I recently started following a few members of my immediate family on Facebook. This is a big deal for me because I haven’t spoken to most of them in over a decade, not since my son was born. The reasons are myriad, but it basically boils down to this: I worry about my children being exposed to the environment in which I grew up. I avoided my mother for so many years because I didn’t know how to articulate that, and because I know what my mother’s response will be: “It’s important to remember who you are. You can’t escape where you came from.”
But that’s the thing: I can. And I did.
My family was not that much like the one on Roseanne. It was more like Augusten Burroughs combined with Bastard out of Carolina. We were poorer than the Conners. There was a lot more meth, and my brother, sister, and I were raised by a closeted gay man in a house that we could only wish were as nice as the one on Roseanne.
But what we shared in common with the Conners was a similar mentality. We did not stew in our poverty. We owned it. We had a sense of humor about it. We wore it with a sense of pride. It did not break us. By God, it tried, but we laughed in its face. Rehab, teen pregnancy, drugs, sexual abuse, arrests, burglaries, lost jobs, mental illness, and physical beatings all tried to turn us into victims, but we refused to allow it. Our bad luck — and when you’re poor, bad luck is like a permanent stalker — became the hilarious punchline at the end of every war story.
We were a family — a dysfunctional and broken one, mind you — but for a few years there, I think, we all loved each other, and we used our sense of humor as a weapon against the world. It was the only weapon we had.
But I got out, and now my life has nothing in common with the one I used to lead. My family now is more similar to a conventional, almost Disneyfied family sitcom. I’m a middle-class dude who hangs out with middle-class people and (*knock on wood*), the Rowles luck hasn’t resurfaced in years, although I often still feel it breathing down my neck (I don’t think that fatalism will ever disappear — that belief that you’re going to lose it all any day never really goes away).
All of which is to say: The return of Roseanne hit me like a ton of bricks in a way that I never anticipated. It was the same show. The same sense of humor. And the same warmth, and the same message: Being poor does not make you a lesser person. In fact, surviving it makes you a stronger one.
I know as much as anyone what a problematic person Roseanne Bar is, and there’s a part of me that wants to say fuck that show. I read comments here critical of anyone who might watch it, and I get that. And for those of you who stopped speaking to family members because they are Trump supporters, I get that, too. And there’s a very big part of me that wants to reject even the character of Roseanne Conner because she is a Trump supporter on the series. I hate the idea that her character hides behind “jobs” as a reason for supporting Trump, ignoring the fact that those “jobs” are mostly meant for white people. But there’s also something very apolitical about being poor, and for all the talk of Trump and Hillary in the first episode back, the feud between Jackie and Roseanne did not feel partisan.
Nevertheless, I wish I could square “economic anxiety” with how much it means to me — and similarly situated people growing up in bumfuck Indiana or Ohio or Arkansas today — that the Conners embrace their poorness, that they laugh at their misfortune, and that — most importantly — they celebrate their otherness. But I can’t square it, nor can I square my feelings for my late father, who was a kind and loving man, but also a stupid racist and a terrible provider. How do you compartmentalize? How do you accept your parents and reject their politics, if their politics are so wrapped up in who they are?
I don’t know. I think the best I can do is take solace in the fact that Darlene — always my favorite character — turned out to be a good person. That Dan — for all his prejudices — will always ultimately love and accept. That Becky is still Becky, that D.J. is still mostly a non-factor on this show; and that Aunt Jackie is still the kooky aunt whom I weirdly look up to in spite of all her harebrained ideas. I also hope that Darlene’s kid can be a source of inspiration to a lot of teenagers today the way that Darlene was to me.
Look: In 2018, it is hard to take the bad with the good, because the bad can be so awful, and I understand to even be able to do so means coming from a place of privilege. But I was somehow smart enough as a teenager to accept what was good about The Conners — their warmth, loyalty, and sense of humor — and reject the bad, and I hope that anyone watching it now can do the same. I guess I worry, however, that a lot of Trump-supporting types will see the goodness of Roseanne in themselves and forgive or excuse the bad.
Ultimately, I guess my mother was half right and half wrong: You can escape, but you can never completely forget who you are, and Roseanne put me right back on that shitty, fake-leather coach underneath the ceiling with a giant hole in it and in front of the TV, laughing with my family at our pain right along with the Conners. They’re very much the family I’ve always wanted to escape, but in some limited ways, the one I still want to be.