Too Short to be Quarterback, Too Plain to be Queen
This paper explores how the sensibility of postfeminism, as understood through the work of media scholar Rosalind Gill, functions within the diegesis of ABC’s Emmy-winning sitcom Roseanne, and how the show attempts to resist discourses commonly associated with the postfeminist landscape of the late 80s and early 90s. This article pays particular attention to postfeminists’ articulation of female empowerment through sexuality and consumer spending, and Roseanne’s resistance to both. And through an exclusive interview with Roseanne Barr herself, this piece also identifies how behind the scenes drama contributed to the positioning of the protagonist’s daughter, Darlene, as a site of political agency while her mother and sister often adopt postfeminist tendencies.
“Too Short to be Quarterback, Too Plain to be Queen: Roseanne’s Rebuttal of Postfeminism”
Although 1970s television celebrated representations of the working-class alongside activist feminist programming, with shows such as All in the Family, Maude, and The Mary Tyler Moore show, by the 1980s American audiences lost their taste for activist TV. As such, network executives feared hiring even seasoned, once-embraced feminists, for new programming. Jim Colucci, in his book on The Golden Girls, explains how then-NBC Chief Brandon Tartikoff allegedly decided against hiring Bea Arthur for the show because her former roles on Maude and All in the Family were very unpopular with contemporary audiences, likely due to her “unabashed liberalism and TV abortion” (Colucci, 27). Arthur was only greenlighted for casting when Golden Girls creator Susan Harris convinced execs that an ensemble cast would mute Arthur’s radicalism.
In what follows, I discuss how Roseanne initially employed the character of Darlene, Roseanne Conner’s pre-teen daughter, as a similar “mute” to the trumpeting feminism of Roseanne herself; so that even while Roseanne’s own political assertions were not on display in her character, they continued to be disseminated through the more innocuous voice of a child. The intentions of both the discursive and formal analyses of this paper are to demonstrate how a show such as Roseanne continues to be relevant as an active site of resistance to discourses of postfeminism dominating the televisual landscape today.
Before an explanation of how Roseanne resists postfeminism can be made, it is important first to understand how the notion of postfeminism is being treated in this article. Due to the fact that the word has come to take on dozens of different, contested meanings throughout scholarship, its application to any cultural medium problematic. For the purposes of this paper, I refer to media scholar Rosalind Gill in her foundational piece on postfeminism in film and television, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.”
In this piece, Gill first identifies postfeminism’s differentiation with pre-feminism, noting that it is a response to, but not necessarily a backlash of, the second wave feminism of the ‘70s. A hallmark of postfeminism, then, is that it neither ignores nor attacks feminism, “but is simultaneously taken for granted and repudiated” (Gill 161). Also, the prefix ‘post,’ connotes that there is an, “indication that there is something over which it is worth struggling” (Gill, 148), in this case no longer having a need for continued feminist activism as women are presented as being, “autonomous agents no longer constrained by any inequalities or power imbalances whatsoever” (153). Central to Gill’s understanding of postfeminism is, “the notion that all our practices are freely chosen” (153), in which case postfeminism also adopts the ideology of neoliberalism, which can be understood in feminist cultural studies as a shift from, “objectification to subjectification,” with an emphasis on, “self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline” (149). Gill is careful to assert that, in media studies, the “sensibility of postfeminism” is not something unilateral, but something that changes from text to text. In the course of this essay, then, I will explore how that sensibility functions within the diegesis, that is, the fictional realm, of Roseanne, and how the show attempts to resist discourses commonly associated with postfeminism, particularly the postfeminist articulation of female empowerment through sexuality and consumer spending. In so doing, I look first at how the behind-the-scenes drama contributed to the positioning of Darlene as a political agent while the character of Roseanne Conner occasionally adopts postfeminist characteristics.
Roseanne’s Fight for Agency in Hollywood Culture
In building their namesake studio, Carsey-Werner Productions, former ABC writer/producer duo Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner wanted to create television programming that was not already on the air but ought to be. The studio hit ratings gold with sitcom-sensation The Cosby Show, and with Cosby spinoff A Different World doing well in the rankings, the studio was prepared to take some chances. Having only created shows featuring affluent characters, Carsey-Werner decided to bridge the class gap on television by centering its new show around the comedy of a middle-class comedian, Roseanne Barr. In an interview for the Archive of American Television, Marcy Carsey remembers wanting to create a show with a central subject near-and-dear to her heart:
Working mothers were part of other shows, that were really about the guy, and the wife was an adjunct […] but there was no show about the absurdity and the prevalence of the working mom in America […] We knew we needed a loud and interesting and unique and in your face kind of presence to take it to the more outrageous end of the spectrum.
