The Complexities of Race, Class, and Gender on Television

The Conners (ABC/Eric McCandless).

Following the recent fallout over Roseanne Barr’s racist comments, ABC introduced a spinoff show, The Conners, in an attempt to resume the rebooted sitcom Roseanne. The Conners tells the story of the same white working class family in the fictionalized small, midwestern town of “Langford, Illinois”—minus the mother (Roseanne Barr)–reflecting the desperate measures a corporate media conglomerate will take to appeal to white populist ideology. Although ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney, has famously instituted the motherless trope as a staple narrative device at work in many of its classic films, it is hard to imagine how The Conners will authenticate Barr’s absence. Despite having the first Black woman network president at its helm, the goal of ABC’s “Heartland Strategy” is to fill an aesthetic void that was perceived after Trump became president as overwhelmingly white, heteronormative, able-bodied, and working class. In this way, the show is attempting to appeal to the stereotypical red-blooded, all-American, working class family who voted for Trump. Members of this group view themselves as victims of economic dispossession spawned by global neoliberal capitalism.

ABC’s heartland brand of white suffering only makes sense if its audience accepts a Hollywood caricature of the working class sustained by a racist fundamentalism that has seeped into American society: white people are entitled to American progress, even if it costs faceless others deemed unworthy. As crass as this generalization of white nationalism might seem, its aesthetic formulation in a standardization of style imposes conventional thought about working class life onto mass audiences. One of the more salient aspects of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 critique of interwar mass-produced commercial art, deemed “The Culture Industry,” is the exposure of aesthetic pleasure, happiness, affected by cultural commodities as an unfulfilled or “broken promise.” A form of repression, the laughter accompanying commoditized art is undergirded by an unconscious fear of pain restricted by power. Adorno and Horkheimer refer to “Schadenfreude” (gloating) as the only form of laughter, happiness, expressible through the limits of the repressive entertainment industry (140). Twenty-four years earlier, W.E.B. Du Bois, in “The Souls Of White Folk,” similarly addresses a Schadenfreude of WWI in relation to how the violence of “the white world”—European imperialist powers—turned away temporarily “from beating, slandering, and murdering us [Blacks and people of color]” and in on itself (35). Televisually schematized working class pain branded heartland (a type of Schadenfreude) operates along the same lines as authoritarian political regimes parodying a universal model of reality.

White working class anxiety is reinforced by misperceptions of concrete economic disadvantage notwithstanding the evidence. As economists Michael Zweig and Guy Standing point out in separate but complimentary research, a seismic shift in the working class among developed countries contributes to a new kind of precarity. This working poor insecurity reflects several compounding problems related to hyperalienation via corporatization and fragmentation, along with the failure of government policies that favor relocation of labor to emerging economic markets and technological self-efficacy. The reality is that most working class people in the U.S. are disproportionately Black, Latinx, single mothers with children, and persons with disabilities. These working poor look nothing like the white patriarchal ideal from American folk culture that summons an image of a broad shouldered, weathered faced European ethnic man covered in industrial grit—coalminer, steel mill or automobile factory worker. Throughout U.S. labor history nonwhite men and women worked and unionized in industrial manufacturing sectors. But my point, here, is that countering the fiction of an ever shrinking white industrial work force—threatened by cheap Chinese steel imports flooding U.S. markets, illegal Mexican immigrants displacing low-/unskilled citizens, and equal opportunity quotas legalizing reverse discrimination and creating unfair advantage for minority groups—is the fact that the majority of working class U.S. labor is not now nor was it ever made up of industrial and manufacturing sectors. Today, less well-paid, lower-level professional service occupations (healthcare attendants, personal care aides, and education assistants) as well as retail/sales related industries (customer service, fast-food, and warehouse fulfillment) employ the bulk of U.S. working class labor.

