All I wanna do this pandemic summer is organize for socialism, give vaccinated hugs, and watch TV — join me!
It still makes me sad that Roseanne Barr revealed herself as an unhinged bigot, because the original 1980s/90s run of her TV series remains my favorite depiction of rust belt, working-class family life. I will forever remember the living room from “Roseanne” — centered around an old brown, plaid, afghan-covered couch that probably had a few tears in its upholstery — as the first sitcom home I’d ever seen that looked like it came from my neighborhood. And even if the Connors weren’t exactly like my family (she yelled more than my mom, husband Dan less than my dad), they felt familiar. For one thing, the parents were fat, just like a lot of grown ups I knew in my Detroit suburb. Their kids bickered a lot and dressed in clothes that probably came from the Sears sales racks. Everyone is funny and they all use sarcastic humor to cope with the stress of everyday life. But sometimes their wit stings a tender spot and they end up hurting each other by accident. Balancing a sense of humor with a sense of dignity is a constant struggle for the working-class, especially when you’re way smarter than the bosses who pay you peanuts.
When I consider what it means to be a wiseass working class person in a terrible economy, I immediately think of my all-time favorite “Roseanne” episode, season 2’s “Hair.” After her infamous walk out at the factory job where she worked for eleven years and subsequent failed stints of employment, Roseanne takes a position scheduling appointments and sweeping hair at a salon. At first she’s determined to quit, telling her sister Jackie this is “the lowest of the low” because it’s no different than the work she does at home. “At least you’ll be getting paid,” Jackie says as she physically drags Roseanne out the kitchen door.
But then it turns out Roseanne enjoys the ladies at Art’s Salon. She gets to crack jokes as they chitchat and no one minds that she makes fun of them. She even scores some wisecracks on a rich old lady customer who happens to own the factory where Roseanne worked for so long. The job itself is easy. It’s so chill that by the end of the day Roseanne tells owner Marcia she could probably do the entire shift’s work in half the time. So Marcia offers her a $2/hour raise plus tips if she starts washing the clients’ hair, and Roseanne agrees.
That night at dinner with the family, oldest child Becky says to Roseanne, “Susan Noonan said that her mother saw you sweeping up people’s hair in the beauty parlor.” Roseanne replies, “Well you tell Susan Noonan that I saw her mom getting her roots bleached and her mustache waxed,” and Becky laughs. Middle child Darlene notices Mom is wearing a nice new perfume, and Roseanne sheepishly admits she treated herself after getting a promotion on her first shift. This is the moment in the episode when my heart does somersaults, literally every time I see it. Roseanne told both Jackie and Dan in earlier scenes that she doesn’t want this demeaning job, but by this point we know she actually likes it. And for a smart working-class person, admitting you’re excited about a gig that seems beneath you can feel so embarrassing. As someone who was once happily employed as the free-sample lady at a grocery store, I know this.
Kindhearted as Dan is, he isn’t sensitive enough to pick up on her change of heart. When he hears the word “promotion,” he jokes, “Promotion to what, shampoo girl?” Roseanne verifies that this is exactly what her new position is and sardonic Darlene blurts, “You’re a dead man.” Dan tries to backpedal, but it only gets worse:
Dan: Hey, it’s a job, right?
Roseanne: It’s a good job.
Dan: That’s what I said, it’s a good job!
Becky: No, you said, “Hey, it’s a job, right?”
Dan: I meant to say it’s a good job. (Nods encouragingly) Good job!
Roseanne: No, it’s not. It’s not a good job, it’s a degrading job. But no one there makes me feel like it is. That’s your job.
What a gutting moment! An awkward silence follows as Roseanne storms off to the bedroom and Dan follows her. And then out of nowhere, Darlene says to her younger brother (who has been completely silent this whole time), “Nice going, DJ!” Whew! Honestly this scene encapsulates every coping mechanism rust belt people use when they don’t know how to talk about their feelings — sarcastic humor, embarrassment, defensiveness, and small emotional explosions, followed by more jokes.
I love the layer of gender nuance going on here, how the girls are excited for their mom’s new gig (the way Darlene says “tres chic!” about Roseanne’s perfume), and how they give Dan shit for his insensitivity. They sense this is a positive change for their mom even though she’s downplaying it, which is something he does not get at all. But despite his obliviousness, Dan is a sweetheart. When he follows Roseanne into the bedroom, he apologizes and gently explains he didn’t know she actually liked her new gig. She seems confused about it herself but admits that her coworkers are pretty cool. “I like them and they like me, and that just makes sweeping up hair not so bad.” She tells him she’s happy and he asks, “So what’s the secret, babe? Lower standards?” She jokes, “Well I just don’t think my standards can get any lower than you, and I married you,” then pounces on him. Again the power of wisecracks brings the family back from a painful moment.
I’ve always adored those two scenes. The way the family reacts to mom’s first day at an iffy new job felt so authentic and so different from all the other tv families who live in big, spiffy houses and don’t worry about money. But watching it now I realize this story probably had a profound influence on my relationship with work. After toiling at a couple of horribly stressful jobs that paid a decent salary, I decided around age 30 that it was worth a pay cut to not hate going to work every day. And I’ve never looked back. It’s not an easy choice if you worry about how other people perceive you. I’ve had the experience of running into former coworkers at my “lowly” new job. I’ve seen their eyes bulge because they think it’s sad to see me wiping tables or handing out sausage samples instead of working with their judgmental asses at some hellish job I dreaded going to every day. I won’t lie, their misplaced pity stung. The American working-class has been conditioned to eat itself over these small differences in stature, to believe that making a few dollars more or less per hour than your neighbor signifies some vast difference in whether or not you are a successful adult. We should be eating the rich instead. But if we’re going to be working for peanuts, we might as well work with people we don’t hate seeing every day. We can unlearn the ways we’ve been brainwashed, and even come to accept that sweeping up hair isn’t undignified in the least.