Roseanne Barr is still generating the occasional headline with her antics in reaction to the cancellation of her ABC show, so I thought that, rather than just delete this post (which has been sitting in my Drafts folder), I’d set it free to roam the web. “Better out than in,” I believe the saying goes (and, yes, I’m well aware of what that then compares this post to; I stand by that comparison).
One thing I found interesting about it all was the contrast between Barr’s transgression and one made by Samantha Bee on her TBS show. There were some similarities in that both involved personal insults made by popular entertainment figures from their chosen platforms. There are also differences in content, as well as in how Barr and Bee handled themselves after.
Currently we’re in a very reactive, very polarized environment, and the Barr and Bee fracas put it all on mini-display.
The two cases share a number of similarities:
- Both involve popular comedians with their own TV show.
- Both involve public personal attacks.
- Both involve freedom of expression.
Of course they also differ on points:
- Twitter tweet versus scripted TBS TV show.
- “Feckless cunt” versus ‘terrorist/ape child’.
- Gender insult versus racial slur.
One might argue that a person’s twitter feed is distinct from their work, that they should be judged separately. In some sense, who cares what Barr’s personal politics are if the show is watchable?
Unfortunately, politics today, especially the POTUS, has very much muddled that line. The world takes twitter seriously, so now it has to be treated seriously. (And, yes, I think that’s absolutely appalling!)
In contrast Bee’s show is scripted, so we can assume she meant what she said and stands by it. Or at least stood by it until the reaction made her apologize. (For my reaction to that, look to the right side of the page to see the Caveat Lector motto of this blog.)
So it may be the one point Barr has in her favor: That perhaps it was unfair — perhaps massively so — to cancel a still popular show based on the personal off-the-cuff comportment of one of its stars. Perhaps the fair thing to do was to let the public decide how much they could stomach.
Which, sadly, might have been a win for ABC and Disney, because the public has made it pretty clear they can stomach an awful lot. The real question was whether ABC — and Disney in particular — could stomach being seen to stoop that low.
Further, as Columbine, Occupy Wall Street, Sandy Hook, BLM (many names!), Parkland, and all too many others, demonstrate, American Outrage® is a fast-burning fire that soon gives way to the latest distractions, the latest conflicts, the latest emergencies.
So maybe Disney-ABC could have toughed it out, if the bottom line is all that mattered, and perhaps it’s heartening that they chose to disassociate themselves from Barr post-haste. (And perhaps it’s surprising they associated themselves in the first place.)
One consideration might be the accuracy or truth of what was said. Is there a valid argument that Ivanka Trump is, indeed, a “feckless cunt.” Likewise, is there an argument that Valerie Jarrett is the offspring of a terrorist organization and a movie about apes?
Barr’s defense is that it was an Ambien-induced joke, and indeed the idea that an organization and a movie could have offspring is silly enough to make it seem like sort of a joke.
But it’s also very obviously, clearly, blatantly the exact sort of joke racists make trying to express their bigotry in a way they think is funny and might just slip under the radars of more sensible people.
There may, or more likely may not, be some argument to be made that Valerie Jarrett in some way can be seen as aligned with Islamic goals (not withstanding that those goals may also accord with our goals). I have no idea, I’m completely ignorant of why anyone would think that, but certainly the idea can fight for survival in the public square; that’s the essence of free speech.
But there is no defense at all for the ape implication, which was unmistakable and deplorable. And to frame the “joke” as a mating and off-spring is also unmistakably deplorable.
Part of Barr’s problem is that a “joke” like that shouldn’t even be on her menu; it should never occur under any circumstance. That it does is revealing of unfortunate underlying attitudes.
But suppose social media wasn’t a thing and only people close to her knew about her problematic attitudes. How would that change our perception of her new show (and old show)?
The point is that Barr’s beliefs do not necessarily match her TV character’s beliefs. On the other hand, Barr is not just an actor on the show; she is one of the driving forces, and on this account her beliefs can matter.
Ideally we should judge any art on its own merits, but we then find ourselves faced with unfortunate disconnects between, for example, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., or Jeffrey Tambor, and their work.
Currently, our social sensibilities react strongly against “tainted” art. One can argue an objective case, that we ought not to “reward” artists with socially rejected beliefs. We punish such beliefs by dismissing the work.
Bottom line, Barr stands accused and convicted of racism (with a possible political side dish). In theory, all of (sensible) society agrees racism is bad, m’kay?
So Barr, per current standards, has committed an indefensible offense against society. The penalty is denial of success (at least for now).
How about Sam Bee? Implying a black person is half-ape is clearly indefensible. What about “feckless cunt” — also indefensible?
It’s going to depend, in part, on the definitions of “feckless” and “cunt.” These aren’t metaphors, like “muslim brotherhood” or “planet of the apes.” These are specific words.
