Before we realised this ‘yummy mummy’ thing was engulfing us; before a whole host of experts came out and made a theory of the intensification and idealisation of motherhood and the damage it is doing to us; before smart women writers got together and wrote an angry anthology about motherhood, marriage and work, called The Bitch in the House … there was the real bitch in the house: Roseanne Barr and her ‘domestic goddess’ comedy routine. She was a waitress who made it big as a stand-up comic with jokes about wife-rage and motherhood-resentment – “as a housewife, I feel that if the kids are alive when my husband gets home, then hey, I’ve done my job”.
Her success as a comedienne led to her being offered her own sit-com – Roseanne. The Roseanne show was huge. I mean, you kinda forget how huge in a mainstream way this feminist, working-class sit-com really was – but we’re talking Two And A Half Men sized-popularity in its day. The show won Emmy Awards, Golden Globes, People’s Choice Awards, and American Comedy Awards. By its second season it was the most watched television show in the United States of America at the time. And you might even forget how amazing it was for it to have been that big, but Roseanne was the show with
- two leads playing parents who worked outside the home and who struggled financially;
- two leads who were also fat but whose weight was not the stuff of ridicule;
- a female lead who did not rely upon looks for her popularity;
- a female lead who got angry in her storylines and who did not get punished for that;
- a central female character who was lesbian;
- relationships between female characters based on support rather than competition; and,
- topics being explored such as poverty, alcoholism, drug use, sex, menstruation, contraception, teenage pregnancy, masturbation, abortion, race, class, domestic violence and gay rights.
Here is what Roseanne Barr said about her show –
I was a cutting-edge comic, and … I wanted to do a realistic show about a strong mother who was not a victim of Patriarchal Consumerist Bullshit—in other words, the persona I had carefully crafted over eight previous years in dive clubs and biker bars: a fierce working-class Domestic Goddess. It was 1987, and it seemed people were primed and ready to watch a sitcom that didn’t have anything like the rosy glow of middle-class confidence and comfort, and didn’t try to fake it.
I have always had a soft spot for the kind of feminist Roseanne Barr is – the tough, wild kind. The kind who lives her politics right up front regardless of how much she pays for it. The kind who has known and fought disadvantage right from the get go. The kind who does not always play well with others and who usually scares the shit out of people.
The next battle came when Matt sent down a line for me that I found incredibly insulting—not just to myself but to John, who I was in love with, secretly. The line was a ridiculously sexist interpretation of what a feminist thinks—something to the effect of “You’re my equal in bed, but that’s it.” I could not say it convincingly enough for Matt, and his hand-picked director walked over and gave me a note in front of the entire crew: “Say it like you mean it … That is a direct note from Matt.” What followed went something like this: My lovely acting coach, Roxanne Rogers (a sister of Sam Shepard), piped up and said, “Never give an actor a note in front of the crew. Take her aside and give her the note privately—that is what good directors do.” She made sure to say this in front of the entire crew. Then she suggested that I request a line change. So I did. Matt, who was watching from his office, yelled over the loudspeaker, “Say the line as written!” I said, “No, I don’t like the line. I find it repulsive, and my character would not say it.” Matt said, “Yes, she would say it. She’s hot to trot and to get her husband in bed with her, and give it to her like she wants it.” I replied that this was not what she would say or do: “It’s a castrating line that only an idiot would think to write for a real live woman who loves her husband, you cocksucker.” ABC’s lawyers were called in. They stood around the bed while the cameras filmed me saying, very politely, over and over, “Line change, please.” After four hours of this, I called my then-lawyer, Barry Hirsch, and demanded to be let out of my contract. I couldn’t take it any longer—the abuse, humiliation, theft, and lack of respect for my work, my health, my life. He explained that he had let it go on for hours on purpose and that I had finally won. He had sent a letter to the network and Carsey-Werner that said, “Matt wasted money that he could have saved with a simple line change. He cost you four hours in production budget.” That turned the tide in my favor.
Roseanne Barr dared America to hate her – can you imagine doing a magazine cover like the ones she did for Vanity Fair with her sexuality, success and fat on display in such abundance in a fat-shaming, woman-hating place like that?- and hate her they quickly did. Roseanne has always walked a line between hugely adored and hugely despised, but that hasn’t stopped her from sharing her vulnerability in public – talking openly about sexual abuse, mental illness, and discrimination.
I loved the Roseanne show. Back when that was on television I was a kid in a single-parent household living in poverty. The contempt for poor mothers then was such that the government, newspapers and mainstream television spoke loudly and openly of what they saw as these mothers’ immorality, failure and need for punishment. Kids at school picked up on this and they were awful to you about your family if you came from one with a single mother. My family was almost nothing like the family in Roseanne, but the show was important to me. Because it was not only a show about the feminist values I identified with – and oh my god, was it lonely being a feminist in school – but in its depictions of family it gave dignity and grace and intelligence to poor families like mine, on prime-time television.
Right now the whole feminist blogosphere is suddenly talking about Roseanne Bar, and here’s why; if you haven’t read ‘And I Should Know’ by Roseanne Barr then hop on over there quick smart. Because seriously, it’s a wonderful piece.