"Roseanne," the Rust Belt and the dangers of the single story

“Roseanne” is the new “Hillbilly Elegy” — one family's narrative being made to stand for so much more

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published April 8, 2018 2:00PM (EDT)

Roseanne Barr on "Roseanne" (ABC/Greg Gayne)
Roseanne Barr on "Roseanne" (ABC/Greg Gayne)

ABC’s “Roseanne” revival is officially a hit, and not only because it’s reaping the fruits of network TV nostalgia like “Will & Grace” and “Fuller House” before it. Because of the scrutiny the national media has placed on voters like those at the center of the show — a working-class household headed by white Baby Boomers with high school educations in post-industrial middle America — “Roseanne” is under the microscope not only for whether its humor holds up, but for what the show and its reception might tell us about the state of American politics. Critics and viewers alike are watching for the intersection points between the politics of its outspoken eponymous star, a Donald Trump supporter, and the politics of the show itself.

When Trump made a point to call Roseanne Barr and congratulate her on the premiere’s high ratings, and then praised the show’s success in a speech, saying “it was about us,” he cemented the show’s place in the current culture war. Now “Roseanne” can’t possibly be just a TV show. It’s going to be the blue-collar story we talk about, no matter how many other shows today, as my colleague Melanie McFarland points out, also depict the struggles of a struggling America.

This is by design. There was no way America could watch “Roseanne” in 2018, knowing what we had been told about the show ahead of its premiere, without wondering what it could tell us about “Trump voters” as they have been reductively painted by reporters and think-pieces galore. The premiere delivered on that promise, painting Roseanne Connor's "it's about jobs!" support for Trump against her sister Jackie's "nasty woman"-style preaching in an intrafamily war of archetypes: It's snowflakes vs. deplorables, round 37!

Barr herself told a room full of TV critics back in January, "I've always attempted to portray a realistic portrait of the American people and of working-class people. And in fact it was working-class people who elected Trump.” In fact it wasn’t, but Barr — who is in many ways Exhibit A, as a Trump supporter who paid $1.78 million for a macadamia farm in Hawaii — is hardly alone in believing in this wildly persistent myth.

Back in January, executive producer and co-showrunner Whitney Cummings explained in an essay for Vulture that one reason she wanted to work on the new “Roseanne” — aside from the fact that the original had been a touchstone of her childhood, like so many of us who grew up loving the snarky, loud, loving Connor clan — was that “giving my brain to a show that touched the hearts and got the eyeballs of so many working-class people is how I could finally do my part to help us all make sense of the election. Working on 'Roseanne' meant I could write for characters who had different beliefs and experiences than me and who may even have voted differently than me.”

Since Cummings tasked the act of reviving a beloved sitcom with the responsibility of "help[ing] us all make sense of the election," consuming “Roseanne” became an act fraught with meaning. White liberal viewers are supposed to tune in not because Roseanne's perspective will necessarily resonate with them, but because it’s not supposed to — watching the unapologetic Trump voter be the heroine of her mixed-politics family is more an act of penance for co-signing Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of the "basket of deplorables” and for freezing out Trump voters in their own personal circles after the election.

Trump voters, for their part, can tune in to feel absolved of all charges of racism, homophobia and misogyny via the show's cleansing of Roseanne's motives: she supports a woman's right to bodily autonomy, she loves her black granddaughter and her gender-fluid grandson. See? No deplorable! When Roseanne gets her laughs from the studio audience — and make no mistake, the laugh track is on her side — perhaps they are supposed to feel by extension that they are finally being painted in a favorable light by the very liberal Hollywood elites they are constantly being told to distrust by their president and preferred pundits.

Then both sides are supposed to come together, harmonicas in hand, and play the theme song? I guess? Then what?

This seems like an absurd amount of weight to put on the shoulders of a single story, but we've been here before. When venture capitalist J.D. Vance published his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” in 2016, during the height of Trump Mania, much of the rest of the country embraced him as the designated Poor White Appalachian Explainer, using his family’s specific story as a way to generalize about the socioeconomic challenges facing people of Appalachia and its diaspora, and by extension, the white, working-class Trump voter.

Historian Elizabeth Catte, whose book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” offers a corrective to many of the generalizations in Vance’s book that outside readers were quick to embrace, explains the "Hillbilly Elegy" appeal in an interview with Salon. “They really thought that they had learned a deep truth from this book, and that they could now deploy this truth out in the world to understand these really complex things that were happening around them.”

In a 2009 TED Talk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained the dangers of relying on “the single story” to try to understand people and places from afar. The “single story” many Americans grew up knowing of the entire continent of Africa, for example, informed her college roommate’s ignorant assumptions about what a young woman from Nigeria would be like. “She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey,” she said.

The true culprit, Adichie elucidates, is power. “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power,” she said. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

We should no more turn one network sitcom into the definitive story of the working class than we should have enabled a venture capitalist’s memoir to dominate the discourse about poverty, addiction and voting trends in Appalachia; however, ABC and the producers and stars of “Roseanne” enjoy power in the entertainment industry that other storytellers don’t, so their narrative rises to the top. "Roseanne" isn't likely to fade out of the cultural conversation any time soon, but at the same time, we can set our sights on seeing a post-industrial Midwest that is wider than any single living room.

In the introduction to a new anthology from Picador, “Voices from the Rust Belt,” editor Anne Trubek underscores the urgency of the stories in her collection, which are part of an effort to rectify what she calls the "narrative inequality in this nation: some stories are told over and over while others are passed over."