Current populist imagery extolling working class virtues propagate the American myth of meritocracy, which masks historically violent class warfare between capitalists and laborers and renders invisible the authority and power dynamics of economic class stratification that determine everyday social and political reality. At the base of this nativist populism is a sense of kinship, a symbolic notion of belonging shaped by the idea of a shared culture and national identity organized around individual securities traditionally guaranteed by social contract citizenship (self-autonomy, public institutions, and communal networks). It is commonly understood that with the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment legal right to citizenship was guaranteed to anyone born in U.S. territory (jus soli). However, as Martha S. Jones’ recent social/legal history compellingly argues, “The only consensus that emerges is one about the importance of fixing the status of free black people. Whether for or against designating them as citizens…in the nation’s legal regime” (11). Legal freedom, burdened by the universalism of natural rights tradition in which a metaphysically preconditioned person has self-ownership (autonomy), entails that individual human existence be recognized against a neutral standard for humanity. A citizenship claim is fundamentally a property claim, as a natural law justification for equal protection under the law.

As a commodity whose fleshy body has provided both the finished product and raw material for the realization of modern capital, all attempts to fixate the Black (either toward legal inclusion or exclusion) confronts the empty signifier that the presence of that absence conditions, as it confronts the unfulfilled presence of whiteness. Deliberating the visualization of Black women’s bodily possession and reproductive exploitation in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Kimberly Juanita Brown brings into focus discursive remnants of enslaved corporeality that circulate around the empty sign of the “slave maternal,” which inflects “at once the central feature of citizenship (the ability to make more citizens) and the central feature of slavery, the antithesis of citizenship (the ability to carve slaves out of slaves)” (61). This legal paradox of Black citizenship reemerges with the corporate conglomerate that owes its existence to the Black American freedom struggle even as it continues to alienate Black people from capital wealth.

Since the country’s founding, U.S. progress has been powered by Black destruction and Native American genocide. Black alienation and exploitation is constitutionally incorporated via the three-fifths clause of Article 1 and electoral college system. Reconstruction Era amendments do not fully instantiate Black citizenship nor entirely do away with structural inequality. Racialization of property (commodified Blackness) and its juridical incorporation within a society based on racial subordination to white privilege, as Cheryl Harris’ groundbreaking essay shows, results in the reification and legal protection of whiteness functioning as property. A source of anxiety within a capitalist driven law, Article IV’s protections of white entitlement expressed in official nativists populist legal discourses appearing in 1830’s Massachusetts—as an instance of territorial rights to state protection of settlement, residency, and interstate commerce—morph into a definition of state citizenship that distinguishes immigrant settlers as aliens without guaranteed protections. Under Article IV, neither the fugitive slave nor the immigrant has legal recourse to state citizenship protections. Abolitionists of the era seized upon southern states’ political shifting of the clause from Black rights to state power and asserted that a state’s sovereign duty to protect its Black residents is a matter of state security. The right to equal protection is susceptible to what legal theorist Derrick Bell identifies as “interest convergence”—legal remediation of racial inequality is secured as policy only if and when it sustains the white status quo.

In the final episode of the original Roseanne show, the audience is told that the entire season was a dream-fantasy Roseanne wrote to cope with the grief of her husband Dan’s death. The fantastical is amplified in the final scene’s last few seconds with Roseanne sitting alone on the idyllically worn living room couch as a subtitle appears on the screen, a quote about realizing the transgressive powers of dreams attributed to the T.E. Lawrence character in the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). A variation of the quote appears in the real life T.E. Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), and begins “All Men dream: but not equally.” For Lawrence, an agent of the British government assigned to command an Arab coalition guerilla army to defeat the Ottoman Empire, dreams are projections of national consciousness to be manipulated alongside tactical war strategy that serves the colonial interests of an opposing British Empire.

Analyzing the film in The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin observes, “the Empire must be kept in the background—and yet, always be present…” (77). In an expression of the dream image as unmitigated possibility that omits any hint at structural inequality perpetuated by a neoliberal capitalism that generates anti-union legislation and NAFTA, the final scene of Roseanne reinforces an illusion of white working class success resulting from individual ingenuity and hard work all wrapped up in the moral certitude of empire.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Keelyn Bradley

Keelyn Bradley is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought Division at The European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He is currently writing his dissertation, “Suffering Neoliberalism: Searching for the Meaning of ‘the right to equal protection’ in an Era of HIV/AIDS and Terrorism.” This study intends to research Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt’s theories of violence and embodiment, and their dual relation to Karl Jaspers’ existentialism while addressing the social and historical developments between the aesthetic dimensions of disease, disability, race, and heteronormativity. His first collection of poetry, 'hunger,' is forthcoming. Follow him on Twitter @koal2k.