By Mollie Goldberg
I was watching 7th Heaven one night while on a nostalgia-induced late night procrastination sesh. The episode revolved around five year-old Lucy getting in trouble for coloring on her walls. After a stern talking-to, Lucy tells her mother she hates her. Suddenly, the camera zooms in slowly on her mother’s face, Ken Burns style, as dramatic flutes come in. She’s hurt. So very hurt. Rolling your eyes? So is Roseanne.
A sitcom based around comedian Roseanne Barr’s “domestic goddess” stand-up persona, Roseanne follows the life of parents Roseanne and Dan Conner, played by John Goodman, and their three young kids (can I get an amen for a fictional show based on a funny woman rather than yet another funny man?). Both parents are blue collar workers: Roseanne and her sister work at a plastics factory and Dan is an independent contractor always struggling to find jobs. One of the first things I noticed was how accurate the production design was for the content and storyline in comparison to the ones I grew up watching. Every sitcom loves to talk about the hecticness of domestic life, but hardly any of them actually show it in its ugliest form. So many of these shows are too…what’s the word? Clean? The 7th Heaven family is comprised of five, and then seven, children and yet their home looks like a Crate & Barrel catalog. The Conners, on the other hand, live in a home riddled with little details to emphasize their averageness. In the kitchen, the paper towel roll is crawling toward the floor. In the living room, a cabinet is missing its handles. The staircase is littered with pillows and sheets and the floor scattered with toys. You know, like a family actually lives there. And they make fun of it, too. In one episode, Dan comes home to find Roseanne reclining in a chair while the kids try to clean up the mess of junk around her. Whipping his hat off he exclaims, “oh no! don’t tell me the maid didn’t show up!” They are aware of their status as a working class family and make it obvious that they do worry about money, but use it as a jumping off point for humor and the family becoming a strong unit rather than being their main source of strife. Their financial status as a mere subplot alleviates a lot of the weird fetishization of the poor narrative in which every day is a struggle on the streets, rather than a focus on interpersonal relationships and familial bond.
Ideas of representation aside, this show is simply amazeballs. In one episode, Roseanne walks into the living room to find Dan watching wrestling on TV. He says, “you’re just in time to watch snake man take on the human clam!” To which she responds, “reminds me of our honeymoon.” I nearly choked on my glass of wine. Bless this show. What’s great about Roseanne’s comedy in comparison to so many other melodramatic sitcoms is her political incorrectness. She and Dan have a running joke about getting rid of their kids and the way the editors structure the laugh track around it is hilarious. One moment she’ll say something about wanting to throw her kids off a bridge, something I doubt anyone else would have the guts to joke about so frankly. But then the laugh track plays, she gives a genuine smirk to show she’s only half kidding, and suddenly it’s on to the next scene! She jokes about getting her tubes tied, tells the kids to “fight to the death,” and when another mother asks her how she is, she responds with “my feet hurt and I have periodic bouts of depression!” I can’t speak for anyone else’s family, but this is far more accurate to what my parents and many of my friends’ parents felt working 40+ hours a week and raising young kids. As my dad likes to say, they sure do love us, but they don’t always like us. And they definitely don’t have time to have deep eye contact as sappy music plays over every time we do something wrong. Case in point: after an argument with their oldest child Becky, she calls them “bogus” and storms off. There’s silence for a second as the drama builds, until Dan turns to Roseanne and says, “Hi, Dan Bogus” and holds out his hand for a shake.
Because the content that reaches the general public, especially kids, has an effect on their understandings of race, gender, sexuality, family, etc., Roseanne Barr’s place as a feminist producer marks an important shift toward stronger female representation. Roseanne Conner is late for teacher meetings, makes boxed mac & cheese, and celebrates Dan’s success with pork rinds and beer. When middle child Darlene cuts her finger, Dan tries to calm her down by asking her to picture a flower. She’s not responsive. But when Roseanne asks her to picture the demolition derby, Darlene perks up immediately as she describes twisted metal and cars. Dan admits his mistake and recognizes his daughter’s personal identity. As someone who was teased by boys in elementary school for dressing like them, I wish I had had this kind of affirmation on the screen, though the support from my family was helpful. Further, rather than segregating the men and women to exclusive friendships with each other, they consistently do things together. Roseanne’s sister Jackie is a frequent visitor to the Conner home, and when Dan comes home and cracks open a beer, his instinct is to toss her one as well. They sit around the kitchen table and sometimes a local bar, chatting and drinking beer, usually in the way predominantly male groups are depicted. But the most refreshing moment for me came in the episode in which Darlene gets her period. Darlene starts throwing away everything sports related, lamenting that she has to become like Becky, who likes makeup and clothes. Roseanne explains that Becky does that not because it’s what defines a woman, but because “she’s always liked that stuff.” In that moment she has just explained to every girl watching this show a very basic tenet of feminism: choice. Not only that, but she practices what she preaches, combining both a propensity to drink and burp as well as wanting nice perfume and date night. She and Jackie then have a frank discussion about their first periods–how old they were, why they got it so early, people’s ridiculous reactions to it, and their illogical fears. Humorously, of course. Menstruation seems to be a topic covered by shows aimed at young adults today, but keep in mind this season was made in 1988. It’s done so matter-of-factly, without stigmatizing the experience or obsessing about it as scary and life-altering.
I’d also like to mention that in dealing with Dan’s character, Roseanne doesn’t try to counter her feminism with his idiocy. A common complaint among men is that dad characters often come off as bumbling idiots. Yes, he is a construction worker, but Dan Conner is in touch with both his kids’ and wife’s emotions and desires. He scrubs a stain in the carpet when Roseanne is over-worked and supports her lost dreams of becoming a writer by turning her poetry into songs, saying that he’s “kept everything she’s ever written.” And likewise, Roseanne treats him as an equal, telling a woman at a bar who asks her if Dan is “babysitting” the kids, “babysitting? they’re his kids too.”
Beyond the fact that young George Clooney has a role on this show (praise the heavens), I found it refreshing to see ideologies and identities that I hadn’t seen represented so explicitly in the sitcoms I watched as a kid. But it’s also sad to think that in 2015, a show that ran from 1988-1997 tackles issues of today sometimes better than today does. The characters feel so three-dimensional and the genuine chemistry between Roseanne Barr and John Goodman is palpable. You can tell that when they’re laughing, they’re really laughing. Considering there are so few women writing and producing TV shows today, it’s crucial to note that accurate representations of our thoughts, ideas, and feelings, as well as those from our partners, makes for a more enjoyable experience–and one that can quite literally influence our perceptions of ourselves and others. My only hope is that in future seasons, we’ll see more people represented because as of now there are virtually no people of color or LGBTQ identity. But I think Roseanne shows promise even 15 years after its cancellation. Its place on Netflix will provide the outlet it needs to be seen by more people and have those healthy representations acknowledged.