My love for the ‘90s sitcom Roseanne is probably the most off-brand thing about me. And for what it’s worth, it took years to grow on me as a kid. There was one point in time when Roseanne was my least favourite show on the faithful Nick at Nite lineup. It wasn’t hip like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, no one on Roseanne was as stylish as Fran on The Nanny, and it certainly didn’t offer the cookie-cutter youthfulness of Full House. But the older and more experienced I got, the more I liked checking in with the underwhelming family in the fictional Lanford, Illinois. Roseanne’s community had virtually no people colour, and it was very different from mine. Now, the series is the latest classic to get the reboot treatment, and I want it to stay just as white as it was back then, and for good reason.
Some of the other decades-old shows that have been revived in the past few years have stepped into the next generation ready to address their diversity issues head on. Fuller House, the Netflix original based on Full House that introduced fans to the adult Tanner sisters, got Fernando (Juan Pablo Di). He is Kimmy Gibbler’s heavily-accented Latino ex-husband. Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life got a bunch of people of colour with minor speaking roles and service positions. So it wasn’t quite the win for diversity we need, but it was at least an acknowledgement that there is work to be done. While there is certainly an argument to be made that none of these shows should have been so be white in the first place, they certainly work better by including different voices, or at least different faces. I don’t believe this is the case for Roseanne. If there was ever a show to confront the current toxicity of whiteness in our country right now, it’s Roseanne.
Roseanne may have been a monolithic representation of family life in America because of their monotonous existence, but it was not apolitical. Connors questioned a social issue at every turn. In the season 7 episode “White Men Can’t Kiss,” D.J. (Michael Fisherman) refuses to participate in a school play because it would require him to kiss a Black girl. His mother, Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), wants to make him, to prove that their family isn’t racist. But his father Dan (John Goodman) supports his decision. By then end of the episode, both parents have had to confront their own biases against people of colour, and it’s not a neatly packaged conversation. From LGBTQ+ acceptance to teen pregnancy, Roseanne effectively put everyday whiteness directly in conversation with topics that usually play out in the political arena and disproportionately affect people of colour. Roseanne was one of the few shows where white people took a hard look at themselves, and we need a model of that now more than ever.
The Connors' status as a working-class family outside of an urban centre helped fuel their (relative) progressiveness and relatability. In its heyday, Roseanne was heralded for its refreshing honesty about class in America. While viewers were used to portrayals of people of colour in poverty or barely middle class, white families were always on the come up. They were millionaires like the family Fran worked for in The Nanny, or at least upper middle class like the Tanners in Full House. Putting the Connor family on primetime came with categorisations like “white trash,” but they also connected with an American demographic that felt as though they had been ignored.
It’s a group that was outspoken with their support of Donald Trump and his problematic stances during his campaign for the presidency in 2016. Think pieces suggested that the rage of this American subset, one that wanted to see only itself and its interests prioritised, got Trump elected. White nationalist rallies in Charlottesville are the most extreme version of this. But on the other end is the racist uncle that taught you to drive and your problematic aunt who sends you money for your birthday every year. These are the white people that I imagine patronising Rodbell’s Luncheonette, the spot where Roseanne worked and later owned. And if there were ever a family to be able to speak their language, and perhaps change their minds, it would be the Conners.
When a preview commercial for the upcoming season of Roseanne aired during the Oscars, it caused controversy when it included a tagline that said “A family that looks like us. And lives like us.” Many people found it to be tone deaf that any show would tout itself as looking like most of its viewers without offering a single person of colour in the promotion. I wasn’t offended. I knew exactly who ABC was “calling in” with that marketing, and no, it is not me. But I’m okay with that. In 2018, I, a Black woman, am tired of talking to white people about the issues that matter to me. I am tired of looking to them for support, inclusion, representation, and even empathy. It’s emotional and mental labor that I am getting tired of having to do. It’s time for white people to start talking to each other about their own privilege and racism. In that spirit I say we let Roseanne go forth and be great.