Though Carsey gives no credit to the actor for the development of the sitcom, she admits that the show was based on the persona Roseanne created in her routine: the domestic goddess, who Carsey characterizes by saying she, “stayed home, she was lazy […] hey if the husband comes home and the kids are still alive, I’ve done my job!” (Carsey). Carsey insists that she was not anything like the, “working-class heroine that [Carsey and Werner] turned her into.” In fact, Roseanne did not receive the creator credit for the show, which went instead to pilot-author and former Cosby Show writer, Matt Williams. This among other things, created drama and tension on the set and a rift between Roseanne and Williams that became reflected in the early scripts.
For example, when Roseanne first read the pilot, “Life and Stuff” as written by Williams, she was upset that her character was written as passive and submissive, with most of the controversial content given to the sister-character, Jackie. Roseanne was also upset that the title for the series on the script was Life and Stuff. In one of her autobiographies, My Lives, Roseanne says that when she confronted Executive Producer Tom Werner about the title change from Roseanne, he told her that audiences would not like her character as the mother (Arnold 1994: 3-4). Moreover, in an interview with the Archive of American Television, he maintained that the show would not have been a success without a critical character like John Goodman’s, because, “if he liked her, some of her acerbic attitude about raising children, would be softened a bit” (interview with archive of American Television), much in the same way that Bea Arthur’s polarizing presence was softened by Rue, Betty, and Estelle on The Golden Girls. So when studio executives decided to mute or “soften” Roseanne’s character with a loving husband in John Goodman, Roseanne responded by creating a new kind of feminist hero, a pre-teen daughter for Roseanne Conner named Darlene.
With Darlene, Roseanne was able to deliver her political feminist intentions and distinct voice through the witty and precocious repartee of the young character. Darlene could, in a way, become the outrageous feminist Carsey and Werner would not allow Roseanne Conner to be, and being based on Roseanne’s own life, Darlene would help Roseanne make her personal, intimate past, political. When I asked Roseanne about Darlene, she told me that Darlene’s persona was essential to the development of the series and its political success, saying Darlene was based on her own adolescent self:
Yes, Darlene is me. That was the exact way I was in high school, only I left out the insane amount of bullying I lived through, as a fat and dark girl child. When Darlene entered her dark period, I was really reliving the loneliness that creates a poet, or writer, or artist. Darlene is the real hero of the show to me.
Still, even with Darlene and Becky’s additions, Roseanne continued to be in constant dispute with head writer Matt Williams and producers on issues regarding the show’s treatment of women. Roseanne said in my interview that she scrutinized and re-wrote every script, wanting to make sure that the show didn’t fall into any of the patriarchal tropes of working women on television programming common in the ‘80s.
For example, in My Lives, Roseanne remembers that in his first drafts of Roseanne, Williams scripted the son, DJ, as the driving-force in the show, not understanding that Roseanne wanted it to be female-oriented, that is, centered on the female characters of the show, (i.e. Roseanne Conner, Jackie, and later Becky and Darlene). Ultimately, tension came to a head on the set when, during a sex scene with Dan, Roseanne refused to say a line scripted into the first season episode “Canoga Time.” She halted production by refusing to leave the bed on the set until the line was changed in what she called the infamous “bed-in” protest.
The lines [for Roseanne’s character] were so reactive and victim-ish for all women – all castration jokes or silly-ass “war of the sexes” jokes – and I couldn’t do them. My character was becoming not unlike a typical TV male pig. […] during one particular episode, where I’m supposed to be in bed with John Goodman while we’re having this minor tiff [my] character is supposed to say, “Well, you’re my equal in bed, but that’s it.” “I’m not gonna say this line about ‘you’re my equal in bed,'” I objected. “That’s a man’s line. That is not in keeping with my character. That is not a woman’s voice, and I’m not gonna say it.” (14)
Although, ultimately the line was re-written,1 Roseanne continued to fight studio executives and writers to make sure the sitcom pushed the envelope. After Roseanne became a success at the end of the first season, Williams and much of the other staff from the show were fired or left, and with a new set of writers, Roseanne was prepared to tackle some of the more female-driven and taboo topics that were no-no’s on TV at the time, including poverty, domestic violence, birth control, and menstruation.
Roseanne also continued to champion the rights of women to talk-back to a patriarchal culture she saw as stifling. This was the new postfeminist landscape of the late ‘80s, where, as Rosalind Gill demonstrates, women were empowered only through their sexuality and their consumer spending (neither of which Roseanne had at the time). By creating Darlene, Roseanne attempted to demonstrate how women were in fact not as agential as postfeminist discourses painted them to be, and encouraged audiences to confront their own assumptions about power imbalances and inequalities still in play, particularly with regard for the “afeminine” or lower class.
