How 'Roseanne' Divides the Left

Does the show offer media outlets an opportunity to engage Trump supporters, or present an affront to be shunned by polite society?

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Last week, ABC’s reboot of the television sitcom Roseanne generated spectacular ratings, and heated conversation about its title character’s support for President Trump, a political stance shared by the show’s talented creator, Roseanne Barr.

Nowhere were participants more divided than on the left. Two women, themselves creative powerhouses, illustrate that fissure.

Comedian Sarah Silverman “loved” the show. On Twitter, she praised its portrayal of the angst that disagreements about politics can produce within families, as well as a plot line featuring a grandchild of Roseanne and Dan Conner who does not conform to traditional gender roles. The way Roseanne shows grandparents “resisting/then learning/then accepting stuff that’s unfamiliar & therefore scary 2 them,” she tweeted, is “how change happens.”

Silverman acknowledged that Barr has tweeted material that she finds offensive and wrongheaded, but she added that “the show is more than her,” and explained, “I like that Trumpers will watch and embrace it because it’s secretly liberal as fuck.” What’s more, she urged her fellow liberals, “Hope y’all let go of needing art 2 reflect/express only what u yourself feel. That’s not what art’s 4.”

The author Roxane Gay’s reaction to Roseanne was very different.

Although she deemed the two episodes that she watched “excellent” in “many ways,” she declared in The New York Times that the show is “further normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies.” She pointed to a moment in the show when Roseanne and her sister, Jackie, a feminist who supported Hillary Clinton, reconcile after a long period of not talking. “Clearly, we cannot reach people who make dangerous, myopic political choices,” Gay wrote. “We concede, as Jackie does, or we resist, as hopefully the rest of us will.”

“There are times when we can consume problematic pop culture,” Gay wrote, “but this is not one of those times … That’s all I am going to watch. It’s a small line to draw, but it’s a start.”

These accounts of the way forward for the left could hardly be more different: In one telling, art transcends politics and wrongheaded political beliefs are most constructively met with tolerant engagement, which is ultimately a liberalizing force. In the other telling, this is a moment when art must be judged according to its political content, and shunning that which is problematic is “a start” toward defeating it—more or less the strategy that former Vice President Dan Quayle once tried against Murphy Brown.

Many of the reader comments that New York Times editors highlighted beside the web version of Gay’s article suggest a broader intra-left divide along these same lines.

Some of those readers advocated engagement:

  • “I think liberals/democrats should LISTEN to people like Roseanne. Even if you think her views are repugnant, tuning her out is not the solution … I’m not saying you have to watch her show and help her ratings. But to win a national election, Dems need to UNDERSTAND the Roseannes of this world and WIN them over.”
  • “Seems like this is exactly what we need to be a conversation starter … a self appointed cultural critic might want to work a bit harder to disentangle the author from the work and the impacts both have on our society. I find Ms. Barr loathsome … but to be clear, positions like those held by both the author and the character in question here are commonplace in America, and like it or not, those that espouse them, believe that they are victimized because of them and elect the filth that they do, are our fellow citizens. We need to figure out how to talk across this current divide. The author sours that dialogue.”
  • “How do you reach people who make dangerous political choices grounded in self-interest? Well, first of all, you DON’T portray them all as stupid, racist, and completely selfish. The Conners may be flawed, but they are very likable. Second, not all “self-interest” is created equal. The fictional Roseanne and Dan are trying to afford medicine that keeps them alive; we can safely assume the Conners didn’t vote for Trump because they wanted to buy a second vacation home in the Hamptons. As a liberal, I will boycott the show if they start running commercials for AR-15s, the NRA or the KKK. But until then, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Conners handle the issues of the day.”

