Once upon a time – in an America not yet gripped with fat-phobia, before the small screen was dominated by Pretty People, before the everyday realities of blue-collar families were invisible – there lived Roseanne.
Reruns of this fabulous show have been keeping me up past my bedtime for weeks. I really miss Roseanne, even though I can still watch it in syndication. The show ran from 1988 to 1997, and there hasn’t been anything like it on TV since. A woman – comedian Roseanne Barr – was the star of the show, and the supporting cast was dominated by women. Amazingly, Roseanne passed the Bechdel Test in every episode; it was a rare gem.
Roseanne Conner was not stylish, or slim, or “feminine.” She was not prim or proper and she certainly wasn’t perfect. But she worked for a living and raised her three children in an egalitarian marriage with her husband, Dan. Neither was conventionally attractive but they had a sex life, and their looks were not lampooned. The couple complemented each other, though they were not constrained by stereotypical gender roles. Dan was not a bumbling idiot like most sitcom husbands in the new millennium. Roseanne was extremely outspoken and strong and did not apologize for it. They loved – but didn’t coddle or spoil – their children (three great characters themselves).
“Roseanne gave working-class feminism a face,” said writer Barbara Ehrenreich. The family struggled financially, and the show honestly addressed their economic hardships. The Connors’ home was not palatial, like most sitcom backdrops. It was modest and messy and the decor didn’t match. The family’s relationships were messy as well. The characters’ personalities were complex; none were caricatures or stereotypes. The show featured more than one gay character, and it dealt with homosexuality (and heterosexuality!) very progressively.
There were tender moments on Roseanne but it was never sappy or phony. The show’s ensemble cast was truly one of the most talented on television. They didn’t come across as actors playing roles; watching the show was like being a fly on the wall in a neighbor’s house (only funnier). Rosanne addressed sexism, racism, class, abortion, masturbation, domestic violence, and drug use, among other topics that are rarely broached in prime time today. Roseanne broke sitcom ground that hasn’t been walked upon since.