On Tuesday morning, a flare of outrage burned through Twitter. Roseanne Barr was up and tweeting. After retweeting a post by @SGTReport (which bills itself as a “corporate propaganda antidote”) involving claims from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that the CIA had spied on French candidates under former president Obama, Barr then found herself in a Twitter canoe with a Trump supporter and another account with just 22 followers, discussing Obama and his apparent deception. “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” Barr tweeted — with “vj” meaning Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is black. (If you are unfamiliar with the long history of dehumanizing racist caricatures that compare black people to apes, here’s a good primer.)
Barr subsequently deleted the tweet and apologized to Valerie Jarrett and “all Americans” for a “bad joke about her politics and her looks.” Just hours later, ABC issued a statement proclaiming Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values,” and canceled her show.
Barr’s tweet wasn’t a joke. It had no punch line. It was an expression of ideology, just like another tweet, earlier in the morning, “apologizing” to Chelsea Clinton for calling her “Chelsea Soros Clinton” before adding, “George Soros is a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps & stole their wealth-were you aware of that? But, we all make mistakes, right Chelsea?” (Fact check: He is not.)
These tweets were just the latest online output of Barr, who has become quick to adopt conspiracy theories — Pizzagate, QAnon, and others concerning the Parkland students — and spread them to her 677,000-plus followers. A scroll through her timeline shows these latest statements are nothing new and resemble any number of MAGA accounts on Twitter, or Don Jr.’s, who retweeted her tweets about Soros.
Barr performs the act of apologizing — but only under duress. She doesn’t actually ask for forgiveness, because she doesn’t think she needs it. Over the last five years, Barr has allowed the indignant confidence that first made her a feminist firebrand to transform into something dark and dangerous that feeds on others’ rage. She’s the victor who constantly casts herself as the victim, the one with the megaphone who thinks she’s being silenced.
Barr communicates constantly with others online, yet she’s insulated herself from the sort of introspective conversations her work once inspired. She considers herself beyond reproach — a sentiment that, until today, has been merited: No number of anti-Muslim rants or unhinged conspiracy tweetstorms seemed to be enough to compromise the project branded with her name, especially after its monumental ratings debut. Her politics and “strong personality” (a term often used to describe someone with opinions that challenge the status quo — as in the case of Barr’s 1980s and ’90s persona — or, in this case, traffic in old-school sexism, racism, and anti-gay, anti-trans, or anti-Muslim rhetoric) were, as Roseanne reboot coordinator Sara Gilbert acknowledged and ABC executives joked about, problematic, but apparently not to the extent that they would actually interfere with the show.
Which is precisely why few expected ABC to actually do anything about Barr’s tweets. The network might issue the now-boilerplate press release about the ways in which a star’s behavior was unacceptable, but not so unacceptable as to jeopardize a valuable piece of the company brand (and a newly minted No. 1 show). In situations like this, we’ve come to understand that cancellations and actual punishment are a matter of last resort, especially if the star in question — Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham — is crucial to the network’s understanding of itself and its draw to viewers.
ABC, which is owned by Disney, is no Fox News — even if they saw the Roseanne reboot as a way to attract conservative viewers. Still, the suggestion that the network made the decision to cancel Roseanne because they saw it as a moral responsibility is a wishful one. If this had been Barr’s first “gaffe” — another colloquialism often employed to describe bigoted speech — the situation would’ve likely played out as many had anticipated: a hand-slap, a forced apology, a break from Twitter.
Barr’s tweet didn’t suddenly show ABC — or her agency, ICM, which also dropped her as a client — that she was bigoted. That much was abundantly clear to anyone who wasn’t willfully attempting to convince themselves otherwise. Rather, it showed that her bigotry, like all bigotry, is not a matter of a mischosen word. It’s not a slip-up or an isolated instance. It’s a worldview, and it’s a pathogen: It can be covered up and it can be ignored, but it can’t — without major substantive, contemplative, and personal work — be controlled. And to be uncontrollable in Hollywood is to render yourself a liability to the brand and, even worse, to the bottom line.
Stars, even the biggest ones, like to project an aura of free will: They choose their own projects, they produce their own content, they are the masters of their own destinies. They become experts at projecting autonomy in a system that abhors it. But stars only reach this point through a combination of self-control and submission, or at least reconciliation, with the demands of the industry. They sit for profiles when asked; they talk delightfully about coworkers they actually feel indifferent toward — and discreetly dance around situations that have blown up in the press. This restraint is rewarded with more power and more opportunity. Which is why attempts at actual autonomy generally lead in two directions: artistic obscurity or scandalous infamy.
What enabled the Roseanne reboot, then, was simple: a phalanx of costars, writers, and producers emerged who were eager to connect the ethos of the original, now-canonized show with the hunger to “understand” working-class America after the 2016 election. Those unfortunate tweets? They could be ignored — especially since there were so many others pledging devotion to Trump, whose fans the network craved.
What Barr did today, however, and what she’s in truth been doing all year, was remind ABC — and all those affiliated with the show — of who she is, and the liability that accompanies association with her. Not because of one racist tweet, but because of what that tweet, coupled with the rest of her Twitter feed, suggests about the ideological iceberg rising from beneath. It might be tempting, as CNN commentator Sally Kohn tweeted, to accept her “apology” in the name of continued dialogue. But Barr hasn’t been willing to have a conversation in years. Hers is a uniquely Trumpian style of monologue, one that performs the now too useful Maya Angelou adage again and again: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
I was one of the many critics inclined to ignore who Barr was in order to celebrate the show that her costars had worked so hard to build in spite of her. I bought the argument sold, via three carefully selected episodes screened for critics, that even a show named for Barr could be about something other than her personal politics. And, for the most part, it was. But the willed blindness to Barr’s tweets, at least until today, points to the great flattening of post-Trump politics, in which it’s ever more difficult to discern what’s ridiculous and what should spark outrage — that which, as the word originally suggested, transgresses human decency. Instead, we acquire daily layers of self-righteous anger, form-fitted to our exact spot on the ideological spectrum.
The cancellation of Roseanne is not an outrage. But it will be treated like one, funneled through the mechanics of Fox News and the rest of the pro-Trump media, fanned by Trump’s own tweets, and prolonged by, one can predict, appearances from Barr herself. It will be held up as further proof of the silencing of the right, the discriminatory leftist leanings of Hollywood, and/or the inability of snowflake social justice warriors to take a joke. And we will become inured to that rage, just as we became inured to Barr’s. Roseanne Barr’s bigotry is bad enough, but the cumulative effect of reacting to it may be even worse. Day by day, tweet by tweet, racist dog whistle followed by indignant defense, Barr and others like her will continue to remake us in their angry image: each day further cocooned in our own impotent outrage.