Others made the case for stigmatization and shunning:

  • “Why would I want to put money in the pocket of Ms. Barr, who outspokenly endorses political and social values I find abhorrent? I don’t watch Mel Gibson movies, either. It is time to bring shunning back into fashion.”
  • “Since the 2016 election of Trump, I have been unable to tolerate those who voted for and continue to support him. To me, it’s an intelligence issue. How can I respect a person who embraces––and seems to be proud of––their own dull ignorance. Roseanne always plays her reactionary, loudmouth self. Her stupidity isn’t cute or admirable. Her humor is often called provocative, but I see it as nothing more than self-indulgence in her well-known seething rage. She feeds the proud ignorance that keeps our country looking ugly and stupid to the rest of the world.”
  • “I can’t and I won’t. I refuse to normalize Trump. I won’t watch this show. To be honest, I won’t watch ABC as long as this show is on the air. We must not accept the status quo.”
  • “Hate, no matter what it is hidden behind, has no place in our society. And, so far, the Trump administration has shown only disdain for all minorities, including white poor people. So if Rosanne wants to advance the ideology of a hate monger, by misinforming and advancing ideas of hate in order to separate us, I cannot be an audience for that.”

In one way, these divides are easy to understand: The relationship between art and politics has been fraught for millennia; and humans vary in their openness, moral psychology, charitableness, and relative ability to tolerate difference. It would be surprising if the leftward half of the political spectrum was without such divides.

But in another way, it is surprising that the instinct to stigmatize and shun appears to be waxing on the left, even when the controversy at hand concerns popular entertainment.

In the postwar decades, even as political power shifted back and forth between left and right, liberals slowly but steadily increased their cultural power, even under Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, until they had achieved something approaching dominance. And they did so by fighting censors, championing openness and engagement, and insisting on the value of even problematic art that portrayed reality.

Conservative attempts to counter this dominance failed repeatedly in part because the folks behind it generally cared more about the politics than making good art. (I once attended a Steve Bannon film about Sarah Palin on opening night in Orange County, California—it deservedly played to an otherwise empty house.)

As for the social conservatives who organized Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy era, tried to shut down Playboy and its imitators, stigmatized rock and roll, and allied with the Moral Majority and the Coalition for Better Television— well, they lost on stopping “excessive sex, violence, and profanity” and “anti-Christian bigotry”; they lost on MTV and video games; they even lost when they tried to censor rap lyrics about selling drugs, brutalizing women, and murdering cops. At every step, for better or worse, distaste for censors and prudishness won out, in part because that which is forbidden in culture tends to hold increased appeal.

The side that championed art, openness, and engagement drove culture even in an era of powerful cultural gatekeepers ensconced within culturally conservative corporations.

Today, gatekeeping by elites is all but impossible. Yet a faction on the left is somehow confident that the best way forward in an era of YouTube, podcasts, and Twitter is shunning and stigmatizing and rejecting quality art because of the politics of its creator, as if openness and engagement are no longer liberalizing forces and they can beat the authoritarian right at a politics of othering. They are playing to the strengths of their most illiberal adversaries.

When Gay says that refusing to watch future Roseanne episodes is “a small line to draw, but it’s a start,” what does she mean? A start toward what? Unlike a campaign war chest that starts with one dollar, or a voter drive that starts by registering one person, a one-person boycott of quality art over the politics of its creator cannot scale in a coalition with a large faction committed to engagement and openness. Pursuing it will not persuade any Trump supporters to change their allegiances, and it is very likely to divide and weaken the coalition that is against him.

Advocates of engagement can point to decades of victories won by that approach, including mainstream acceptance for gay rights that was unimaginable even into the 1990s, owing in part to liberalizing TV that humanely portrayed folks struggling to accept gay kids. Those like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who push for engagement are confident that such successes will continue, even citing Roseanne as a promising vehicle.

Advocates of stigmatization, by contrast, believe that their scathing opprobrium is powerful enough to keep Trump from being “normalized,” even though it was too weak to prevent him from being elected president of the United States. The success of the anti-Trump coalition may hinge on its rejecting that faction.