More than twenty years ago, a new front in the culture wars opened up with a controversy over the decision by a fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, to have a baby while remaining single. Then-Vice President Dan Quayle led the charge, and his status as a national punch-line all but guaranteed that his side would lose that particular battle.
Today, with Donald Trump’s influence on the country being debated from all directions, cultural debates are in some ways even more hotly contested than economic or foreign policies. From the #MeToo movement’s reassessment of where to draw the line between art and artist—with Woody Allen’s longstanding and troubling presence still hanging over us, now joined by difficult debates about how to respond to Kevin Spacey’s work and some of Quentin Tarantino’s films, to name only two who seem to be at different points along the spectrum—it seems that Americans must now put real effort into thinking through their assumptions and attitudes about popular culture.
Even so, as the Murphy Brown example shows, this is hardly new. A generation earlier, “All in the Family” and similar shows sparked howls of outrage from traditionalists, and standards of mainstream acceptability have always moved in fits and starts.
Early in its run, “South Park” ran a hilarious and controversial episode which included a running count of characters using the word “shit” on primetime TV (with the total reaching 162 verbal and 38 written instances). Now, for better or worse, George Carlin’s “seven dirty words you can’t say on television” are down to four or even three.
Much more significantly, Ellen DeGeneres has seen her hope fulfilled that someone announcing that they are gay is simply no longer worthy of controversy. It took a huge public event and a willingness to have her show canceled by an unsupportive network, but she changed social expectations in a way that is most likely irreversible—and for the better.
Backlash in Unexpected Places
Whenever there is progress, however, there is also backlash. It is hardly surprising that shows have come along celebrating “manliness” in an unreconstructed sense, such as Tim Allen’s two sitcoms (“Home Improvement” and “Last Man Standing”). Notwithstanding rightwing complaints about Hollywood’s supposed monolithic liberalism, it is not difficult to find conservative attitudes portrayed in American television shows and movies.
What was surprising, however, was that the long-running sitcom “The Simpsons” actually entered the fray this year and landed dead on the wrong side of history. Given that this is a show that has had a socially progressive attitude throughout its record-setting run on network television, one would not have expected its creative minds to be so completely wrong.
Most readers will already be familiar with this controversy, so I will summarize it only briefly here. One of the regular characters on the show, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is an illegal immigrant from India. He has always been written as a collection of the more extreme versions of American stereotypes about South Asian immigrants, and some people have finally started to say that this is offensive.
Wajahat Ali wrote an important analysis of the controversy for The Washington Post earlier this month. He was especially disappointed in the show’s creators having decided to simply be lazy in their response to the controversy. Lisa Simpson, the moral anchor of the show, says archly: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
As Ali points out, there is plenty that they could do. More fundamentally, the show’s response was simply puzzling. Do they really think that jokes that worked thirty years ago are automatically supposed to work today, just because the people writing them have not kept up with the times?
Try watching the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” with Mickey Rooney’s grotesque buck-toothed Japanese hyper-stereotype I.Y. Yunioshi. Around the same time, TV’s “The Dick Van Dyke Show” ran an episode that included jokes about mean drunks and wife beating (and that show was a comedy). Two decades earlier, Spencer Tracy’s proudly lazy Latino character in “Tortilla Flats” was simply jaw-dropping.
If any of the creators of those works of art were alive today, would they simply say, “Hey, don’t have a cow, man”? Perhaps they could say that the times were different back then, but that is the point. Times have changed, and if Blake Edwards were alive today to direct “Breakfast at Tiffany’s 2” (or maybe “Lunch at Tiffany’s”?), it is impossible to imagine that he would consider even for a moment doing anything so offensive.
Walking this line is surely awkward and frustrating for artists, but that is the profession they have chosen. “The joke has worked for years, so don’t bother us” is not a response. It is an abject surrender to one’s own lack of empathy and creativity.
Making it worse, Lisa Simpson does not merely say, “Hey, get over it!” She mocks the criticism as being mere political correctness. This is a favorite trope of the far right, and it surprised no one when Trump decided to run against the mythical PC beast. But Lisa Simpson?
The problem is that political correctness is a concoction made up by the political right, a sloppy label that means nothing more than “liberal stuff that we don’t like.” There have been dozens of books and hundreds of articles debunking the PC myth, but one particular good effort was written by Matthew Iglesias for Vox last month, explaining how the right’s scary stories about colleges inculcating intolerantly lefty cultural values are simply wrong.
Again, however, the surprise was not that some middling comedian or other tried to weasel out of an offensive joke by crying “PC!” “The Simpsons” is the most successful sitcom in television history, and it is saying, “We don’t need to change with the times, and if you don’t like it, you’re the ones with the problem.” Would they say the same thing about other jokes that were funny in 1988 but fall flat now? A reasonable person (including Lisa Simpson) could be forgiven for having her doubts.
The “Roseanne” Controversy
All of which brings us finally to “Roseanne” and its star, Roseanne Barr. Earlier this year, when I read that the much-lauded 1988-97 sitcom was being brought back with new episodes, I was astonished to see early buzz reporting that Barr’s character, Roseanne Conner, would be presented as a Trump supporter. Barr said that “it’s just realistic” that her character would have voted for Trump.