The second season episode, “Brain Dead Poets Society,” presents a good example of stripping of agency when Roseanne has to force Darlene to express herself through poetry. In the opening scene, Darlene enters the kitchen in a hoodie, a flannel cap, and sweatpants. She is bouncing a basketball, talking about the upcoming Chicago Bulls game, and complaining about her homework. She has been instructed to write a poem about something that gives her a “happy feeling,” such as a tree, a rainbow or …. her family, and is upset about it, saying she does not care about poetry and does not want to express herself. Trying to encourage her, Roseanne Conner gives Darlene an old notebook of poetry from her youth, explaining how she was inspired by tragic poet Sylvia Plath, and that, although the prompt is to write about a happy feeling, Darlene should write about whatever she’s feeling, thus encouraging Darlene to dispel with the assignment prompt and present her emotions and feelings as they really are, unruly though they may be. Still, she is forcing Darlene to participate in a cultural forum in which she has no interest – Darlene has no choice in the matter. This draws a parallel with Roseanne’s behind-the-scenes frustration with the show’s producers and lines scripted for her character she saw as degrading to women. Roseanne had a contract, and she was forced to participate on producer’s terms, protesting specifically in instances where her script revisions were not granted (Barr, 16).
Later in the episode, Dan and Roseanne Conner learn that Darlene’s poem has been chosen as the best in her class and was selected to be read at “culture night.” When they approach her about it, Darlene does not want to go, begging her parents to not make her, offering to do whatever they ask instead. But, happy that she has finally done well in school, Roseanne Conner is determined to make her read the poem, thinking it in her best interest:
Darlene: Come on, mom. I wrote the poem, OK? I did the assignment, why can’t we just leave it at that?
Roseanne: What are you afraid of?
Darlene: Nothing. The truth is my poem sucks. [she says, looking down, ashamed] I wrote it in 10 minutes – I just blabbed it out on a piece of paper; it’s a joke.
Though Darlene is begging for the choice to decide not to go, Roseanne Conner thinks that Darlene is just worried that the poem is really good, and that people will see that she’s “got a brain” and will expect her to use it. She can’t understand why Darlene would not want to, “get up there and take [a] bow,” and so instead of allowing her the freedom of choice, Roseanne Conner strips Darlene of her agency once again by forcing her to participate in culture night. Dan, on the other hand, decides to boycott the event on principle.
Waiting in line to read her poem, Darlene chews her nails, while her tomboyish Aunt Jackie darts in, late, laughing at what she calls a “bunch of nerds.” She believes Darlene will despise Roseanne Conner, remembering how embarrassed she was when her mother showed up for her drill team tryouts in the 8th grade. Jackie’s anecdotes as an adult Darlene are useful for the audience in understanding the experiences of Darlene as a child. To close the episode, Darlene reads her poem:
To Whom it Concerns by Darlene Conner: To Whom it Concerns,To Whom it Concerns, Darlene’s work will be late, it fell on her pancakes and stuck to her plate / To Whom it Concerns, my mom made me write this, and I’m just a kid, so how could I fight this? / To Whom it Concerns, I lost my assignment, maybe I’ll get lucky, solitary confinement / To Whom it Concerns, Darlene’s great with a ball, but guys don’t watch tomboys, when they’re cruising the hall / To Whom it Concerns, I just turned thirteen, too short to be quarterback, too plain to be queen / To Whom it Concerns, I’m not made of steel, when I get blindsided, my pain is quite real / I don’t mean to squawk, but it really burns, I just thought I’d mention it, to Whom it Concerns.
Throughout the course of her poem, Darlene distances herself from the text by consistently referring to herself in the third person, excepting those moments in which her lack of agency is most pronounced, as when she points out, “I’m just a kid, so how could I fight this?” and, “I’m not made of steel, when I get blindsided, my pain is quite real.” Here, Darlene is asserting that her experiences as a child are just as real as those of adults, and that, feminist or not, Roseanne Conner and her teacher, Mrs. Miller, disarmed her autonomy by forcing her to write and recite a poem about her feelings. Though Darlene generally subverts heteronormative femininity, by saying, “I don’t mean to squawk,” Darlene suggests that she is aware and uncomfortable with expressing her emotions for fear of sounding unruly. While postfeminists would be empowered by their sexualized bodies or the dollars in their pockets, Roseanne Conner encourages Darlene to empower herself through her writing, which Darlene continues to do throughout the series, giving her a site of rebuttal outside of those traditionally granted to postfeminists.
Too Poor to Be Postfeminist
Another way Roseanne illustrates socially conditioned sexism is through the stripping of Darlene’s consumer agency, and her supposed re-identification as a woman after menarche. Ultimately, Roseanne allows Darlene’s character to resist heteronormative femininity when she enters adolescence, but not without a lesson: In the first season episode, “Nightmare on Oak Street,” in which Darlene gets her first period, she attempts to shed the skin of her childhood, feeling as though, because she is now a “woman,” she will have to give up the childish/boyish things she once loved. We again see a parallel drawn between Darlene and her tomboyish-adult Aunt Jackie when Jackie remembers her first period. Jackie says that she was trying to find a cure for it because she thought it felt like a disease, and she was worried she wouldn’t be able to go swimming or “horse around” with the boys like she used to. As a critic of postfeminism, Gill would say that although the postfeminist ideology so widely accepted in the ‘80s would paint Darlene as an automatically “[…] autonomous [agent] no longer constrained by any inequalities or power imbalances, whatsoever” (153), Darlene still instinctively feels as though she has to self-surveil, that is, to police her body and mannerisms, and contain her masculine traits in order to perform the gender roles she has associated with womanhood. Perhaps this rationale comes through the influence of her mother and sister who take on postfeminist perspectives in the first few seasons and like to do more “feminine” things, such as dressing up and putting on makeup to make themselves more alluring to men. In the episode, “We’re In the Money” Roseanne Conner even desires a perfume called Submission.
