If you want to see just how polarized the United States has become, consider the sad demise of the hit TV sitcom Roseanne following a racist tweet by its eponymous star, Roseanne Barr. To most of my fellow liberals, the swift decision to fire Barr — and to cancel the next season of the series — represented a simple victory of good over evil.
Actor Bryan Cranston congratulated the CEO of Walt Disney after the Disney-owned ABC fired Barr.
“This morning @RobertIger quickly and easily determined that righteousness trumps profits by firing an open racist and anti-Semite from his company,” Cranston tweeted. "If our elected officials had the courage to do the same by declaring that country trumps partisanship we’d have a healthier society.”
But the show itself was an effort to overcome partisanship, portraying a family divided by politics but trying to get along. And we'd have a much healthier society if we made more efforts to follow its example.
Roseanne showed its Trump-friendly star arguing over health care and job growth with her sister Jackie, who wears the trademark pussycat hat of the anti-Trump crowd. They also clash over Roseanne’s new Muslim neighbors, whom she fears are terrorists. Jackie points out — correctly — that Roseanne’s tirades about “Eye-raq" and “Talibanistan” are ignorant and bigoted. And by the end of the episode, Roseanne has changed her tune: We see her defending her new neighbor from an Islamophobic grocery store clerk, who is trying to shame the neighbor for using food stamps.
How many television shows have even tried to depict the deep tensions that Donald Trump’s election has unleashed in our country? Indeed, how many have depicted any Trump supporters at all?
The answer is none, so far as I can tell, except for Roseanne. Sure, there are other shows featuring working- and middle-class Americans. On Superstore, we watch a young mother work two jobs so her daughter can go to a good day care; in another episode, employees try to find a better alternative to their lousy health plan. But we rarely hear the T-word or people arguing about him, as we did on Roseanne. And now we won't.
That can’t be good news for our bitterly polarized nation, where entertainment — like everything else — seems to divide us along political lines. But in this respect, too, Roseanne was different: 39 percent of its viewers voted for Trump and 34 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, a near-even split. We need more such opportunities to explore our differences, which might be the only thing that can bring us together.
Let me be clear: Roseanne Barr’s tweet about former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, likening Jarrett to an ape, was vile and hateful. It came on the heels of other offensive tweets by Barr, including an anti-Semitic attack on financier George Soros. Surely ABC was within its rights to cancel her show, as an affirmation of its commitment to equality and inclusion.
But you’d think that people who share those values would also bemoan the demise of Roseanne, one of the few shows that attempted to include people from different political backgrounds. In the best of all possible worlds, we could denounce Roseanne Barr and still defend Roseanne the show. But that's not the world we live in.
Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.
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