Roseanne Barr created a firestorm on Tuesday with a series of inappropriate tweets that led to the cancellation of her sitcom and a condemnation from Disney CEO Bob Iger who said, “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.”
The reboot of “Roseanne” sparked controversy from the first episode this year, because it portrayed her as a Trump supporter. Todd VanDerWerff wrote in Vox: “If the new Roseanne is thinking about how discussing politics has fractured relationships in these 2010s, it’s a dark twist that fans will now have to ask themselves whether Barr’s politics will dampen their love for the show.” In other words, in order for people to truly be able to enjoy “Roseanne” as a sitcom, they have to be able to suppress their dislike of her personal views. ABC seems to have decided her politics did indeed justify cancelling her show.
Most people have a hard time creating this separation even without a lead actress like Roseanne entering the picture. Stanford professor of communication and political science Shanto Iyengar co-authored an article In the European Journal of Political Research that discovered that the average American is more strongly committed to their political party than their racial, religious or ethnic identities. It is then no surprise that it is difficult for people to enjoy a sitcom featuring a protagonist of an opposing political persuasion. It is what causes people like James Poniewozik to write in the New York Times, “Roseanne Barr the performer is pro-Trump; so is Roseanne the character. But “Roseanne” the show was less pro-Trump than pro-Roseanne, working to assure the audience that, whether you thought she was right or wrong, she meant well.”
Because Poniewozik cannot fathom that there might be reasons for a character to be pro-Trump, there must be another explanation for why Rosanne would decide to portray herself in this way on the show. His answer is that she is doing it to assure people of her good intentions whether or not they agree with her politically. Keep in mind that this was written before the recent Twitter controversy, so he didn’t just come to this conclusion after her inappropriate dialogue.
In this political climate, we need a show that is able to do what “Roseanne” was not able to do on TV or personally on Twitter. We need a show that is able to not necessarily shy away from political themes, but can include them in such a way that people do not immediately conclude, like Poniewozik did, that the only reason these political views are in the show in the first place is to try to provide some type of justification. After all, the bottom line is that even if his criticisms were entirely unjustified and off-base, they are still causing people to turn off the TV and not engage with the message the show was trying to communicate. Roseanne herself said in an interview on Good Morning America: “I really hope that it opens up civil conversation between people instead of just of mud-slinging. I really do because I think we need to be more civilized in that.” Even if that was the message she wanted to convey, it utterly failed.
It takes a special show that can have these conversations in 2018 and highlight shared humanity, including political perspectives, without creating even more partisan divide. That’s why we need to fire up the time machine and go back to the highly successful 1980s sitcom “Family Ties,” with a wonderful cast highlighted by Michael J. Fox as conservative icon Alex P. Keaton and his ex-hippie parents Steven and Elyse played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter.
Although political themes did not permeate every episode of “Family Ties,” the pilot episode begins with Steven and Elyse flipping through slides from their past where Alex asks if there was a protest against good grooming habits. Their three children are less than thrilled with their parents’ hippie history, so immediately we can already understand the generational, and potentially political, tension at play. As the parents fondly reminisce about their past, their children simply do not understand what those days were like or why anyone would decide to live in that way. Later on in the first season, Steven and Elyse are arrested for protesting a nuclear plant on Thanksgiving. Again, their children cannot understand why, on Thanksgiving of all days, their parents had to go and get arrested. They try to explain that they are doing it for the good of the world, but the disconnect is evident.
This lack of understanding goes in the other direction as well. Alex’s conservative tendencies put him at odds with just about every other character in the sitcom, including his romantic interests. In order to get a date with feminist Deena Marx (I’m sure her last name was a total coincidence), he pretends to be in support of the ERA and even gets arrested for that cause that he doesn’t even believe in. Later, when his younger brother Andrew is enrolled in a prestigious preschool, Alex cannot accept the curriculum based on sharing and openness, so he takes it upon himself to provide a guest lecture on the virtues of entrepreneurship and free-market capitalism in one of my personal favorite scenes of the entire series. Very few of the other characters understand why Alex is the way he is, but again, there is that disconnect between the liberals who cannot understand conservative values just like the conservatives cannot understand the liberal values.
And yet, at the end of the day, the magic of this show is that it does not push either agenda. Certainly, a conservative could draw inspiration from the character of Alex P. Keaton. Liberals could be inspired by the activism of Steven and Elyse. That could be the case, but in the context of the story itself, this show is clearly not made to justify any political persuasion or push any perspective on the audience. Ultimately, it is evident that the family is not going to crumble because of divergent political views, and the intention of this program is to celebrate that central family.
Politics might be a cause of disagreement, and, in this sitcom, those situations are obviously played for comedic effect. However, there is an underlying picture of love and respect that transcends politics. It is a fundamental respect for humanity and the necessity of community that brings this family together. It is not some picture of everyone sitting around with matching values that never clash as some would argue that Hollywood essentially is today. Rather, it is showing that we do not need to demonize those we disagree with, even those who are closest to us.
You might say that this is obviously a fictional presentation of a family, and especially in the world of 2018, very few people relate to each other in this way anymore. That may be true. I don’t deny that there are plenty of families that have been torn apart by political dispute. However, my argument is that “Family Ties” can help save public discourse in America, and it can do that by showing that, contrary to research, we do not need to hold our political identities as our most fundamental identity. In fact, the most basic level that should define us is indeed our shared humanity as people created in the image of God. That is what you can see illustrated most clearly through the writing of “Family Ties” and that is what we ultimately need to see on the screen.
I suggested at the beginning of this article that it is difficult for people to separate their politics from their entertainment, but through this sitcom, we can see that we don’t have to. There is plenty of room for political commentary and political views, but if we do so in such a way that highlights the underlying humanity of all of us and the fundamental value of each person, regardless of their political persuasions, it would be a step in the right direction. The media is a powerful tool, so why not use it for something that highlights the positive and the potential rather than the division that seems to be just about everywhere else?