ABC cancelled a hit show last week, abruptly abandoning its revival of the 1980s-90s working-class sitcom “Roseanne,” in swift reaction to a racist tweet from the star, Roseanne Barr.
The original series was hailed by many on the political left in the US as representing “the kind of class-militant populism that the Democrats … never seem to get right,” as one inhabitant of that intellectual space puts it. Barr played Roseanne Conner, matriarch of a hard-pressed family in an Illinois exurb.
The revived series, which premiered on March 27, portrayed a Roseanne Conner who supports the Presidency of Donald Trump. This revival was praised in some quarters as a bridge between “red” and “blue” America, proof that the two sides can learn to talk to one another. It was also the network’s biggest ratings success of the season.
Then this happened: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” went a tweet Barr sent out to the world Tuesday morning. The VJ was a reference to Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama throughout the eight years of his administration.
ABC, in cancelling the show hours after that tweet, said that the tweet was “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values.” Networks carrying reruns of the original Roseanne episodes soon announced they are also dropping the show, and even Barr’s talent agency, ICM Partners, has terminated her as a client.
Who Is vj?
Valerie Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1956. This was during the reign of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and only three years after the overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, which had allowed the Shah to turn himself from a constitutional monarch into an autocrat.
Jarrett was the daughter of two African American expats. A great-grandfather, Robert Robinson Taylor, had been the first African-American student ever enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He arrived at MIT in 1888 and studied architecture there.
Though some would later question whether and how much Roseanne Barr knew of Jarrett’s background, two pertinent facts about that background are easily accessible bits of public knowledge and map all too readily on the stereotypes invoked by Barr’s insult about Planet of the Apes and the Muslim Brotherhood: that Jarrett is an African-American and that she was born in Iran.
Jarrett’s relationship with the Obamas goes back many years. She was deputy chief of staff for the city’s mayor in 1991, which is when she hired Michelle Robinson (then the fiancee of Barack Obama) away from the private practice of law and onto that mayoral staff.
Right Wing View
The initial right wing impulse to the vicious anti-Jarrett tweet was to try to defend Roseanne, and Roseanne as well. After all, the star had been vocal in her support of the President, and the television character likewise.
Furthermore, President Trump had made a point of taking surrogate pride in the high ratings numbers of the revived show. “Look at Roseanne — look at her ratings,” he said. And (speaking to a friendly crowd) he added, “it was about us.”
That opening episode cast Roseanne’s sister Jackie as the vocal anti-Trump character, with a pussy hat and a “Nasty Woman” tee shirt.. A critic for the pop-culture website Vulture wrote: “I kept waiting for them [Roseanne and Jackie] to have a real debate about the substance of their disagreement, even though I dreaded what that debate could actually do to the Conner family.”
So it isn’t surprising that the first reaction of much of the right to the Star’s above-quoted tweet was to try to make it out to have been less than a big deal. One could find social media comments to the effect that (a) since apes are the dominant species on Planet of the Apes, comparing Roseanne to one of those apes wasn’t really an insult, and (b) since humans and other primates have a lot of DNA in common, the comparison is a scientific observation, and (c) no one really knew that Valerie Jarrett was black, so the comparison may not have been racist even if it was insulting, and so forth through the alphabet.
But conservatives working in more traditional media were less interested in defending Ms Barr than were their social-media counterparts.The old-media crowd seemed to view her, rather, as a case study. Her support for Trump was seen itself as merely the latest twist in a career that has included ‘jokes’ about a group marriage, and a blatantly disrespectful performance of the National Anthem (which would be an odd thing for conservatives to forget, since they now consider even kneeling during the Anthem a fireable offense.)
Jim Geraghty, writing for National Review, said: “Former President Barack Obama and Michelle are still revered and beloved in most corners of Hollywood; when Barr said one of their best friends, Valerie Jarrett, looks like a character from Planet of the Apes, just what did Barr think was going to happen? Did she think the Obamas and all of their allies were just going to shrug it off, let it pass without response?”
Left Wing View
Just after the cancellation of Roseanne, Jane Coaston, in Vox, looked back not at all nostalgically at a decade of Barr’s tweets, which Coaston said have long been those of a “conspiracy-theory loving, racist, every troll.”
Ideologically, Roseanne’s trolling can get complicated, as Coaston observed. For example, in 2013 Barr tweeted about Trayvon Martin’s death at the hand of George Zimmerman, “Arm all teenagers!” It was too bad, Barr said then, that of the two men in the confrontation only Zimmerman was armed.
This is, as Coaton puts it, a position (if a position is what it is) “between liberals who wanted to see Zimmerman convicted and conservatives who saw the case as a gun rights issue,” although not “really in line with either.”
Todd VanDerWerff, also writing in Vox, says that though cancelling Roseanne’s show was the right thing to do, that isn’t why the television network, ABC, did it. The reason is that ABC is building a particular brand. It is the network of Blackish and Fresh off the Boat. It was reasonably concerned that Barr’s twitter feed wouldn’t just hurt Roseanne, it would hurt that brand.
From a quite different quarter, Michelle Wolf, the comedian best known for headlining the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, (a task that did not go without creating some controversy of its own), took Roseanne Barr to task in her Netflix special. “Everybody’s been saying it’s so brave of ABC to cancel their hit show, the the bold move was actually putting this lady Hitler chef back on the air in the first place.”
Wolf also found it risible that Barr at one point apologized for her “joke” and at another point cited her use of Ambien as her excuse for the tweet. “It’s not a joke, it’s barely a tweet. Her excuse for tweeting it was bad. You got to get better at one of those, Roseanne!”
Finally, we should mention that the sudden cancellation of a hit show has given rise to much speculation about whether some reconfiguration of the fictional Conner family (without its matriarch) has a future at ABC. A.J. Benza, a reporter and podcaster, took to twitter to share his ideas on this point with the world. He is one of many who is thinking along such lines.