Roseanne Reboot: A Bridge or Dangerous Path to Normalization?

March 30, 2018 Lucy Odigie-Turley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Roseanne is back and she is a Trump supporter.

In a month consisting of a 60 Minutes interview with Stormy Daniels detailing her sexual encounters with the current president, and increasing calls to delete Facebook, Roseanne Conner’s — the fictional character played by Roseanne Barr — new MAGA status is one of the least surprising occurrences. Nonetheless, as 18.1 million Americans tuned into Roseanne, ABC’s reboot on Tuesday night, important questions must be asked about how this bodes for popular culture.

A still from the Roseanne reboot tv show with Roseanne Barr and John Goodman sitting on their couch
Image courtesy of Roseanne TV show on ABC

The pivotal role that platforms like Facebook and Reddit played in the election of Donald Trump have made it staggeringly clear that ring-wing forces have a comprehensive understanding of the ways mass communication channels can be used to bring more extreme views to the mainstream. Indeed, the election of Donald Trump, while at first met with shock and fear among many segments of America, has slowly morphed into a long game of normalization, with flowery profiles of white supremacists featured in “progressive” publications like The New York Times.

For some, the back-to-back scheduling will likely be a positive. Research conducted by The Opportunity Agenda in collaboration with UnidosUS and Lake Research Partners found that Americans across the political spectrum feel that the divisive tone in politics has reached a critical mass. At the same time, people expressed a corresponding loss of trust and respect in the mainstream news media. The increasing loss of trust in traditional institutions has created an important opening for popular entertainment, like Roseanne, to fill the void. The show, some may argue, is an important step towards breaking the so-called divide and potentially creating an avenue for important social commentary among new audiences.

But within that first episode, troubling narratives appear. Roseanne and Dan discuss their diminished healthcare coverage, while the family’s dire financial situation is a running joke throughout. However, as noted by writer and linguist Jared Yates Sexton in his Twitter thread, the uplifting of economic anxieties appears less as commentary on the unfulfilled promises of the current administration and instead as a ploy to make the failings and overt bigotry of the Trump administration more palatable to his supporters.

Whether Roseanne will deal with the now unavoidable connection between support for Trump and support for nationalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy remains to be seen.

And while the original series of Roseanne received some praise for its inclusion of one of the first recurring characters to identify as openly lesbian, the reboot’s inclusion of a black granddaughter and gender non-conforming grandson reads like a shallow gesture, particularly viewed in the context of the prop-like use of Black Americans exhibited by Trump and his supporters during the campaign.

At the same time, the recent revelation that ABC showrunners tabled an episode of Blackish touching on the Take a Knee protest, highlights that there are still significant limits to the content and depth of commentary permitted on broadcast television.

Whether Roseanne will deal with the now unavoidable connection between support for Trump and support for nationalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy remains to be seen. What Roseanne does provide is important insights into the viewing patterns of a largely siloed segment of the electorate. According to data from Nielsen, nearly a third of residents in Kansas City (29 percent) viewed Tuesday’s episode of Roseanne. Similar high ratings were seen in Cincinnati, Pittsburg, and Chicago. Many of these viewers stayed tuned, leading to increased ratings for Blackish.

It is too early to judge if this trend will remain, but the potential for cross-over engagement and education through Blackish and other channels may present an important opening for dialogue in the coming months.