In the episode “Nightmare on Oak Street,” Roseanne explores how this notion of womanhood in postfeminism is a classed idea insulated from girls living in lower-class/working-class neighborhoods like in suburban Illinois, who cannot exercise their consumer power, pivotal for postfeminist agency. After she gets her period, Darlene sees her future as fulfilling the role of her mother, the working homemaker, which is why she puts distance between her and her father with their shared enjoyment of sports and construction projects, and she starts throwing away all the things in her bedroom she no longer considers feminine. As the tomboy, in this scene, Darlene is performing what we expect from her, to do what is necessary to be recouped into feminine domesticity, and so in this moment, neither Darlene nor the audience assumes the perspective of true postfeminism, because we assume she is finally assuming the role of a woman. It is not until Roseanne Conner, as the authority figure, explains to Darlene that she can continue being who she is, and that all her things are girls’ things as long as a girl is using them, that she starts to feel as though she has some agency. But if the liberated notion of postfeminism were true, this explanation would not need to take place, because it would be taken for granted: Darlene would already assume that she can continue enjoying life as she did before her period. Because Darlene has no access to images of women’s lifestyles other than her mother’s as a working wife, she cannot understand the postfeminist ideology of “doing as she pleases” because, like her mother, she has never been able to flex her consumer muscles because she has no discretionary income.
Roseanne Conner’s explanation about feminine agency is something of a cold comfort for Darlene, for as the series progresses, we see the financial limitations of the family continue to inhibit the aspirations of all their children, as it takes money to make money. For the Conners, the very notion of, “You’re free to do whatever you want!” has to fit within the parenthesis of “As long as we can afford it!” Here again, we understand how postfeminism is classed because the common discourse of girls’ power as consumers, asserting their agency through their spending power, cannot apply to Darlene. Darlene, again, helps us to confront our own conditioned assumptions of women’s agency, especially with regard to consumerism, and to reconsider them and their legitimization. So, while other ‘80s families flourished in their affluence, the Conners struggled to make ends meet meaning Darlene and Becky could never achieve true postfeminism.
Behind the scenes of the series, Roseanne was met with resistance when she attempted to assert control over what she saw as her show, telling me that her origins coming from a working class home created just as much on the set as her gender. This is echoed in statements by Executive Producer Marcy Carsey, when in an interview she said, “She didn’t understand how you behave, and what your job is as a professional on the set, so she was difficult to work with […].” Due to the fact that Roseanne did not present herself in the same, well-mannered, well-groomed postfeminist way as Carsey, specifically because of how she was raised, she was stripped of her agency and her place on the set was bastardized from the start. These statements could also suggest that other actors with more money and more Hollywood experience would have been accorded a different kind of power on the set even if they were still playing the same role.
In interviews included in the series’ DVD sets, Roseanne maintains that the show was based on her real-life family, and that she came up with most of the story lines, seeing the program as an opportunity to create her “thesis on class in America.” When I asked Roseanne about her participation in the development of the show, she told me that she came to television as an activist, saying:
I realized in 1980 when Reagan was elected, that the bullshit job on the masses [that is, his campaign] had been swallowed like a big fat turd that smells like chocolate. I got the idea to imprint a generation of women through television itself […] to use it for the betterment of the world, and not the way it is always used, as a method to tranquilize the minds of women and control them by telling them they need to change their physical beings, becoming the perfect Barbie […].
Much like Roseanne, Darlene had an unwavering and unapologetic attitude toward authority, and is not afraid to voice her opinions to would-be authorial figures, whether they be her love-interests, her school teachers, or even her parents. Similarly, though her ideas and her attempts at controlling the show were often shot-down in the first season, Roseanne continued to battle people who asserted control over the show, namely series creator Matt Williams. This may account for the parallel between Roseanne and Darlene as unruly women in as early as the pilot episode of the series, “Life and Stuff.” Two competing perspectives appear in this episode, which was written by Williams but fervently revised by Roseanne.
In “Life and Stuff,” Darlene responds to her history teacher by barking like a dog in class. The parallel with Roseanne here can be seen from both Roseanne and Williams’ perspectives: On the one hand, Darlene is unruly and disrespects authority and established order by lashing out with what is interpreted as a bizarre and inappropriate response to the lesson, essentially acting like a bitch — assuredly because of how she is being raised at home. In Roseanne’s case, this could be analogous to her not following the proper channels, a la Marcy Carsey, to respond to the authority and established order on the show.
