Yesterday began as a normal day for Roseanne Barr. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, the comedian was on one of her typical wee-hours Twitter kicks. I can see her now, propped up by Ambien, leaning over her phone, slurring the first thoughts that pop into her head into bursts of grammatically unsound sentences. But Barr went too far this time. After this debacle, we officially know that “too far” is a place public figures can reach on Twitter.
At two in the morning, Barr tweeted an exceptionally racist comment likening former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman, to a character from Planet of the Apes.
At the time, Barr probably didn’t think she would face any consequences for this tweet. That’s because until now, Barr hadn't faced any for the alt-right conspiracy theory thought spiral that is her Twitter. Instead, she was given a TV show. In May 2017, when ABC confirmed the beloved, enormously popular sitcom about a “normal American family,” which originally aired from 1988 to 1997, was returning to the air for a 2018 revival, its co-creator had already veered far from whatever constitutes “normal” and was long orbiting the fringes of reason. Her Twitter was a cache of evidence.
Yesterday, Barr was punished for doing what she’s been doing for years and years: Tweeting heinous things. Maybe ABC should’ve taken a good stroll through Barr’s Twitter timeline before choosing to revive the show. The network would have seen Barr call Susan Rice, another Obama aide and Black woman, “a man with big swinging ape balls," back in 2013, an incident that reveals a pattern in Barr’s racist perception of Black women. The network would have seen Barr express her hopes that the students of U.C. Davis “get nuked” in 2015. It would have seen Barr call Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin a “jew hater” and “filthy nazi whore” in 2016.
The prospect of having a hit show back on the air didn’t make Barr more hesitant to spew her opinions. In March, just before Roseanne premiered, Barr wrote the words “Nazi salute” in response a doctored photo of Parkland survivor David Hogg (the thread included the actual David Hogg). She sent the tweet, and the show went on. Barr was not given a reason to censor herself, because until this point she had faced no consequences.
What yesterday marks is the first time Barr’s tweets — those thoughts cast out in the echo chamber of the internet — had tangible repercussions in the real world. What’s remarkable, in retrospect, is that Barr ever thought she could get away with saying something this bigoted in the first place. What’s remarkable is that she felt so secure in her success, so safe. And why wouldn’t she? Until ABC took action, Barr was getting away with it, one tweet at a time.
Hours after she tweeted about Jarrett, ABC responded by swiftly cancelling their number-one TV show. ABC president Channing Dungey (who, it is worth mentioning, is the first Black woman to head a major TV network) said in a statement, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” ABC’s decision was publicly backed up by Disney, its parent company. Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, immediately called Jarrett to condemn Barr and let her know that the show was being canceled before the news went public. Later on, Iger tweeted, “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.” Other organisations took a cue from ABC’s version of “the right thing.” In the fallout, Barr was also dropped by her ICM, her agency, and Roseanne reruns were pulled from Paramount, TV Land, and CMT.
ABC took a principled stand against bigotry. Obviously, though, there are questions about the order of events. Namely, why did ABC choose to usher Barr back to the network’s embrace in the first place, knowing full well she had a history of interacting with alt-right ideals? Why did the show premiere after she essentially called David Hogg a Nazi? Why did ABC choose to make Barr the star of its upfronts presentation last week, and casually joke about the nature of her tweets during the proceedings?
A week ago, Roseanne’s astounding ratings outshone its co-creators political orientation. That’s no longer the case. When presented with such racism, we saw a corporation enforce and uphold a value system. ABC took on the responsibility of defining what, as Iger said, the “right thing” was. The network finally drew a line in the wilderness that is internet conduct. Likely, the fact that millions of dollars in advertisements were on the line helped ABC’s decision-making process.
ABC did what it had to do to preserve the integrity of the corporation’s values — but the problem’s still there. Barr’s 2 a.m. tweet cost hundreds of people their jobs, but it didn’t cost her an audience. Naturally, Barr is still tweeting, even though she said she wouldn’t. Barr may be cast out of the mainstream, but she’s be welcomed by a supportive community of like-minded people on Twitter. She still has an audience. Without ABC’s watchful eye, there’s no “line” for Barr to cross anymore. With Roseanne gone, Barr has nothing to lose. She already lost it.
For all its flaws, Roseanne had been an attempt to put some “middle ground” on TV. With her blatant bigotry, its namesake star made that an impossibility. Now, we’re all back to where we started, settled into the Twitter threads of the realities we have chosen.