her deep ignorance of LGBTQ issues when she corners Mark and bluntly asks him, “Do you feel like a boy or a girl?” Mark confirms that his gender identity is male, but in 2018, this is not a question it’s OK to ask. Gender nonconforming people do not owe the rest of us an explanation. It is their choice to come out or not, just as it is a gay man’s or a lesbian’s or a transgender person’s. Forcing the issue, especially when a child is too young to understand the full implications of the question, can do more harm than good.
Of course, “Granny Rose” ultimately supports Mark. When she drops him off at school and a female classmate calls him a freak, Roseanne Connor addresses the entire class, her speech ending thusly: “…I’m counting on you guys to make the new kid feel welcome, and if you don’t, I have ways of finding out about it. I’m a white witch.”
These scenes with Roseanne and Mark illustrate the real-life problems we see in so many working-class, heterosexual, white Trump supporters—a lack of cognitive dissonance. Roseanne and Dan support Mark in various ways and seem to love him genuinely, even if they don’t understand him. And yet they voted for Donald Trump, just as Roseanne Barr did. Roseanne Connor is willing to threaten an entire class of elementary-school children, in public, for Mark’s sake, yet she voted for, and still defends, a politician who would invalidate Mark as a full American citizen, who would strip him of thousands of rights that straight people enjoy, who would mock and bully and Twitter-shame and legislate Mark out of existence. The Connors defend Mark against other citizens while voting against his interests, his happiness, his safety, perhaps his very life.
It is, of course, too early to tell whether this representation of a Trump supporter’s lack of cognitive dissonance is meant to be representative of real life or simply an attempt to make a once-beloved star more palatable to 2018 audiences. But given Barr’s continuous support of Trump; given her offensive Twitter feed, including her recent linking of Marjory Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg’s closed-fist gesture with a Nazi salute; given her Islamophobic and anti-feminist rants, I am afraid that the bull-headed, unapologetic, easily-led-by-the-nose parts of Roseanne Connor hew close to Roseanne Barr, while the more progressive, supportive, inclusive parts represent a sanitized-for-the-audience character that remains, in this age of a great American schism, all too fictional. And if that turns out to be true, then I fear that Mark, who could help fill a major representational gap on television, may be nothing more than a convenient tool for lulling the audience into forgetting how horrid Roseanne Barr has become.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.