On the other hand, Darlene’s reaction of voicing her boredom and frustration with the class and the teacher through the language of another animal could be indicative of her disassociating herself with the subject matter, history, which consistently privileges men. The point here being that not only could they not understand her, but she could not understand them. For Roseanne, this occurs when she cannot understand why a show that was set up to be so feminist, was falling into some of the same male-privileging traps of other TV sitcoms of the ‘80s by rejecting Roseanne’s more overt feminist suggestions and alterations, such as the above example of Roseanne Conner being portrayed as victimized
Meanwhile, outside of the show Roseanne could not understand why middle-class America was so quick to swallow the bitter pill of neoliberal, Reagan-era capitalism when none of the “trickle down” monies were actually trickling down. She was hoping to illustrate how Reaganomics were actually hurting the middle class by showing the widening gap of class difference, not otherwise represented on television. When the Conners’ financial struggles become continually worse; this could also be read as encouraging Americans to think of their own agency as voting citizens as opposed to just consumer citizens.
In “Life and Stuff,” Darlene is reprimanded for her behavior and Roseanne Conner is summoned to meet with her teacher, in the process having to fight her boss to let her off work early. When Roseanne Conner shows up at the school fifteen minutes late, the teacher, an attractive, young blonde woman named Miss Crane, who is doing stretches against her desk, tells her she will have to cancel because she has another engagement. “What, you’re gonna go play tennis!?” Roseanne Conner says. “Squash,” she responds, in an obvious nod to her privilege, not understanding that Roseanne Conner has given up an hour’s pay to meet with her. Miss Crane says she feels as though the barking is, “[…] an aggressive manifestation of a deeper problem,” and that such behavioral issues typically arise because of problems at home. Though Miss Crane claims to have Darlene’s best interests at heart, the sentiment is idle because she is more concerned with getting to her “other engagement” than in meeting with Roseanne Conner. When she learns Darlene stopped after being asked, Roseanne Conner responds by saying that the problem is that there is no problem. “Your daughter barks,” Miss Crane reiterates. Roseanne’s response? “My whole family barks!” A humorous allegory of the real-life language barrier created by the widening gap between social classes toward the end of the ‘80s, this particular interaction is also indicative of the televisual and political landscape, when the beautiful, well-groomed, athletic teacher (that is, the affluent heteronormative, positivist representation of America in the ‘80s) responds to the fat, frazzled, loud, and annoyed Roseanne (her show intentionally carrying her namesake as a representation of the “curmudgeoned” lower class).
Failing the Makeover Paradigm
A hallmark of postfeminist discourse, particularly in the media, is in the re-embracement of “femininity” with an emphasis on self-surveillance and monitoring of the body – often achieved by the makeover. The discourses surrounding this re-embracement are neoliberal in that they distinguish themselves from pre-feminist practices by characterizing the return to “femininity” as something that is “freely chosen.” As Kristen Hatch suggests in her article, “Little Butches: Tomboys in Hollywood Film,” this “choice” is undermined in film by the fact that a character ultimately always returns to femininity during the course of the movie or shortly after film’s end. With television’s longevity, however, even while the assumption may still be that a character will eventually take on femininity, the point at which that decision is made could be weeks or years away from the plot of any particular episode. Establishing Darlene as a tomboy provides Roseanne a way to talkback to gender performance expectations through the voice of a child without alienating audience members who would be uninterested in more frank or “preachy” displays of feminism by an adult – such as those that might involve Roseanne Conner herself.
What makes Darlene an effective agent in rebuking the “return to femininity” discourse is precisely that she is young, and we assume that one day she will grow out of the tomboy “phase.” So, in the meanwhile, her eccentricities and “sins” against femininity are excused because they are presumed to be temporary. Hatch argues that, historically, films employ the tomboy to re-enforce gender roles, demonstrating her inevitable transformation into a feminine woman who would, “renounce the pleasures of girlhood masculinity in favor of marriage and domesticity” (19). This makes the “choice” to return to domesticity seem all the more poignant and self-empowered. The focus of these film tomboys is on their future selves – we understand who they are now by sensing who they will be at film’s end.
The future does not work the same way in television; it is decidedly more blurry and undefined. Audiences are comfortable with television characters being static, so by casting Darlene as an unchanging tomboy, Roseanne is able to refocus the narrative on the meanwhile so that every week the audience confronts its perspectives on Darlene as she is right now. Tomboy-Darlene is then received as a sympathetic character as she struggles to navigate what is supposed to be a postfeminist landscape, where she should able to do as she pleases. By demonstrating instances in which Darlene has no power, often because she is making the wrong “choices” by not embracing femininity, Roseanne delivers her aforementioned political agenda by illustrating women’s continued lack of agency. So, using an analogy, Roseanne places the destination of Darlene’s potential “femininity” so far down the road that the audience instead begins to refocus on the immediate surroundings of the state of feminism and can say, “Hey, it’s not so great here after all.”
