Thursday, February 11, 2010
Roseanne and the Class War
Roseanne was one of the best television shows that ever aired. This greatness is linked in my mind to Marxism and this blog in the following way: Roseanne was predicated on the notion that class still existed in America as late as the 1980s.
Only in American do people deny their own class identities and loyalties. In America, everybody is “middle class" since that term is stretched beyond recognition. Whether you make $300,000 a year, or $40,000 a year, you're likely to say that you're an ordinary member of the mythical American middle class.
In Victorian England, the phrase “middle class” was also something of a misnomer in that this Victorian “middle” really only constituted about 10 or perhaps 15 percent of the general population. Moreover, this small sliver of English society was not really positioned in the middle of English social life. In fact, the Victorian middle class, while sandwiched between an even smaller aristocracy and a very large group or “lower classes,” was a privileged caste by almost all objective criteria. This was doubly true insofar as Britain was itself the wealthiest country in the world at this time.
In Roseanne Barr’s America, everybody claimed to be middle class. I remember working as a volunteer for an extraordinarily wealthy congressman who represented one of America’s wealthiest districts. His wife, while overseeing both a nanny and a cleaning woman as they readied her children for lunch, told me that she was very thankful to have been raised with “middle class values.” What these values were, she did not say. But the Roseanne show demonstrated that class was alive and well in America, despite the rhetoric of the Reagan Revolution.
Roseanne and her fictional husband weren’t really middle class: they were working class. Both bearing the physical signs of their caste—excess weight and, at least in the first couple of seasons, a lack of cosmetic surgery —the couple took a series of odd jobs and struggled to make ends meet. Their cultural tastes—beer, Las Vegas, poker, cars and motorcycles, kitchy seasonal displays, and (above all) television—showed that class is as much about cultural identity as it is about any relationship to the “means of production,” although the fictional Roseanne (whose sharp mouth constantly threatened to undermine her ability to earn enough money to pay the bills) clearly had no such relationship.
If there is another American show about class that deserves comment it is Good Times. The debate about the racial messages in Good Times perhaps rightfully obscures its foundation in meaningful class analysis. The show demonstrated how public housing worked, why people had a hard time finding work, and how Washington and City Hall systematically undermined the future of ordinary working class and unemployed people.
Cultural Studies theorists say that America used to produce many more sitcoms about class. In the 1950s, Americans still seemed to tolerate and even appreciate comedies that revolved around communal living, tenement housing, ethnic culture, work, and extended families. But by the 1980s these sorts of shows had become nearly extinct. People don’t want to think about work when they are off duty; they certainly don’t want to be reminded about the declining standard of living among America’s so-called middle class.
Did I mention that Roseanne was funny?