Trubek, founder and director of Belt Publishing (which published Catte’s “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia”), acknowledges that defining the Rust Belt in objective terms is tricky, because its designation is political and historical, not geographic. She lands on a post-industrial Midwest, “anywhere an economy was previously based on manufacturing and has since been losing population" as a broad definition, which seems to include the Connors' home of Lanford, Illinois.

But as this collection of 24 essays shows, the loss of a manufacturing base is only one facet of the Rust Belt. "The first sign of the coming apocalypse is the art walk: the Typhoid Marys of gentrification," writes Eric Anderson in "Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall," an essay on the commodification of the artist's life as a gentrifying lifestyle set against the backdrop of post-industrial Cleveland. Anderson, a comic book store owner, had once worked in steel mills where he'd seen "water so polluted that nothing would float in it . . . dead rats with tumors exploding out of their sides," and yet has good reasons not to view an infusion of privileged young artists into his city as an unequivocal good sign.

How and why people come and go in the Rust Belt is a running theme. In the haunting essay "The Kidnapped Children of Detroit," blogger and self-described "Detroitist" Marsha Music writes about the city's history of white flight from the perspective of being one of the black neighbors who stayed:

One day, we'd be outside with our friends, black, brown, and white, on the warm summer days before the start of the next school semester, playing jacks and hopscotch, riding bikes.

The next day, our white friends would be gone.

Her essay details the patterns of block-busting and restrictive housing covenants and out-migration to the suburbs that left once middle-class urban neighborhoods poorer and underserved by the 1960s, but it's the personal perspective on this public story that gives the essay its impact. One illustration comes by way of her grandmother, who saved up her wages as a domestic worker in the 1950s only to find her purchase of a home blocked by the white neighbors, and only changed her plans after the block club paid back her down payment plus some, which she used to purchase a home in a middle-class black community.

"My grandmother chuckled at the end of her story, at the irony that by the time of her telling, thirty years later, Clairmont and Woodword was all black — the block club had obviously been unable to buy its way against the changing times," she writes.

The newest developments in Detroit's racial and housing politics are placed in the crosshairs in Aaron Foley's "Can Detroit Save White People?," a scathing indictment of neoliberal gentrification practices that threaten to erase black people and black culture in the urban core decades after whites first abandoned it. (Foley is the author of "How to Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass," if you're wondering how blunt he can be.) Those themes are hardly unique in the region to Detroit, as Henry Louis Taylor Jr., founding director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University of Buffalo, demonstrates in his essay, "Will Blacks Rise or Be Forgotten in the New Buffalo?" Neither of these are questions that surface often in hand-wringing outsider analysis trying to suss out what exactly is holding Rust Belt cities back, which is precisely why Taylor's call for an economically vibrant Buffalo to be "a just city" instead of a "white hedonic latte city" is so valuable.

Absent also from the typical narratives are histories of the region's LGBTQ communities and their gathering places, such as John Lloyd Clayton's fond ode to a crumbling late Cincinnati gay dive in "A Night at the Golden Lion Lounge," where beers were cheap, nobody under 30 would be caught dead without being paid, and none of the unfashionable regulars ever hooked up.

And while Dearborn, Michigan's robust Muslim community has garnered much coverage, "Cleveland's Little Iraq" offers a glimpse into the personal journey Huda Al-Marashi, a transplant from Queens raised in California by Iraqi immigrant parents, undergoes to bond with her new city's small community of Iraqis, whose numbers steadily climb from 2006-09, during the height of the war. "[We] heard harrowing stories brought from Iraq, of friends gone out to buy groceries and losing their lives to roadside bombs, fathers assassinated on their way to work," stories that, as Al-Marashi writes, "made the Iraq War more real to me than any of the country's past conflicts."

Work in the Rust Belt is represented not only by factory workers but also by ecologists, urban planners and small museum directors, and the overwhelmed case worker in Dave Newman's deeply empathetic essay "A Middle Aged Student's Guide to Social Work," in which he demonstrates how unstable jobs teaching writing at the university level have become — enough for him to go back to school to become a social worker. At 40 and working an unpaid internship, Newman tries to find his way in and around the system of regulations he's still learning that often keep him from helping those who desperately need it.

And while the opioid crisis in the region isn't an under-covered subject at this point, Ben Gwin's "Rust Belt Heroin Chic" chronicles the experience, in harrowing detail, of a recovering alcoholic and single father in graduate school trying to co-parent a child with a heroin-addicted ex. Likewise, the Flint water crisis is illustrated in chillingly domestic terms in Connor Coyne's essay "Bathtime," about reeling from terror every time his toddler attempts that simplest of toddler pleasures: taking a sip of water from the tub. "You feel it, visceral in your gut, like someone sucker punched you and you want to puke. They might be making themselves sick from something much worse than suds and whatever scum has been washed away by the day's play."

The two dozen writers in "Voices from the Rust Belt" can't possibly cover all of the wrinkles and shades particular to a place whose boundaries aren't even unanimously agreed upon, but it's a good place to start. The danger of all single stories is how they flatten their subjects, reducing the complexities of a people and a place to easily digestible narratives, then in turn demand the people themselves conform to those narratives. If we are serious about bridging geographic and cultural divides, we do need more media representation of those living outside of the coastal urban centers and the affluent suburbs. But we should resist the easy solution of dumping all of our political and cultural hopes and anxieties onto one fictional family's kitchen table.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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