As I wrote in a column on Dorf on Law after reading that report, it is in fact not realistic at all that Conner would have fallen for Trump’s nonsense. In fact, it is a complete violation of the original show’s essence to suggest that the Conner matriarch would be so small-minded and unthinking.
Before I explain that argument in further detail, it is important to note that Roseanne Barr is most definitely not the final authority on the fictional Roseanne Conner. That she both created and portrayed the character makes it difficult to separate the real from the fictional, but fictional characters exist in the universes in which they were created, and the audience has every reason to push back when a character veers into unexpected terrain in an unmotivated way.
Consider a much higher artistic achievement, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Prior to her death, Lee published her second and final novel, Go Set a Watchman, which horrified readers of her original classic by portraying the heroic Atticus Finch as at least complicit in white supremacist and anti-integrationist activity (in the name of so-called states’ rights).
Setting aside the controversies over whether the aging Lee truly wanted the book to be published and the question of whether it was a first draft or a sequel to Mockingbird, no one would deny that Lee could write anything she wanted about a character named Atticus Finch. She could write that he was actually a serial fraud who had cheated on his bar exam. She could write that he was a dog in a human suit. She could write that aliens abducted him and implanted racist attitudes in his brain.
That Lee could have written anything she wanted does not make what she wrote “true”—obviously in a literal sense (because this is all fiction), but also in the sense that people consuming the new fiction can simply say, “That makes no sense based on the character that the first book created.” Characters can grow and change (or even regress), but if such alterations are too discordant with the original material, the audience has every right to say, “No, that is not realistic at all.”
So what is it about the renewed character of Roseanne Conner that makes it impossible for a fan of the show to find any realism in her having backed Trump in 2016 (and continuing to back him now, even after everything that we have seen since he took office)? Where to begin?
In a recent column, Professors Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf wrote about a sub-controversy that arose from the first episode of the “Roseanne” reboot, in which Conner dismisses two shows built around nonwhite families with a snarky and cutting remark. That remark tells us a lot about the actress and writer Roseanne Barr, of course, which Colb and Dorf discuss in detail.
But the point is that a person watching the new show could not help thinking, “What? That’s not like her at all.” And the “her” in question is not the actress but the character, who in her earlier incarnation was notably unwilling to trash people simply for being different and who aimed her barbs at better targets. In short, she always used to “punch up” rather than going after easy prey.
In a way, it might not have been surprising that the reboot would go badly in this way, because the final season of the original run was nearly unwatchable. One critic at the time referred to the last season as a series of “Queen for a day” episodes, as the increasingly self-regarding Barr indulged her least appealing impulses. And given that Barr had long since lost her regular-gal cred and had become rich and loudly spoiled, that was perhaps to be expected.
How could anyone argue that it is “just realistic” that Conner now would be a Trump supporter? In the first new episode, her completely unconvincing explanation was that Trump talked about “jobs.” Did he now? So did Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Heck, so did also-rans Martin O’Malley, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina. I am not sure, but maybe Lawrence Lessig’s brief presidential campaign only talked about “fixing democracy” (or maybe net neutrality). If so, however, he is the only candidate who did not talk about jobs.
So why would Roseanne Conner decide that Trump was the one candidate out of 21—all of whom were talking about jobs—who deserved her support? Not Roseanne Barr, whose reasons are obvious and depressing, but Roseanne Conner?
The simple answer is that it makes no sense at all. Conner once helped her sister leave a physically abusive boyfriend. She would never let men get away with “just being boys.” But she would supposedly hear Trump say that the “Access Hollywood” tape was mere “locker-room talk” and not utter a peep of mockery?
Roseanne Conner spent her life dealing with condescending men, especially bosses who considered her an irritant and who thought that all workers were expendable. Notably, the actor Fred Thompson—who later became a Republican US senator from Tennessee—played Conner’s boss at a factory who treated her with condescension and worse, displaying the anti-worker attitudes that the former actor later advanced as a Republican in Washington.
In short, Conner was the sort of working-class feminist hero who was least likely to buy into the idea that Donald Trump’s credentials as a supposedly successful businessman somehow qualified him to be president. As a person who tried and failed to run a small business, she certainly would not have been forgiving upon finding out that Trump stiffed his contractors and litigated some of them into the ground.
But the most obvious reason that Roseanne Conner would never have become a Trump voter is that she was a classic contrarian, reveling in doing what she thought was right rather than going along with the crowd. It might be “realistic” to believe that some number of working-class voters are not bigots but went along with what we might call their neighbors’ “cultural Trumpism,” but Conner never would have been so sheep-like.
As I wrote in my column in February:
The idea that Roseanne in 2016 would not have bucked her neighbors’ small-mindedness and called Trump the fraud that he is simply does not makes sense. It is easy to imagine her flinging her trademark acidic put-downs at anyone who repeated sexist insults about Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, imagine Roseanne Conner going to the local bar and seeing some guy wearing a “Trump That Bitch!” t-shirt or a Confederate battle flag with Trump’s name proudly emblazoned on it. Would she have thought, “Well, he talks about jobs and my neighbors like him,” or would she have let loose with a stream of hilarious insults? I think the question answers itself.
Yet in the face of all of this, the reboot—like the sneering retort from the creators of “The Simpsons”—is being cheered on the right for being a response to the imagined scourge of political correctness. These artists can have their characters say whatever they want, but nobody else has to think that it makes sense.