According to Gill, the makeover paradigm is the maneuver most films and self-improvement television series rely on in order to immediately recuperate the tomboy and other afeminine characters. She argues that the makeover initially requires people to think that, “they or their life is lacking or flawed in some way, [and] that it is amenable to reinvention or transformation following the advice of relationship, design, or lifestyle experts and practicing appropriately modified consumption habits” (156). This usually begins with the shaming of the character or person because of their “inadequacies in the wardrobe, cleanliness, dating or childrearing department,” and then they are subsequently “educated” into becoming the best, most “successful” versions of themselves by experts.
In the first three seasons of the Roseanne, Darlene is often uninterested in boys, her appearance, and anything traditionally considered feminine. She wears baggy clothing, sweatpants, and ball caps, and plays sports better than boys her own age. Darlene’s non-conformist views toward femininity continue through the third season, when we see her in the episode, “Dances with Darlene.” The episode opens in the kitchen with Becky on the phone. Darlene, dressed in a baseball uniform follows her father, Dan, into the scene. Dan is bragging about her sporting successes in the baseball game, having 11 strikeouts and no walks, and making the opposing team’s best hitter cry with a fastball to the neck that may or may not have been intentional. Becky hands Darlene the phone, saying it’s Darlene’s crush, Barry. When Darlene hangs up the phone and announces that Barry has asked her to the spring dance, and that she’s going, Becky yells, “Woo! All right Butch!” Eyes glazing over with excitement, Roseanne Conner runs over and grabs Darlene, looking forward to the opportunity of giving her tomboy daughter a makeover.
Here is a good example of how important it is that Roseanne Conner occasionally takes on a postfeminist perspective so Darlene can refuse it, especially because we will continue to be sympathetic to Darlene. Roseanne becomes the “expert” who will “educate” Darlene on how to be the best version of herself by dressing and carrying herself differently. In the makeover scene, Darlene walks down the stairs of the Conner house in one of the many gowns her mother picked out for her at the mall (none of them paid for). Her arms are stretched out and her legs are apart as though she has a full-body sunburn, obviously uncomfortable in the new outfit, looking beautiful, yet somehow not like Darlene. DJ even walks by and says, “You look weird.” Roseanne Conner, unsure of the choice of dress, decides Darlene should try on the “blue one […] because I really don’t know how I feel about this dress until I see you in the blue one.” So, with the blue dress begins a montage of Darlene walking back up the stairs in different gowns repeating the reasons she’s been asked to do so. By repeating these critiques, Darlene demonstrates in this scene how she is encouraged to self-surveil and be aware of the limitations of her body: “It’s too blue / looked better on the hanger / rhubarb. with hair. / makes too much noise when I walk / makes me look lopsided / [Becky inserts] well you do look like Judy Jetson!”
Ultimately, Darlene backs out of the dance saying she is tired of playing “Barbie Doll” and does not understand why Roseanne Conner does not care about “real stuff” like striking out 11 guys, but celebrates as soon as some boy asks her to a “lame dance.” Roseanne Conner feels awful, and we learn that in this instance, her postfeminist perspective was damaging to Darlene’s real identity. Darlene has “educated” Roseanne Conner that she did not have the freedom of choice as postfeminism might suggest, and has in the process, delivered Roseanne’s message about the agency, or the lack thereof, of women. “You spend all your life trying to teach your kids that they’re always wrong, and then something like this has to go and happen!”
At the end of the episode, Roseanne Conner encourages Darlene to go to the dance with Barry anyway and just wear whatever she wants. But Darlene tells her, it’s not just because of how Roseanne Conner acted that she decided not to go, but also because when she wore those outfits, people treated her differently, and she didn’t feel like the same person anymore.
Darlene: Look, I may never get into proms and stuff — I mean, I like dating and boys and everything, it’s just that I don’t think you should have to to through all the crap to get to the good stuff.
Roseanne Conner: [tapping her foot, hands on her hips] You been hangin’ out with Aunt Jackie too much.
In this example, Darlene also subverts the Hollywoodized tomboy’s recuperation into feminine domesticity by being compared again to her Aunt Jackie. Jackie is a postfeminist’s nightmare: She is a grown-up tomboy who talks candidly about her sexual experiences even though she has not properly policed herself to appeal to men. Jackie often dresses androgynously with little regard for fashion and takes on “butch” occupations like truck driving or working for the police force. This comparison with Jackie, then, allows us to further understand that Darlene will never eventually be recuperated into feminine domesticity, and facilitates our understanding of Darlene as she is right now – because her tomboyism will continue into the future.
This episode demonstrates how Roseanne continues to be relevant in understanding girlhood today in that it resists the idea of postfeminism by allowing Darlene not to go to the dance at the end; even though the postfeminist discourse more prevalent in today’s television might have only given her the option of how to go. This is relevant because it demonstrates that in postfeminism, agency has to fit within certain parameters, and in that way, is not really agency at all. And also again unlike most texts today, Roseanne also addresses how the safe or accepted sites for postfeminist “agency,” that is sexuality and consumer-culture, are classed because, like in Darlene’s example, some girls will never have economic or sexual agency.
