Since the 1950’s, we’ve been awash in a sea of sitcoms about supposedly typical families. That is to say, white middle class English-speaking Christian familes including two parents and a number of kids born within the marriage. And most people seem to have internalized that format as a societal norm, despite all the many, many families that violate it. Actually, the type of family represented in most sitcoms is fairly rare: real families come in various colors, have all sorts of members (extended family, more than two generations, steps and in-laws, etc.), and come from various socio-economic backgrounds.
An even rarer combination that sitcoms might lead you to believe is common: homely fat husbands with super-model wives.
Roseanne presented something different: the Conners were white, English-speaking, and a two-parent household, but they were what we here in the US call “working class”. They didn’t have careers; sometimes they couldn’t even find jobs. While they had three kids in the normal fashion, they also took in one of their daughters’ boyfriends to live with them because his mother was abusive. The problems they faced and solved (or learned to live with) were not just rehashes of the problems faced by the Cleavers. Their experiences were unique, with no simple formula to fix them, and because of that viewers could relate.
The show also presented an interesting range of female characters. Roseanne was a fighter: pushy, aggressive, determined. Her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) was less self-determined: she changed careers as often as she changed boyfriends, unable to figure out who she wanted to be when she grew up despite the fact she was already in her thirties when the show began. Roseanne’s mother was a nightmare: June Cleaver wrapping over a Mother Bates center. In short, Roseanne was the aggressor, Jackie was the pacifist, and their mother was passive-aggressive. That about covers the range of not just female, but human behavior.
Roseanne’s two daughters, Becky and Darlene, were night and day. Becky (Lecy Goranson) was the conniving, self-centered brat who had most everyone – including her delusional parents – thinking she was Little Miss Sunshine (Goranson’s portrayal, by the way, is flawless). She was also the pretty one, the smart one, the special one. Darlene – Middle Child Alert, Level Chartreuse – was the afterthought (Sarah Gilbert). She saw right through Becky, and tried to differentiate herself from comparison with the Golden Child by being a tomboy and a writer. Her temperment was much like Roseanne’s, and like Roseanne, the love of her life was a guy who was passive, yet strong, and clearly worthy of her respect (which was not easily won). Becky’s main criteria for a mate was that he irritate her parents.
What’s interesting about these characterizations are that these are dynamics that can be (and have been) replicated with male characters, or a mixed-gender grouping. And because of this, the writing on Roseanne was substantially better than most of its counterparts. You see, writing stereotypes is easy. It means rearranging old material instead of creating something new. It’s like cribbing your friend’s essay instead of writing one from your own research.
Roseanne pushed its writers to come up with new ideas. Roseanne herself came from a background of poverty and struggle, and that ensured we weren’t seeing some Hollywood “slum-chic” version of working class misery – it was a realistic portrayal, and anyone who grew up that way can testify. The writers on Roseanne must have been equally capable of thinking outside the Greater Los Angeles box that most shows quagmire themselves in. And once you’re thinking outside the class box, the gender box is usually the next to go. It’s worth mentioning that one of Roseanne’s early story editors was Joss Whedon, who later brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Roseanne didn’t make a big point of gender-bending, as a rule – though any good comedy tends to poke fun at our pre-constructed notions of gender roles every now and then. It wasn’t a show that tried to break down stereotypes – it was just a show about human beings, rather than the human caricatures we get on most shows. The Conners weren’t struggling to build careers like the gang on Friends – they were permanently stuck in the land of Just Be Grateful You Even Have a Job. Roseanne and co-star John Goodman didn’t just have the bone structure and face shape that allows producers to imagine they’ve passed off skinny actors as fat characters: they were fat people. Laurie Metcalf and Lecy Goranson were girl-next-door pretty, not super-models trying to pass as normal. And the kids’ bad deeds weren’t stereotypical enough for studios to point at and label “very special episode”. Instead of teenage pregnancy, for example, we got a teenage marriage which some characters considered a problem of biblical proportions, but the viewers were free to interpret as they saw fit.
There is no trick to writing believable characters, male or female. There’s just a lot of work, honesty, and self-examination involved. Maybe that’s why we don’t see it often enough.