Death By Tweet: Why Roseanne's "Teaching Moment" Matters More Than You Might Think
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
June 12, 2018
In post-racial America, corporate media wields the power to determine what we should be "tolerant" of -- and what happens if we aren't
Roseanne Barr in happier times
Life ain't easy for anyone these days.
While regular folk fret over paying bills, dodging layoffs and playing the healthcare shuffle, actors are feeling the pain, too. Because in one very important way, these people are like you and me: their jobs can be snatched from them.
And lately, things have gotten worse for Hollywood's gilded class.
Lately, careers in Tinseltown have been ending with fiber-optic speed, assassinated in social media and tabloids by rumors and accusations. Entire bodies of work have been stripped from celluloid history in the time it takes to order tuna cigars at Crustacean. Unplugged minds are paying attention to these developments. Because if what's happening to celebrities now is any indication of what's coming down the pike, then we all need to be very concerned.
Which brings us to Roseanne Barr.
On May 28, in what she claims was an Ambien-induced stupor, Barr unleashed the infamous Tweet likening Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor in the Obama administration, to a breeding attempt between the "Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes". The next day, ABC pulled the plug on Barr's show.
If ABC execs had watched Barr's original sitcom when it aired from 1988 to 1997, they surely knew what they were getting when they inked a deal with her. We're talking about a woman who grabbed her crotch as she obliterated the national anthem during a baseball game and posed as Hitler in the satirical Jewish publication Heeb.
But she's also the same woman who Tweeted the address of George Zimmerman's parents after he shot and killed black teen Trayvon Martin; who treated American viewers to one of the first lesbian kisses ever broadcast on TV; who created a role for a black granddaughter on her re-booted show because she knew "so many people who have mixed families."
Let me be clear: I'm not defending Roseanne's bone-headed Tweet; there's no shelter for a woman who's first instinct when insulting a person color is to compare them to a primate.
My point is that Barr has always been an extremely complicated and unpredictable personality whose views and insults are far-flung and sometimes irreconcilable. The woman simply doesn't give a damn about what she says, and ABC knew this.
In the aftermath of Barr's canning, debate has raged over whether the network was justified in dismissing her over a barb that may have been racist or just a sloppy insult made by an unhinged personality. Or whether Barr, like fellow actor Tim Allen, was penalized for supporting President Trump, both on camera and off.
But when the unplugged mind rises above the pablum and chatter, it sees the Bigger Picture that's often missed when inflammatory events dominate the news cycle and whip people into a frenzy.
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And the implications should concern us all.
It's an open secret that most actors are little more than high-functioning train wrecks. It was common knowledge that Charlie Sheen practically ran a brothel from his Hollywood chateau for nearly a decade before CBS fired him from "Two and A Half Men" for engaging in "dangerously self-destructive conduct." From Shia LaBeouf to Lindsay Lohan, to Mel Gibson, the industry is rife with borderline personalities whose off-screen antics are often more colorful (and dangerous) than anything they do on camera. And they've rarely faced serious consequences.
But recently, the criteria for bad behavior has expanded. Talent can now find themselves out of a job not just for engaging in "dangerously self-destructive behavior", but for making offensive comments. Paula Deen's culinary empire cratered in 2013 after the Food Network cancelled her show in the wake of a deposition in which she liberally tossed about the "N" word. Dumping Deen was a no-brainer; modern viewers know there's no room for a racist celebrity cook in any kitchen, no matter how yummy her fritters are.
But since Deen's implosion, the standard for "offensiveness" that networks have applied hasn't always been clear. And this is where things get dicey.
In the minds of Hollywood decision-makers, some sensitivities now weigh more heavily than others.
Hours after Barr's show was cancelled, Jarrett weighed in on the controversy, opining that even though Barr's misdeed had obliterated a career and left 200 cast and crew unemployed, it could at least serve as a "teaching moment".
Valerie Jarrett: Teaching Us All, One Tweet At A Time
Yet at the core of this "teaching moment" lies one unsettling takeaway.
In the minds of Hollywood decision-makers, some sensitivities now appear to weigh more heavily than others. And placed against the backdrop of recent events, it's clear that sensitivity to race surpasses all other sensitivities.
A string of high-profile controversies has "taught" us that it's okay to mock a woman by suggesting that she is transgender; opine on national TV that the Vice-President suffers from a "mental illness" because of his Christian faith; and call the daughter of the President a "feckless cunt" on a late night talk show -- as long as you apologize. (And if you insult Muslims, Bill Maher has "taught" us that an apology isn't even warranted).
