‘Roseanne’: Why the Show Did a Good Job Tackling Islamophobia
Roseanne Barr has never been afraid to take on a tough topic. That was true when her show, Roseanne, was first hitting the airwaves on ABC back in the late 1980s and it’s still true today. The original run of Roseanne featured hot-button topics such as racism, homophobia, birth control, and more. But in the reboot, Barr has chosen to focus more on the politcal climate of 2018 and issues that would naturally be faced by the blue collar Conners.
That came to a head in the seventh episode of Season 10, titled “Go Cubs.” Roseanne has new neighbors that she can’t help but be suspicious about. While that may seem pretty true to her character on its own, there is a twist — her neighbors are Muslims. Let’s take a look at why we think Roseanne did an excellent job in dealing with this sensitive topic, even if not everyone totally agrees.
The history of dealing with racism
In the seventh season of Roseanne, the show tackled racism in the episode “White Men Can’t Kiss.” D.J. didn’t want to kiss a girl, Geena, during a school play because she was black. That led Roseanne to scold the boy, spouting a series of memorable lines and seemingly bridging a race gap in the working class at the time.
“Black people are just like us,” said Roseanne in the episode. “They’re every bit as good as us, and any people that don’t think so are just a bunch of banjo-picking, cousin-dating, barefoot embarrassments to respectable white trash like us!”
Of course, it wouldn’t be Roseanne without the nuance. The show finished with her becoming scared that Geena’s father came to speak to her at the diner, having to wonder if her feelings were because he was a man showing up unannounced or if it was because of his skin color. Interestingly enough, it appears that D.J. ended up marrying Geena and having a daughter, Mary, with her.
Next: Taking on Islamophobia
Tackling a touchy subject in 2018
That leads us into the episode in question, which starts by Roseanne spying on her new neighbors. There are some early jokes, first that they had too much fertilizer in their yard. Later, Jackie gets in a dig about Fox News and the heavy slant of their coverage. For his part, Dan sees nothing wrong with his new neighbors.
“They’re probably just regular folks who want to make a home here,” he said. “They painted their fence, they put in a new mailbox. They have an American flag, for God’s sake.”
As the episode moves on, D.J. leaves Mary to stay the night with his parents but informs Roseanne that she has a Skype call with her mother (who is in Afghanistan) at 2:00 am. And just as they’re about to do the call late that night, Roseanne’s WiFi goes out. Their only option is to go to their neighbors — the one’s that Roseanne refers to as “the terrorists” — and ask for their WiFi password.
Next: It’s true to Roseanne in a big way
It’s done in typical Roseanne fashion
Although there has been some skepticism about how the show might handle such a touchy subject, the way Roseanne Conner’s Islamophobia was handled was true to the original show. As in, there was plenty of nuance. Roseanne and Jackie knock on Samir and Fatima’s door and an awkward confrontation takes place. It’s not that they hate Muslims, Roseanne tells her neighbors, it’s that they’re scared of them.
But in turn, her neighbors have a lot of fear as well. Their young son has to sleep in a bulletproof vest because it makes him feel safe from the nightmares induced by people yelling cruel things at them. Fatima offers up their WiFi password, which happens to be “Go Cubs” and not “Death to America 123” as Roseanne had once suggested.
In a final stinging moment, Roseanne and Jackie thank the couple for helping them out. Fatima ends the conversation by stating that children (such as Mary) should not be punished for the ignorance of adults.
Next: Roseanne’s turnaround
Roseanne comes around in a good way
Because this is Roseanne, it was pretty predictable what would happen with the title character’s Islamophobia. Once she spent even just a few moments getting to know her new neighbors, Roseanne realized she was wrong for assuming that they would have nefarious intentions based on their religion or country of origin.
When she runs into Fatima in the checkout line at the store, Roseanne sees a young employee acting disgracefully and effectively doing the “go back to where you came from” routine. And, of course, we get another fiery Roseanne tirade. She says:
Hey, you know that saying, ‘see something, say something?’ Well I saw something, and I’m gonna say something to your manager. You are ignorant. That woman is twice the person you’ll ever be. And she’s dealing with a lot of stuff that you don’t even know about. So next time she comes in the store, you keep your damn mouth shut. She’s got enough fertilizer to turn this place into a smoking hole in the ground.
In spite of the joke at the end, it might be the biggest stand against Islamophobia — or just xenophobia, in general — in primetime TV history. That’s not really saying a lot, but it’s something. Criticisms that Roseanne could’ve done better or that jokes about Samir and Fatima being from “Talibanistan” aren’t funny are fair, but it’s clear that the point was for Roseanne to get her comeuppance.
Next: Is it a political message to a certain crowd?
A major message to Trump’s base
Whether Barr, an ardent Trump supporter, intended it this way or not is unclear. But the episode serves as a major message aimed at those with Islamophobic views — many of which voted for Trump in 2016. Some were even nasty to Barr about the episode on Twitter.
The president has shown plenty of support for Roseanne‘s reboot, even calling to congratulate her after the premiere and taking credit for the outstanding ratings. But what was once believed by many to be a show for Trump’s base, the blue-collar families that are so similar to the Conners, has really been a show for everyone.
Despite the premiere featuring a lot of political debate between Roseanne and Jackie about Trump and Hillary Clinton, there have been few check-downs to politics in the episodes that followed. The seventh episode of the season was a rare exception, but it’s clear that Roseanne was taking a risk to make an important point.
Next: Other political themes in the episode
Other not-so-subtle themes
If you were heavily focused on the Islamophobia part of the plot, you might have missed a lot of other commentary on major issues facing poor families. Dan gets undercut on a job because an apartment owner decides to go with undocumented workers – who Dan refuses to blame, instead pointing out that they’re desperate for work and being exploited.
With D.J., Roseanne looks at the unfortunate state of the Department of Veterans Affairs and how difficult it can be to even get in to see a doctor. Back with the interaction between Roseanne and Fatima at the supermarket, there’s a quick commentary on the restrictions placed on what can be purchased with food stamps.
It was a lot to pack into one episode, and if there is a complaint here, it’s that each topic could use more fleshing out in individual storylines.
Next: A chance to do more
Another season to take on tough subjects
The good news is that, if Barr chooses to tackle the subject of the treatment of veterans, undocumented workers desperately working for peanuts, or how considering “prepared food” to be too luxurious for food stamps is ludicrous, she’s going to get her chance. Roseanne has been approved for another season, and the actress has made it clear on Twitter that she plans to continue pushing the envelope.
She wrote, “I like to do TV episodes about REAL ISSUES & REAL PEOPLE. That’s what I do. Next season will be even more current events-I will challenge every sacred cow in USA.”
If there are more “sacred cow” topics than politics, the treatment of veterans, the working poor, and Islam, we’d love to see Roseanne tackle them next season. That is, so long as the show brings it with the nuance.
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