Roseanne & Representation

As a fan of the original Roseanne, I watched the reboot with great interest. In its initial run, the show represented the ’90s economy in a way other pop culture of the time did not. If you wanted a sense of how a large segment of working- and middle-class people lived, Roseanne was the show to watch.

It still is. The reboot’s first two episodes compellingly represented a variety of economic difficulties (struggles with health care, housing, employment) intersecting with cultural ones (gender, reproduction, political differences). Roseanne’s dig at 50 Shades of Grey and the Harry Potter series was a subtle critique of the way our popular culture promotes fantasy at the expense of reality. She clearly wants us to look at realistic representations on her show.

This is not cool with Roxane Gay, who has just detailed her objections to Roseanne’s approach. Gay begins by criticizing Roseanne Barr’s politics — criticism that is well-founded. She then brackets this to focus on Roseanne Conner, the character Roseanne plays.

Gay finds the show “in many ways… excellent” and commends its economic focus despite finding some contrivance in it. She critiques the show’s choices around race, then turns to statistics to question some assumptions commonly made about working-class people and how they voted in 2016. She finds in the show a certain fatalism that “we cannot reach people who make dangerous, myopic political choices.”

In the next paragraph she argues that “nothing will change if we keep consuming popular culture without demanding anything better.” Ultimately, she cannot “overlook” the contradictions of a character who supports a boy “bullied at school for his gender presentation“ who also voted “for a president who actively works against the transgender community” and acts “as if love can protect the most vulnerable members of their family from the repercussions of their political choices.”

Gay ends by saying she will no longer watch the show — because this “fictional family, and the show’s very real creator, are further normalizing Trump and his warped, harmful political ideologies.”

I find this genre of opinion about art bewildering, as it seems to argue that the responsibility of a work of art is to tell the viewer what to think about its representations. A short post cannot comprehensively answer the question, “What is art’s responsibility?” — but it can seek to counter the aforementioned belief by asking what it is art is doing, if that is what it’s doing.

Art is a way of representing the psyche. As we know from experience of ourselves, as well as of art, the human psyche is full of complexity and contradiction. It exceeds the concepts, including political ones, we use to understand it. This makes art a kind of “organizing”—the unruly psyche shaped by the artist so that its complexity can be grasped.

How much organizing is “too much”? A completely disorganized representation of the psyche is not satisfying because it is too much like life. But an overly-organized representation of the psyche results in something rigid, simplistic, dry — and often ideological.

Ideology appears to be what Roxane Gay wants from Roseanne—for the show to be aware of the contradictions of its characters in such a way that those contradictions are clearly communicated, found unacceptable, and therefore become subject to critique and revision.

What would art look like if it always sought to judge its own representations?Imagine a Hamlet that was more explicit about the title character’s disavowed desire for power, or which stated more baldly that power is inevitably entwined with corruption and evil. The immense psychic impact of the play would be lost, replaced with an easy-to-digest lesson. At the end of the play, Hamlet/Shakespeare implores Horatio/the audience to “tell my story.” He does not end with a superego-driven condemnation of a corrupt society, but with the importance of representing an individual psyche — through which a social reality will also be revealed.

Were Roseanne to be focused on clearly communicating and judging the contradictions and limitations of her characters, their spontaneous being would be largely lost and the drama robbed of realism and impact. Further, I would argue that the fact that Gay noted these contradictions in the first place — and that they got under her skin — is evidence of the show’s significant dramatic achievement.

Combining representation and ideology, however well-intentioned, ends up offering us an escape from our psyches, as we move from identification with to judgement of the fictional characters. This allows us to demonize them, as a way of avoiding self-scrutiny. In fact, Gay demonstrates just this in her piece. She passingly acknowledges a contradiction in herself — she consumes “problematic pop culture, knowing I shouldn’t, knowing how harmful that pop culture can be.” Looking inward to understand why she does this would bring her beyond the safe surface of ideology and into the unruly depths of a psyche that — like all psyches — is striving to make sense of an unendingly complex and problematic self.