But compare a person of mixed-race heritage to an ape in a late-night Tweet? That's a bridge too far. That's when your show is cancelled, your agency drops you, and your career ends.
That's when you die.
Even if you crawl over broken class, repeatedly apologizing and begging the network to save the jobs of your fellow cast and crew, you're still dead.
These lessons aren't explicitly stated; they're learned by reading between the lines. Because they're not lessons anyone wants to admit to. Because there's no logical way for an industry that prides itself on tolerance to emphasize tolerance of some groups over other groups. But with the Barr precedent firmly in place, that's what's happening.
The Barr debacle wasn't just a "teaching moment"; it was a warning to anyone who wants to keep a job in Hollywood that in post-racial America, race still matters. In fact, it matters more than anything else.
This means we've quietly moved from the Era of Tolerance to the Era of Selective Tolerance. And it could be a profoundly disturbing age for several reasons.
One of our first "teaching moments" as children is learning how to right the wrongs we do to others. This requires us to first acknowledge our role in causing harm, and then to apologize. But when it comes to "teaching" lessons about race, we're learning the same rules don't apply. This is problematic for several reasons.
First, racial affronts now exact the harshest punishment; there's simply no room for apologies. The problem is that turning a lesson into a strict liability social crime doesn't breed understanding or tolerance; it breeds fear, and fear will ultimately morph into loathing. How will this advance the case for tolerance?
Second, a core principle of tolerance is that all people and all perspectives should be respected. But if some appear to be valued more than others, what message does this send? If we're transgender, white woman or a Christian, how does it make us feel if someone can insult us and move on with an apology, yet have their career wiped from existence if they offend a person of color? Might this foster resentment instead of bringing us closer?
Third, it's no secret that racial sensitivity hasn't always been a top priority in Hollywood. 99% of studios and networks are run by white, male cogs who answer to white, male cogs running global media empires. It's naive to think these people are seriously invested in advancing the interests of blacks, or women, gays or any other disenfranchised group.
Finally, Hollywood is notoriously fickle and captivated by flavors-of-the-month. What's to prevent decision-makers from prioritizing different sensibilities in the future? Even if we're comfortable dealing a career-ending death sentence to a racist who crosses the line, how will we feel if decision-makers move the line in a direction we're not on board with? These are the same cogs who lobby passionately for gun control while littering film and television with assault rifle mayhem. Do we really trust these people to set the bar for which sensibilities should (or shouldn't) be prioritized?
The arbitrary nature of Selective Tolerance brings us to the most disturbing implication of the Barr firestorm: the immense power behind Selective Tolerance.
While the decision to cancel her series was a financial blow to Barr, requiring her to forfeit $3 million in fees, it was an even bigger loss to ABC, which had expected to receive $60 million in advertising revenue for the show's 11th season.
But other distributors took Barr's "teaching" moment a step further: reruns of her original series have been stripped from Viacom's cable networks and Hulu (jointly-owned by ABC's parent company, 20th Century Fox, NBC-Comcast, and AT&T).
The entire body of work that Roseanne and hundreds of talented men and women crafted over nearly a decade was erased in 48 hours. If a group of people has the power to end a career so swiftly and completely --- with no hint of resurrection --- and wipe it from existence, what other lessons do they have the power to "teach"?
The "Lessons" The Media Is "Teaching" Us Can Shape Our Reality
The corporate takeover of a "free and independent" press
So unlike their much smaller predecessors, these behemoths have the deep pockets to "teach"many lessons. Since studios and networks are now owned by conglomerates of unimaginable size, they can afford to end relationships with talent and forefeit insane amounts of money. Their deep pockets allow them to absorb the losses necessary to "teach" financially-devastating lessons to talent.
So if you're working in Hollywood, you might want to ask yourself what lessons these conglomerates will choose to "teach" you in the future. (Keep in mind it wasn't long ago that Hollywood submitted to Communist witch hunts to "teach" the lessons demanded by a paranoid government). Will the the content you contribute be required to reflect the sensibilities carried in these lessons? And most importantly, what price will you pay if you aren't willing to adapt to the sensibilities-du-jour?
Consider also that these mega-media behemoths own the companies employing the people who give us our news. What future lessons might they "teach" the journalists and anchors who keep us informed? And how might these lessons affect the information they relay to us about the people and events unfolding in our world?
How might their "lessons" shape our reality?
Roseanne may have lost her career, but in the Era of Selective Tolerance and mega-media power, we could all lose much more.