The disintegration of Roseanne Barr shows the power of Black women in Hollywood and the rise of class over crass
Roseanne Barr woke up with a million-dollar job and by lunchtime in LA it was gone. She got her big show chopped down like an old Civil War statue.
Her show was indeed a monument to white privilege, a place where supporters could celebrate President Donald Trump and dismiss ABC shows like Black*ish and Fresh Off the Boat with the back of their hand. This is not simply symbolic. In one-episode Roseanne and her TV husband, Dan Conner, sleep through the primetime TV shows and when they awake, her husband says, “We missed all the shows about Black and Asian families,” to which Roseanne’s character says, “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.” She dismisses them, saying we needn’t pay attention to them and the nuances of their lives because they don’t matter. You can ignore them and feel fine about it.
In so many ways Roseanne’s #1 show was supposedly a symbol of the power of the Trump voter and how the liberal-leaning entertainment industry had been forced to respect that audience. Instead, Roseanne’s abruptly cancelled show now becomes a symbol of a new day in America. But, don’t be confused—this is not a one-character drama. This is in fact a story about one boundary-hating comedian and three powerful Black women.
Roseanne, like Trump, is the personification of white privilege. Her wild, supposedly uncontrollable mouth is a shtick meant to crap all over people’s expectations of white women.
Far from demure, classy, or ladylike, she’s all id and crass and slovenliness, telling women just give the middle finger to all that feminist crap. She screeches, “I’m a domestic goddess,” because the notion of her as any sort of goddess is hysterical. She transgresses boundaries with impunity because whiteness gives her that freedom. She says racist things because many white people will back her up. The comment about Valerie Jarrett as the child of an ape—and a similar comment from years ago calling Susan Rice an ape with testicles—shows Roseanne swimming deep in the muddy swamp of right wing anger politics.
Roseanne is actually a victim of O.D.S.— Obama Derangement Syndrome. She’s dismissed two dignified, above-the-fray, highly educated Presidential advisors as common simians. She’s reduced them both to apes, which is a way of repeating the age-old racist notion that Blacks are like wild animals, specifically, apes and gorillas. It’s easy for (some) white people to say hey, just ignore it, don’t be so sensitive, but the idea that Black people are wild animals sits at the core of the justification for racism. If we are lesser than human, then it’s alright to treat us lesser. If we’re animals then why not enslave, lynch, segregate, or mass incarcerate us?
Anything is possible when you believe a person is less than human. The success of Jarret and Rice does not serve as insulation from these insults but rather helps deepens the cut—it says no matter how high you get, no matter how much education you acquire, no matter how dignified you are, we’ll still see you as nothing more than a simple, wild ape. This is demeaning, disheartening, and, yes, traumatizing. All of this may be foreign to some white people, but I’m sure Jarrett, Wanda Sykes, and Channing Dungey understood all of this right away.
These other women in this story cannot be erased from it because the story would not have played out as it did without them. Sykes, of course, is popular comedian who was a consulting producer and head writer on Roseanne until the tweet about Jarrett. Sykes left the show with a tweet, thus weakening Roseanne’s hand—if Sykes wasn’t standing by her, could anyone else?
Did Jarret make a call that helped put Roseanne in her place? Perhaps. But the decision about the future of Roseanne’s show was really up to the first Black woman to ever lead a network, the head of ABC Entertainment, Channing Dungey.
Dungey graduated magna cum laude from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and TV. She’s an industry veteran who’s helped develop The Matrix, Heat, Scandal, and much more. Contrast Roseanne’s purposely harsh, anti-PC, fever swamp conspiracy-loving public persona with the dignity, grace, and experience that Jarrett, Sykes, and Dungey have needed just to get in the room. Like so many Black women, they have had to be twice as good and guess what, they succeeded. Just as Barack Obama could never have been elected President if he had Trump’s resume—multiple wives, multiple affairs, constant boorishness, ignorance, incompetence, bad speller, mendacity, etc.—so too have these women needed to toe the line in order to succeed. They could never have ascended to the elite of government and entertainment if they were known for transgressing social boundaries. That’s a game for white people to play, but for Black people to succeed in a community where image matters, they must be completely beyond reproach.
If this Roseanne situation had happened just a few years ago there likely would not have been a big emergency meeting at ABC to decide what to do and everyone in the room would’ve been white. Not this time. Not in today’s America. We’re a nation where racism is ascendant, but so too are Black women and Dungey is part of that. She understood that even though Roseanne’s show was their biggest in decades, ABC’s bottom line was less important than doing the right thing.
Perhaps white men would’ve made the right call, but I haven’t seen that happen often enough. I don’t believe a roomful of white men would make this decision. Most corporations are short-sighted and cancelling the only true hit they’ve had in years would be tough. Hollywood has often excused bad behavior from those who knew how to get eyeballs and make money, but Roseanne had become a cancer for the ABC brand, especially as it became the home of Modern Family,Black*ish, and Shondaland.
This decision, to reject naked racism from a successful rainmaker, shows an institution willing to put justice ahead of the bottom line and it shows that having Black women in charge definitely makes a difference.
Touré is an award-winning, veteran journalist, cultural critic, and television personality. He is the host of the podcast, Touré Show where he has interviewed Kendrick Lamar, Zadie Smith, Spike Lee, Maxwell, and is working on a book with Rakim.