Roseanne Barr vs. Sarah Palin: Why the TV star could take on the Mama Grizzlies.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 18 2011 12:43 PM

Big Mama vs. Mama Grizzly

Why Roseanne Barr could be the woman to take on Sarah Palin and her fellow conservatives.

Roseanne Barr. Click image to expand.
Roseanne Barr

In October 2009, Roseanne Barr invited readers of her blog to join in a fictitious "ten million bitches march" on Washington, D.C. "[T]hat stripper chick sarah palin thinks she is roguing it up?" Roseanne asked. "Well, wait till all the fat pissed off bitches show up for my speech." Together, she promised, they would tell off the "bankers and insurance ponzi scheming bastards" who are "robbing the women and children of this country blind." Just this past January, Roseanne repeated a more decorous version of her anti-Palin battle cry in an interview with USA Today while she was promoting her new book, Roseannearchy. "I think she's stealing my act, so that pisses me off," Roseanne said of Palin. "And she's not even doing it right. Be for the working people, not against them."

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Presumably, this is the kind of "brutally honest" content that Lifetime is expecting later this year, when it airs a new reality show starring Roseanne as she lives and works on her 40-acre Macadamia nut farm in Hawaii. Lifetime is also undoubtedly banking on lots and lots of female viewers: Roseanne has long had her finger on the pulse of what women in America are thinking and feeling. Her eponymous sitcom has been airing continuously since it debuted in 1988 (they stopped making new episodes in 1997 but the show lives on in reruns—according to a TV Land representative, Roseanne is the channel's second-highest rated acquisition) and in its heyday shaped the national conversation on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights.

All this is why I am thrilled about Roseanne's return to the small screen. If she can reharness her power as a TV star, Roseanne will be uniquely situated to call out Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies on their faux-folksy charade and remind women that it's generally liberals—not conservatives—who have their best interests at heart. While Roseanne isn't a politician (though she's joked about running for President) she and Sarah Palin are now playing in the same cultural space as reality TV stars, best-selling authors, and Internet pundits. It's not just that Roseanne will be better at reality TV than Palin, or that she'll use comedy to disarm Palin and company, though that's part of it. It's that she's never afraid to go against the Democratic Party line, and she has a longstanding appeal to many women who feel alienated by mainstream liberal feminism and mainstream liberal politics—the very women Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies have been trying to woo.

In the 2010 election cycle, conservatives were able to capitalize on the disillusionment of white working-class women in a way Democrats could not. These women favored Republicans in the midterm elections by 8 points. Part of the reason the Mama Grizzlies were able to gain such traction is that their followers are angry at the old guard of both the Republican and the Democratic parties. As Hanna Rosin wrote in a piece about women in the Tea Party movement in Slate last year, "Some of the women I interviewed are longtime women's activists who feel alienated from both parties and are happy to have a fresh start."

Which is where Roseanne comes in. It probably goes without saying that she actually has the "real America" bona fides Sarah Palin likes to boast about—Roseanne never went to college, she had three kids by the age of 26 and has worked as a dishwasher, a waitress, and a maid. Just as important, her politics, like those of many Tea Party women Sarah Palin has claimed as her own, defy any easy peg. Perhaps these women would be willing to listen to Roseanne—she's the progressive side of the same independent coin. You might call her an anarcho-populist (emphasis on populist) with a dash of radical feminism, but even that doesn't totally capture it. She's willing to go rogue on the Democratic party line, she adores Hillary Clinton, and she hates Barack Obama (Roseanne, writing on her blog: "Obama raised more money from corporate interests than anybody else ever did. He did it by faking like he cared about Justice for the working class").

It's been tough so far for left-leaning feminists to fight Palin and her conservative sisters. If, for example, we decry her fake feminism in the Washington Post or accuse her of distorting feminist history in the Daily Beast, we're accused of proving some of her frequent talking points: The liberal lamestream media is out to get her, liberal feminists are exclusive snobs, and it's up to her to reclaim the term "feminist" for a broader range of women. Roseanne, however, shares Palin's distrust of the stereotypical hypereducated, upper-middle-class feminist. She discussed her disdain for this brand of feminism in a New Yorker profile in 1995: "I made a conscious decision that I was never going to talk that academic feminist language again," she said. "It's all about white male elitist horseshit. So I went back to the way people I grew up with, the people like me, talk. And why wouldn't we be heard? I just talk louder, and I'm heard."

Roseanne is willing to be especially loud (and especially crass) when it comes to Palin and her pals—more so than any other comedian. Yes, Tina Fey is still the best-known Palin-mocker in the United States (whatever you make of the claim that she helped put Obama in the White House). But since the election, Fey has mostly retired her wire-rimmed glasses. Furthermore, she will make nice to Sarah Palin while they're on Saturday Night Live together, whereas Roseanne's anti-Palin, anti-conservative commentary is fierce and unrelenting. She will fight the Mama Grizzlies to the death—and she won't mince words. "Gall geyser" and "mindless sex bot" are the kinds of descriptions Roseanne uses for Palin. Since Palin is willing to scrap with pretty much anyone (see this long list of folks with whom she is feuding), Roseanne's unwillingness to back down or be kind is also a big plus.

There are some caveats to all this, of course: We don't know how much Roseanne will talk about politics on her new reality show, versus how much she'll talk about, say, Macadamia nut farming. But if her Feb. 14 appearance on Oprah is any indication, she's not scared of broaching political subjects in front of a national TV audience. (Roseanne decided to clear the air with Oprah about whether Oprah's support for Obama, and Roseanne's dissing Oprah for that support, had created a lasting riff. Oprah put her fear to rest.) It's also uncertain whether Roseanne will have the cultural clout that she had during her '90s heyday—but again, the Oprah appearance bodes well. According to the the Nielsen Company, 8.5 million viewers tuned in to see her, up from 7 million viewers for an average Oprah episode this season. Finally, Roseanne's—how shall we say?—more unorthodox beliefs could be a liability when it comes to being taken seriously as a political voice. But is anything she says monumentally crazier than anything that comes out of Rep. Michele Bachmann's mouth?

In Rosennearchy's preface, titled "Right Is Wrong, and We Need to Straighten It Out," Roseanne had this to say:

I dropped out of school, got a real education, took myself to the prom, peed in the punch bowl, and got rich doing it. And believe me, they don't give big dough away—but they will pay if they're sure you have something people want. And what did people want then that they still want now? They want a plainspoken message from somebody they figure is on their side.

If she just keeps this up, she'll make it very hard for Sarah Palin to keep on claiming that progressives don't understand real women. In that fabulous New Yorker article from '95, Roseanne referred to herself as "Big Mama." Move over Grizzly Mamas, because Big Mama is back.

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