At 2.45am on the 29th May, Roseanne Barr tweeted “Muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” The tweet was in reference to Valerie Jarrett, one of former President Obama’s closest advisers and a constant target of conspiracy theorists. Jarrett is African-American and was born in Iran to American parents. Barr’s tweet was a response to another stating that Jarrett “helped hide a lot,” referring to an unsubstantiated claim by Wikileaks that the CIA under Obama spied on French election candidates. While this tweet became the focal point for much of the media coverage surrounding the saga, it was certainly not the only controversial thing Barr tweeted that day. Another tweet, simply “Chelsea Soros Clinton” suggested that Chelsea Clinton was married to a nephew of George Soros, a billionaire Jewish philanthropist at the centre of many conspiracy theories. Barr has tweeted and supported claims that Soros was a member of the Nazi SS and the instigator of both the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Antifa.
After public outcry, including from some of her own cast, Barr deleted the Jarrett tweet and apologised. Later that day, ABC released a statement calling Roseanne’s twitter “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with [their] values” and cancelling her show.
The fallout on both sides was immediate. Multiple cast members came out in support of ABC’s decision. Emma Kenney (who plays Roseanne’s granddaughter) even said that she called her manager to quit the show and was pleasantly surprised when it had been cancelled. A rep for Soros shared his disgust with Barr’s comments; Barr’s ex-husband Tom Arnold agreed.
Perhaps it was an homage to the now-jobless crew that despite controversy, Roseanne received two Emmy nominations – for multi-camera editing and supporting actress Laurie Metcalf. While CNN claimed that Roseanne might get “the last laugh,” agreement seemed to be that these nominations reflected the talent of individuals and not the now-shunned Roseanne herself. As a society, however, we perhaps have not spent time on another question – has societal condemnation of Barr gone too far?
Opinion pieces proliferated after the show’s cancellation, building on the clickbait value of their message. People argued that despite America being under conservative leadership, it was no longer possible to be conservative on TV. But perhaps more significantly, it was said that conversations were being had on the show and around it that had value to society. These conversations couldn’t continue to occur if we simply shut the show down.
Part of the reason people have come out squarely against Barr is the almost unprecedented action by ABC. There’s an unspoken belief that, to prompt such a strong and swift response, she must have been really bad. But while we can laud ABC for being moral as much as we want, it’s likely that this wasn’t the only motivator behind the decision. Roseanne was set to bring in serious advertising revenue for the network, but the tweets and the subsequent #cancelroseanne campaign on twitter would likely have put the millions of dollars expected in product placement at risk. Media agencies had already expressed concern at their clients appearing alongside Roseanne, and not acting decisively would only have caused this to continue.
This was also not the first time Roseanne had tweeted inappropriately. Twitter user Mark M noted that this was a lesson to ABC to “believe someone the first 500 times” when they post something racist or discriminatory. And despite (or perhaps, partially, because of) these opinions, Roseanne had remained foremost in the 18-49 primetime slot since its revival. We can (and should) have conversations about how we moderate what society consumes, but if there is a market for 10 million people to watch what Roseanne is selling, it makes social and economic sense to keep it on air. So why did ABC choose the 30th May for decisive action? A combination of societal pressure and economic factors, rather than a moral stand, is the most likely explanation.
Thus while it might be convenient to see Barr as piece in the puzzle of societal change, celebrate ABC and ignore the 10 million people who watched her show before this last round of tweets, it is simply not accurate. No-one is contesting that what she said went too far. But to oversimplify and ignore the place of Roseanne in important societal conversations is equally, if not more, foolish.