Feckless (per Wiktionary) means “lacking purpose” or “without skill, ineffective, incompetent.” Is there a valid argument to be made that Ivanka Trump is feckless?
I would think one at least as good as any about Valerie Jarrett and Islamic interests. And in any event, people are allowed to hold and express beliefs along these lines.
Of course, no one is even contesting the “feckless” part. It’s the “cunt” that gets under people’s skins.
Ironically, cunt a very old word in our language, but it’s one that still has the power to shock, is still considered extremely vulgar. It has a dual meaning, the original anatomic one, but also one used for ad hominem attacks.
In comparison, prick and dick, slang from the male side, also have ad hominem usage, if maybe a somewhat milder one. (Once again social gender differences with implicit bias. Compare with calling someone a pussy.)
In any event, calling Ivanka Trump a “cunt” was clearly intentional ad hominem intended to express great rage by crossing polite boundaries. Pretty much what Samantha Bee is all about. Pretty much what all social comedy is about.
So we can accuse Sam Bee only of being vulgar and insulting and, perhaps at worst, hateful. The motivation would be the effect Ivanka Trump has on current policy.
The penalty is murkier here. Two advertisers have bailed, but I never saw much else. In a sense, Bee was just doing her job, and her error was misjudging taste.
Full Disclosure: I do have a definite bias here. I’ve never liked, nor respected, Roseanne Barr, and I never watched, nor wanted to watch, her old show or her new show.
I think ABC made a huge mistake getting in bed with Barr, especially given that they’re Disney now. (It’s exactly why they bailed so quickly.)
To me, it’s very much like Cheeto Charley. Their character was always in plain view, and nothing has changed. Expecting otherwise is exactly like expecting that poisonous snake you saved from death and nursed carefully back to life to not bite and kill you.
(Or, in another version of the same obvious kindergarten lesson: to carry that deadly scorpion across the river on your back because you believed all those assertions about definitely, absolutely, I promise, cross my heart, no stinging.)
What lies behind the new Roseanne, and in part behind our new realization of the POTUS, is opportunity. Folks saw an opportunity.
The kindest reading is that ABC wanted to reach out to an untapped segment of society — one that’s demonstrated its power by electing a monster for president despite all common sense. Unfortunately ABC did it in the stupidest possible way.
Which may be about par for TV executives, especially network ones.
On one level I wish the show hadn’t been cancelled. I wanted to see if the ratings held over time. I was wondering if they would. People were hugely curious and nostalgic, but the numbers were starting to slip (admittedly from “unbelievable” to merely “awesome”).
On the flip side, still full of disclosure, I also don’t watch Samantha Bee’s show. At least not any more.
I was a big fan at first, and back then I thought it was such a shame she didn’t end up taking over for Jon Stewart. Not that I’m any fan of Trevor Noah’s (I gave up on him, too, but for quite different reasons), but I’m now not sure Bee would have worked out.
The thing is, her show is to a large extent a cry of liberal feminist outrage, and the humor doesn’t always work to leaven the loaf. At least for me. It comes off as too divisive. It’s often about how awful the other side is.
Ultimately it’s a gnostic and slanted view of the world, and I lean strongly away from both certainty or polarity when it comes to complex issues. I’ve always considered them the hallmarks of error.
(Once again, a favorite quote: “Evil doesn’t question itself.”)
That said, I do tend to agree with Sam Bee’s positions, and I would agree that Ivanka Trump is, in fact, a feckless cunt, although, to be honest, Ivanka is so far off my radar that she “doesn’t look like anything to me.”
The truth is, on some level, all this is much ado about nothing to me. It’s about what people said and how awful we think that was. I don’t consider either Barr or Bee interesting enough to care about something they said.
I find Roseanne Barr distasteful because of her stupidity, ignorance, and politics, but all that means to me is that I ignore her. That’s the end of it for me.
I find Samantha Bee uninteresting because her needle is pegged to the far left and she’s filled with rage (which I totally get, but don’t have any interest in). I find shows like hers far more divisive than helpful.
The thing is: I pay a lot less attention to words than I do to actions. Free speech is hard to fully embrace, but it is demanded of us by our citizenship here. (I don’t give a shit what Tangerine Tony tweets, but I deeply alarmed by his actions in dismantling our democracy.)
And I pay a lot less attention to specific instances of a person’s words than I do to the general history of a person’s words. Anyone can misspeak from time to time. Anyone can have a bad day.
That said, there’s an interesting tension between “words can never hurt me” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
A way to look at it might be that words are harmless, but ideas have the power to move mountains.
For good or ill.
And what we really should be paying attention to is our ideas.
The words are just the carriers.