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The ‘Roseanne’ Revival’s Exploration of Gender-Fluidity Works, Somehow

Despite Roseanne Barr's problematic views, her show landed a touching exploration of a difficult subject.

The revival of Roseanne might not have been met with universal adoration, but it definitely made people pay attention. The first two episodes of the show’s tenth season aired to a massive audience on Tuesday night, with ABC reporting that it was the highest-rated comedy telecast on TV in nearly four years. A whopping 18.2 million viewers tuned in to see the return of the Conner family in a two-episode block and, frankly, the show likely delivered what they were looking for.

The first episode was merely a glorious celebration of the return of the show. And while it was nice for fans to see the gang back together again, it spent most of its runtime reintroducing the same old players and some new faces. This was necessary, it just didn’t lend itself to much new ground. The second episode, “Dress to Impress,” however, gained some momentum and reminded audiences that, above all else, Roseanne is unafraid of tackling modern day issues.

The central plot of the episode surrounds Mark, Darlene’s youngest son, and his choice of clothing for school. Despite telling Roseanne that he identifies as a boy, Mark is also adamant that his clothing choices represent his inner creativity, pointing to the bright colors and skirts that he wears as representations of his style. Although he eschews traditionally male outfits in favor of gender-fluid ensembles, Mark isn’t making a statement; he’s just wearing what he wants. Darlene accepts that.

Dan, the Conner-patriarch played by John Goodman, gets the short end of the stick, becoming the supportive-yet-close-minded avatar for the show’s anxieties about a child that doesn’t conform to the stereotypes of the gender binary. He can’t help but question Darlene about her son’s choices, and even pulls out the old “we’re not bigoted” catchphrase of the bigoted. It would be simple for the show to paint its Trump-supporting family simply in this light, but it’s Roseanne’s reaction that elevates this episode beyond mocking observation and into a heartfelt battle between ideology and support.

Like Dan – and even Darlene, to a private extent – Roseanne is worried about what people will think when it comes to Mark. Unlike Dan, however, Roseanne seems to only be worried that her grandson’s affectations might really harm him  if he does not conform. It’s a very realistic portrayal of an old-fashioned person who just wants the best for their family, even if their version of the best is repressed and safe. 

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Of course, the meta-fact dripping all over the episode is Roseanne Barr’s very real and very problematic political views. Not only is she a Trump supporter, but she is vocal in that support to an uncomfortable degree. She has also expressed anti-transgender views in the media, and is generally unafraid to “own the libs,” to steal a phrase from the Twitter milieu.

That her character, Roseanne Conner, is similarly pro-Trump is addressed throughout the debut hour of the revival. First, she and Jackie – played by national treasure Laurie Metcalf, who has been under-utilized to a criminal extent so far – make up over their 2016 election impasse. (There is a mean joke about Jackie voting for Jill Stein that fails to hide the real Roseanne’s contempt for the left.) It is in the second episode, however, that the show pits the real Roseanne’s views against her grandson’s wishes, and the results are…generally uneven.

During the episode, Barr sells her character’s empathy more than her incredulousness, which makes her eventual turn of action into something touching. Whereas Dan offered Mark a pocket knife to fend off bullies – talk about a bad idea in the era of student-on-student violence – Roseanne stands up for her family like the mama lion that she is, telling off his class rather than chastising him for his choices. Despite not being without precedent on the show – Roseanne previously told her own son off for not wanting to kiss a black girl – it does feel particularly striking that the revival picks such a warm way to handle an issue that, in all likelihood, does not come up in their community often.

The problems that could face Mark are acknowledged and feared by all, but the episode concludes with letting him be who he wants to be, binary be damned. It feels like a conscious effort to put a bow on the matter and score some progressive points, although it does leave a sour taste in one’s mouth to have Roseanne be the one to shepherd us there.

By turning her character into the closest thing to a hero in this story – Darlene is more supportive but it’s not particularly out of character for her to be both “a weirdo” and anti-her parents – Roseanne is papering over her own cracks. Sure, she’s not the only writer on the show, but the show’s Roseanne has always been the stand-in of its creator’s ideologies. Her own brand of flyover-state acceptance (it’s okay as long as it’s hidden) is explored thoroughly, which is a good thing; the lack of reflection over the real Roseanne’s Twitter rants against transgender people back in 2012 rings tone-deaf.

Perhaps it would have worked better if Roseanne was given Dan’s reaction; perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered because of the stark differences between the real Roseanne’s views and the show’s far-more accepting language. After all, Roseanne is re-entering a loaded political landscape that sees the president supported by its creator trying to ban transgender people from the military. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, as hard as the show tries. You can’t have acceptance without self-reflection.