Today is the 4th birthday of Cancel Culture. On May 29, 2018, ABC cancelled the reboot of Roseanne after a racist tweet by it’s star & creator, Roseanne Barr.
America was at a social tipping point in early 2018. The left wing, having been sent reeling after the surprise win of Trump a year and a half earlier, was looking for a way to fight back. Pussy Hats and marches felt good for a day or two, but accomplished nothing. No matter what anyone did Trump was still in power. The people who had put him there were still smug and self-assured. The establishment left and its supporters were deeply frustrated and entirely impotent.
I know, I was one of them.
In the middle of this Roseanne had been rebooted, a working-class family sitcom from the 80s/90s. Roseanne Barr, despite being the head of a feminist sitcom and a one-time Green Party presidential candidate, had infamously voted for Trump in 2016. Despite or perhaps because of this, her show pushing progressive ideas and attitudes remained popular among working-class Americans. It had an immensely successful first/tenth season in early 2018, and ABC signed for an 11th season. Shorty after the season completed, in an unrelated incident, Roseanne Barr tweeted “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj.” VJ was Valerie Jarrett, the black woman that Obama called his “best friend” on at least one occasion, and who worked as a senior advisor to Obama during his presidency.
Within hours producer (and famous comedian) Wanda Sykes leaves the show. Right on her heals, several of her costars posted renunciations of Barr and publicaly quit the show. Less than 24 hours after Roseanne’s tweet, ABC cancels the reboot. Some networks pull the old show’s reruns from syndication as well.
I cheered when this happened. As we all knew, Trump and his supporters were open racists, it was one of their most prominent defining traits. At last someone had taken a stand to say “no, racism is not OK” and had lashed out against the bigots and bullies running roughshod over our government. Using only the power of our voices, our outrage and condemnation in every form of communication we had, we had struck a blow against evil. We had at least deeply hurt one of the powerful haters at the top. Her show was cancelled, her power gone, her reputation in tatters. Importantly, also hurt all the bigots who enjoyed what that hater had been producing. Not only had they been stripped of a popular TV show, but now they knew we can do this to you, so don’t fuck with us. We, the decent 80% of the population that still respects civility, still have a way to strike back, even if you took the White House from us for a few years.
With this act, modern social warfare was revolutionized. It had existed before, but now we knew how to do it right. Immediate and uncompromising denunciation. The entire mob must act as one, and at once. The target cannot have time to apologize or explain. It must be swift, and the sanction must be the harshest possible immediately, as every hour that passes is another hour someone might dig into circumstances or nuance, and the outrage may peter out. Strike hard, strike fast. (Anyone who advocates for slowing down, considering broader factors, or letting the accused defend themselves, is literally sabotaging this blitz. They are introducing time dealy, and have revealed themselves as an enemy. Treat them as such.)
Cancel Culture was born that day, via a literal cancellation of a TV show. That’s where the name comes from.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe it’s only been four years. It feels like an entire lifetime ago, to me. The world has changed drastically since then, and so have I. I loved watching this happen, at the time. I, too, needed a victory, a blow dealt against the deplorable racists in charge, and I was happy to accept Roseanne as that victim. I had never watched the original Roseanne show (it was too low-class for my aspirations, which I am ashamed to admit today). I didn’t watch the reboot either. It’s cancellation didn’t hurt me in the least. Some millionaire would lose her show? Oh boo hoo, cry me a river.
When Roseanne said she’d tweeted that under the influence of Ambien, a sleep medication with strong side effects known to cause halluciations and spark bizarre behaviors. The side effects are so pervasive that Ambien users have a mascot for their hallucinations, the Ambien Walrus, that they joke about. I knew this, but when Ambien’s makers tweeted “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication” I laughed and laughed, and shared it with others. Was Roseanne on Ambien at the time? Is that an excuse even if she was? I dunno. Maybe not, to both. But I didn’t even bother to think about this, I was just happy someone gave me a reason to mock it and ignore it.
Was the tweet racist? Yeah, I think so. But is Roseanne Barr racist? I did a bunch of research in putting together this post. During the original 1988-1997 run, under the direction of Barr, the show normalized and championed progressive ideals to working class viewers. In addition to being feminist, had black, gay, and lesbian charecters. Roseanne berates her son for refusing to kiss a black girl in a school play, saying “Black people are just like us. They’re every bit as good as us, and any people who don’t think so is just a bunch of banjo-picking, cousin-dating, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white-trash like us!” And, famously, Roseanne Barr pushed hard to air a same-sex kiss, which was nearly unheard of at the time. ABC almost pulled the episode, and several smaller markets did refuse to air it. This kiss made headlines at every entertainment beat at the time. Roseanne Barr was very progressive, and probably did a lot to spread the ideals of liberalism into working-class America.
Roseanne herself apologized profusely, and pleaded for a second chance. Later, after the cancelling was complete, some of her costars spoke up in defense of her. They said Roseanne made a mistake, but she was not a racist. At the time I wouldn’t have believed them. Having seen how cancellations actually work over the last four years, I know assume they were telling the truth.
Eventually, the people who cancelled Roseanne recreated the show without her. Calling it “The Conners,” they kill Roseanne off-screen in the first episode. The fictional removal mirrors the real-life removal in a chilling way.
I’m moving to SubStack. Eventually this blog will no longer be updated, so switch on over.