Sexualization of Postfeminism and Offensive Sexual Agency
One thing Roseanne is careful not to do, is set itself up as the “feminism police” or to champion a certain kind of feminism, by celebrating both Darlene’s tomboy nature as well as the more “feminine” tendencies of her older sister, Becky. However, occasionally Roseanne allows Becky to adopt more neoliberal, sexually-explicit tendencies in order to create a more brilliant contrast with Darlene. As such, several times throughout the course of the canon, Becky takes on qualities of the “can-do postfeminist gal,” especially in the first three seasons. She is beautiful, blonde, fit, works hard to get good grades, and loves and nurtures the attention she gets from boys. She is concerned with her appearance, struggles to demonstrate her economic agency with an over-its-balance credit card, and often takes feminism for granted, all badges of postfeminism. For example, as early as the first season episode, “Nightmare on Oak Street,” Becky encourages Darlene to dumb-herself down in order to “get the boy,” saying to Roseanne Conner, “I thought the vulnerable, helpless girl approach would be better than that Larry Bird thing she does,” poking fun at Darlene’s tomboy nature and penchant for sports. In this instance, Becky also takes both feminism for granted and repudiates it by suggesting Darlene return to the notion of the helpless woman feminism worked so hard to combat. Conversely, Darlene chides Becky for being too concerned with such superficiality as with her image and with boys — saying that it shouldn’t be because of her appearance that she is liked. Here, Darlene is talking back to Becky’s self-surveilling as inappropriate and unnecessary allowing for a different perspective on the state of feminism.
According to Gill, while pre-feminist discourses presented women as, “passive, mute objects of an assumed male gaze,” today, postfeminist women, “choose to present themselves in a seemingly objective manner because it suits their liberated interests to do so” (151). This is often the case in advertising when the newly “liberated” female body uses its sexuality as a place of “empowerment.” In doing so, knowledge about sexual practices and how to properly groom oneself to be the idealized version of the sexual female are key; often resulting in a, “new disciplinary regime” (152). That “regime” as Gill calls it, is not forced upon a woman, but instead becomes a part of her internal subjectivity, which Gill argues can be a, “higher or deeper form of exploitation than objectification” (152).
In the second season episode, “Like a Virgin,” the juxtaposition of Darlene and Becky’s sexual agency and priority is most pronounced. It begins with Darlene, in a large flannel shirt and jeans, watching a wrestling match on TV with her father. While Darlene is upset that the losing, unmoving wrestler is “not even bleeding,” Becky, who is sitting on the edge of the couch, is upset that she can’t get her hair to do what she wants. With a brush, Becky is literally grooming herself in preparation for a date, and when Darlene teases her for this, Becky’s response is, “You’re just jealous ‘cause I’m anatomically correct. […] You’re such a virgin! [You’re] pathetic, I mean [you’ve] never even been kissed. You’ll die without ever getting to first base.”
While pre-feminist discourses and practices might have applauded Darlene’s sexual inexperience as proper and “lady-like,” postfeminism champions the open, liberated sexuality of a woman and asserts that if she is properly groomed and the right body type, it is acceptable and even necessary for her to assert her sexual experience. However, if a woman is not properly groomed and presents herself in an unfeminine way, she is not “accorded sexual subjecthood” and, like with Darlene for example, her sexuality can be seen as “offensive” (Gill, 152). When Darlene’s responses to Becky’s insults are, “Right, like I don’t have enough spit of my own,” and “Go suck a tongue,” Darlene is asexualizing herself in the manner her parents and the audience expect her to, specifically because she has not presented herself to be sexually available, as Becky has, because she still carries herself as a tomboy.
Later in that episode, assuming Becky, who is only slightly older than Darlene, is near or very near actual sexual intercourse, Roseanne begins the uncomfortable yet necessary talk about birth control. Roseanne makes sure to script these scenes as if they are not at all shocking and even somewhat expected, given that Becky has assumed a postfeminist perspective on sex. However, in a later scene when they walk in on Darlene making out with a boy and involved in “heavy petting,” Roseanne Conner is stunned and Dan is furious, issuing a double standard for the two girls.
Dan: I just want to explain that, when she’s under this roof she is not to touch boys.
Roseanne Conner: Well, now if you do that, you will guarantee she has a family of four by the time she graduates high school. […]
Dan : Roseanne, Darlene is 14 years old.
Roseanne Conner: Well, Becky was 14 when she started dating.
Dan: Becky’s not Darlene. […] Darlene’s different, she plays sports, she’s tough.
Roseanne Conner: Well – she’s got a new sport. […] Face it, honey, your son is becoming a woman.
In this episode, while Becky’s sexuality does not surprise Dan and Roseanne Conner (at one point she’s even complimented for dressing in a skimpy outfit), Darlene’s sexuality becomes problematic because, so far in the series, she has not presented or groomed herself into being the “right kind of girl” for sexual activity.
