Where Have All The TV Feminist Moms Gone?

Roseanne Conner was a wrung-out and fed-up working mother who embodied everything a woman shouldn’t be. That’s why we need her now more than ever.

In early December, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey admitted that, in light of the election, she is interested in recalibrating her network’s programming to reach out to the swaths of working class and rural Americans who have been underrepresented on television for far too long. Current television isn’t totally devoid of this perspective — Baskets, The Middle, Shameless, and Mom each tap into kitchen-sink realism — but it lacks what made Roseanne revolutionary: a transgressive female lead with a cult of personality, a heavyweight who leads her family and confronts hypocrisy. Now is the time to anoint the next domestic goddess who can speak for blue-collar motherhood and take misogyny head-on. Network television, scrubbed clean of class consciousness, needs a new lovable-but-barbed spitfire mom who can raise feminist hell without the financial entitlements and safety nets of her TV counterparts.

When Roseanne ended, television didn't just lose the voice of the rural, white, working-class families that have been displaced in popular imagination. It also lost an angry, righteous, bra-burning Second Wave mom whose memories of women's liberation fueled her fight through nine seasons of barely making ends meet, standing up to sexism, and trying to protect her daughters from making her mistakes. In 2017, there is no shortage of feminist voices on television. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, Transparent, UnREAL, Inside Amy Schumer, Girls, Jane the Virgin, Orange Is the New Black — there has never been a better time for explicit, unapologetic feminist politics on the small screen ... and yet, their scope feels small. Their feminism comes across as a millennial concern. Their politics are solely for young, educated, queer, urban, progressive, single, or childless women. These voices are vital, but they are not the only perspective of women across the United States. If broadcast networks are committed to taking a lens to the socioeconomic reality of white, low-income households, then we shouldn’t be delivered a retread of the condescending hillbilly gawkerism that has plagued cable in the last decade, from Duck Dynasty to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Instead, we should be treated to the rebirth of an acid-tongued truth-teller who can voice the frustration of women and families who have been left behind in American culture.

From the pilot, Roseanne’s vision is loud and clear: Roseanne is not a plucky, single, urban Mary Tyler Moore, nor is she a moneyed, righteous, edified Maude Findlay. She is more like embodied vagina dentata: a wrung-out and fed-up working mother who is still expected to meet with her kids’ teachers, exchange backpacks, and know where the tape is, even though she puts in as many hours at the plastic factory as her husband does in his construction business (and often even more). She doesn’t have time to coddle; when 11-year-old daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) gets on her nerves, she looks her right in the eye and snarls, “This is why some animals eat their young.” There is never any question who captains the ship. With her girlfriends, she reveals the show’s mission statement: “A good man doesn’t just happen; they have to be created by us women. A guy is a lump like this doughnut. OK, so first, you gotta get rid of the stuff his mom did to him. And then you gotta get rid of all the macho crap that they pick up from the beer commercials. Then there’s my personal favorite: the male ego.” She devours the doughnut.

Roseanne and Dan, entrenched in their lack of job security, expect their daughters to achieve. Becky, their eldest, is a straight-A student until she elopes with a marriage traditionalist well below her intelligence level. Darlene, their middle child, moves to Chicago to attend art school and dreams of being a comic book illustrator. When Darlene is offered a well-paying job at an ad agency, Roseanne confesses her feeling of failure: “First of all, I’m really glad that you’re going to school and getting an education like I never got because I got caught up in all that love and peace crap from the ’60s. Then 10 years later I realized I should have listened to all those women who said learn to support yourself or you’re going to be screwed.” Toward the end of the series, Roseanne discovers Riot Grrrl from a punk hitchhiker played by Jenna Elfman (can’t make this up), which reveals to her a world of feminism she thought she left behind in her youth and spurs her into a vicious road rage battle with a chauvinist truck driver. She tells Dan, “There was a revolution out there we didn’t even know about. ... A wake-up call went off: It’s about taking control.”

Throughout eight seasons (let’s pretend the cartoonish ninth never happened), Roseanne carries the weight of her family’s financial vulnerability. While Dan flits between contract jobs and ill-fated business ventures, Roseanne’s supplemental income keeps the lights on and the family running: factory jobs, fast food gigs, waitressing, selling magazine subscriptions over the phone, sweeping hair at a beauty salon. Not to mention the cooking, cleaning, and child-wrangling. This isn’t “having it all” — it is doing it all. And still never having enough.

Where have all of TV's feminist moms gone? Today, her successors have either the circumstances or the fight, but never both. The Middle’s Frankie Heck is a mouseling with no interest in gender politics. On Better Things, Sam Fox’s brazen feminism is buttressed by a comfortable Hollywood Hills lifestyle. One Day at a Time’s Penelope Alvarez has to take lessons from her radicalized daughter. Surprisingly, Roseanne’s most successful heirs are found only on the TV’s margins — on Caitlin Moran’s brilliant-but-canceled BBC sitcom Raised by Wolves, comedic savant Rebekah Staton stars as Della, the ferocious, survivalist mom of a homeschooled brood of six living on a Midlands counsel estate. (Think the British version of Section 8 in the American Midwest.) On FX’s Baskets, one of the most moving auteur comedies in recent memory, the indomitable Louie Anderson plays Bakersfield widow Christine Baskets, a Costco-obsessed Reaganite whose passive-aggressive motherhood is like a blunt knife to the gut. When networks give us fare like American Housewife (originally titled The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport) and tell us that the beautiful, buxom Katy Mixon is your average American mom, we know TV execs have lost their damn minds.

We need to crown a new broadcast queen who will foreground her hostility and embody everything that a woman shouldn’t be — someone fat, strident, questioning, and opinionated. A woman who isn’t grateful for her lot in life, but resentful of the systems, ideology, and choices that got her there. Roseanne Conner never lost the indignation that ignited her feminism. Let her be the new paradigm.

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