Toward the end of the episode, when Becky learns of Darlene’s “adventures,” she attempts to educate her on how to be a more successful sexual agent: “Look Darlene, you can’t be doing this, OK? You gotta make guys treat you a certain way. YOU gotta call the shots.” For Becky, Darlene is not ready yet to explore her sexuality – she’s too young, and not because she is not “of age,” but because she just has not yet learned how to present herself to men in the appropriate fashion, pun intended. Her masculine presentation delegitimatizes her sexual readiness. While initially Darlene’s display of sexuality is shocking for the audience, by the end of the episode, when Darlene tells Roseanne Conner that, “I wanted to see what it was like, so I kissed him. And I didn’t have to drown my face in mascara like some Barbie dolls who shall remain nameless,” Darlene again becomes a sympathetic character even though she outright rejects postfeminism.
The writing sensitively handles both Becky’s inevitable sexuality, as Roseanne Conner attempts to navigate the uncomfortable new parenting needs of postfeminism, as well as Darlene’s actual experience, with which the Conners have to come to terms, particularly because her sexuality is unorthodox. Roseanne Conner, and the audience, confront their own conditioned prejudices on female sexuality by recognizing and rejecting the double standard subconsciously placed upon Darlene for being a tomboy. By episode’s end, Roseanne Conner, navigating two feminist perspectives, sits both girls down, equally, and gives them the “sex talk.”
Understood through the lens of postfeminism as a sensibility, Roseanne rebuts postfeminist discourses of gender equality and power balances by demonstrating situations in which the characters of Darlene and Roseanne Conner have neither agency, nor the luxury of freedom of choice. This is particularly with regard to their inability to flex either consumer muscle power or their heteronormative sexuality, both of which postfeminism champions as its central axes of empowerment. The series also echoes the life and experiences of its namesake and co-creator, Roseanne Barr, who struggled with issues of gender and class among studio executives and producers while she attempted to make feminist revisions to what she saw as her show. As the series progressed and her celebrity garnered more leverage, Roseanne took a more active stance in the series production, and Roseanne Conner began to assume more progressive roles as the show’s central feminist.
Quickly becoming the most watched television program in America at the time, and continuing to remain popular in syndication 14 years after its finale, Roseanne also rejects the notion that mass audiences are uninterested in representations of the lower class or activist feminist perspectives in television programming still to this day. Yet the televisual landscape of current programming is unfortunately lacking both. Indeed, today, Roseanne is still being aired by the CW and Oxygen networks in the early-fringe/after school time slot, likely due to its continued relevance with less agential young audiences, namely women and young girls who are still attempting to navigate the tricky waters of postfeminism as it continues to dominate discourses today.
Arnold, Roseanne. My Lives. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Print.
Barr, Roseanne. Internet personal interview. Dec. 2010. (see appendix)
Barr, Roseanne. Filmed interview. “A Legacy of Class.” Roseanne Season 9 on DVD. Carsey-Werner Company, LLC. 2007. Television.
“Brain Dead Poets Society.” By Joss Whedon. Dir. John Pasquin. Roseanne. ABC. 28 Nov. 1989. Television.
“Canoga Time.” By David McFadzean. Dir. Ellen Gittelsohn. Roseanne. ABC. 17 Jan. 1989. Television.
Carsey, Marcy. “Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner Interview.” Interview by Karen Herman. Archive of American Television. Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, 10 Mar. 2003. Web. 9 Dec. 2010..
Colucci, Jim. The Q Guide to The Golden Girls. New York: Alyson Books, 2006. Print.
“Cosby Show: Cast & Details.” TV Guide. N.p., 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010..
“Dances with Darlene.” By Brad Isaacs. Dir Gail Mancuso. Roseanne. ABC. 30 Apr. 1991. Television.
Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility .” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.147 (2007): 147-166. Web. 9 Dec. 2010..
Hatch, Kristen. “Little Butches: Tomboys in Hollywood Film.” Mediated Girlhoods: New Explorations of Girls’ Media Culture. Ed. Mary Celeste Kearney. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. 1-30. Print.
“Life and Stuff.” By Matt Williams. Dir. Ellen Gittelsohn. Roseanne. ABC. 18 Oct. 1988. Television.
“Like a Virgin.” By Brad Isaacs. Dir. John Whitesell. Roseanne. ABC. 02 Oct. 1990. Television.
“A Nightmare on Oak Street.” By Grace McKeaney. Dir. John Pasquin. Roseanne. ABC. 14 Feb. 1989. Television.
Werner, Tom. “Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner Interview.” Interview by Karen Herman. Archive of American Television. Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, 10 Mar. 2003. Web. 9 Dec. 2010..
1 The changed line: Dan: Tell me, miss, will you still respect me in the morning? Roseanne: [laugh] I’ll respect you in the morning, in the afternoon, and especially at night.