Roseanne: The Mother of All Television Mothers

by Ava Watson

What we view on television is usually a variation of what is happening in the real world.  This idea is supported as we observe the evolution of the television mother during the development of the feminist movement that was reignited in the 1960s.  I believe that television mom Rosanne Connor has encompassed attributes of the television mother including the traditional stay at home mom of the 50s, the single mom of the 70s, and the 80s independent woman.  She also helped to popularize and give voice to the imperfect and frustrated moms that are commonly seen on today’s sitcoms.  Rosanne is the quintessential television mother.

Cultural Theory

The role of the TV mother has evolved with the pace of women and mothers in the real world.  In order to prove this I will use Cultural Theory. According to sociologist Michael Richardson, “culture is simply what human beings produce and the means by which we preserve what we have produced.”  Culture is the social (rules and practices), physical (clothing, music, tv, etc.) and attitudinal (values and concepts of right and wrong) forms that are shared among groups of people (Ott 124-125).

Culture cannot be attained by one individual.  It has certain traits.  Culture is:

  • Collective – shared among a group of people;
  • Rhetorical – Symbolic meanings to text are attached;
  • Historical – It changes, evolves, mutates or may even disappear; and,
  • Ideological – How we interpret the world (125-126).

Contemporary Cultural Studies (as it relates to media) is used to analyze how “media texts shape the way we think about the world” (124). It examines the meaning of text and looks at how text may influence the viewer. Cultural theorists argue that what we see in the media is usually shown from the perspective of the dominant/more powerful group.  A main issue that arises from that structure is that other, less powerful groups in society can be (and usually are) excluded or misrepresented (124).

In addition to economic class disparity, theorists also discovered that other distinctions are made according to gender, sexuality, race, age, disability and other classifications (135). Theorists may examine: 1) the message(s) within the text, 2) how the text is being interpreted by viewers within a culture, and 3) the political and economic power structures behind them to discover if they have a negative or positive affect or influence on the culture (Fineman).

Cultural Studies is an umbrella term for a large group of studies which include:  feminist culture, social culture, political cultures, fashion and beauty culture, sports culture, etc.  This paper looks at how the evolution of the feminist movement in the real world was reflected in the roles of mothers on television.  It centers around one mother character in particular who I believe to be the mother of all television mothers, Roseanne Conner from the television sitcom Roseanne.

Roseanne

Roseanne was a sitcom about the everyday life and struggles of a working class family in the fictional small town of Lanford, Illinois.  The Connor family consisted of father, Dan; mom, Roseanne; and their children, Becky, Darlene and DJ (Dan Jr.).  Dan and Roseanne Connor were blue collar workers struggling to make ends meet while raising their family.
The character of Roseanne was the main focus of the show.  The character was based upon actress and standup comedian Roseanne Barr’s routine in which she became famous for coining the term “domestic goddess”.  Rosanne and the Connor family represented the working class, whose numbers were growing in the 80s (Chillman 191). Original episodes of the show aired on ABC from 1988 to 1997.

Roseanne as the Traditional Mother

Before the revival of the feminist movement in the 60s, the television mother was a man’s dream.  One of the most popular and beloved television mothers from that era was June Cleaver from the sitcom Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963).  There was father, Ward, who worked a white collar office job; the older of the two sons, Wally Beaver; the star of the show and youngest child, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver; and then, of course, there was mom, June Cleaver.

June Cleaver was the traditional mom; a true domestic goddess. Her hair was perfectly coiffed at all times.  Makeup was applied perfectly whether day or night.  Her clothes – usually a dress that was snug enough to highlight her small waist while revealing a glimpse of her leg, yet securing her modesty – were perfectly starched and pressed; never a wrinkle in sight.  Most days she wore high heeled shoes – even while vacuuming.  And don’t forget about her pearl necklace.  She was never seen without it.

While some may argue that Mrs. Cleaver’s perfect appearance was unrealistic in the real world, her role as a traditional American mother was not.  Mrs. Cleaver would rise every morning to prepare a fresh pot of coffee for her husband; breakfast and a bagged lunch for the kids before seeing them off to school; and then she would tend to her household duties.

The character was literally a man’s dream.  She was birthed from the imaginations of writers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher.  June Cleaver was created in a time when real American women were on the verge of declaring their discontent with the happy homemaker image – post World War II.  During the war, women had been encouraged to work in factories while men went off to battle.  After the war, women became reluctant to give up their jobs and return to their roles as happy homemakers.  They began to question their roles in society.  An excerpt from a letter sent to the Women’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor around 1944 indicates the attitude that some men had towards women who had worked, formed unions during the war, and were now questioning what they would do once the soldiers returned home: “Wishing you success in your work and hoping for the day when women may relax and stay in her beloved kitchen, a loving wife to some man who is now fighting for his beloved country” (Anderson 237).  In others words, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and there was no need to think or do for herself because she has a husband to do it for her – at least that’s my interpretation.

When it comes to appearance, Roseanne was the antithesis of June Cleaver.  Roseanne was overweight and for the most part – at least in the early episodes – her hair could hardly be considered as stylish.  Her clothes appeared to come from bargain stores like Kmart or a thrift store.  Her “dress” was usually blue jeans and a sweat shirt.  High heels were only worn for a rare special occasion.

I would argue that Roseanne was the traditional mom of the 80s.  By the 1980s, which we will discuss in more detail later, it was more common than not for mothers to work outside of the home while still being responsible for taking care of the children and maintaining the household.  Roseanne did just that.

In the tradition of television mother’s during the June Cleaver era, Roseanne was also responsible for directing household duties and taking care of the children’s needs. As we see in the very first episode, despite the fact that Roseanne worked full-time in a factory, it was still her duty to maintain the household and care for the children.

The first episode of Roseanne called, “Life and Stuff”, opens with a routine family day for the Connors.  The Connor children — Becky, Darlene and DJ, are busily getting ready for school.  Among the chaos of the children, Roseanne’s husband, Dan, is the figure of calm and authority.  Although he is present in the kitchen, it is clear that Roseanne is the one the children turn to when they are in need.

While Roseanne prepares school lunch for the kids, DJ enters the kitchen to ask her to help untie his shoelace.  Dan then comes in and asks for coffee.  Suddenly their oldest daughter, Becky, comes in the kitchen and starts to remove food from the pantry.  She states that she is collecting food for a school food drive.  Roseanne reminds her not to take too much.  Dan supports Roseanne’s commands when he points at Becky and says in a serious tone, “Don’t touch that creamed corn”.  This leaves the impression that Roseanne is in charge, but Dan has the final word.

Roseanne then has to break up a fight between Darlene and DJ.  She tells them to stop, but they continue until Dan says, “You heard your mother.”  This tiny act once again shows that the male figure is in control.

Before running out the door Darlene hands Roseanne a letter calling for a parent/teacher meeting later that day, and Becky tells Rosanne that her new book bag is broken and asks her to replace it for her.  After the kids are off, Rosanne asks Dan to handle one of the tasks for her, but he backs out.  He had just put in a bid for a job and if it came in, he would have to start that day.  Besides that, he had to fix the sink.

Roseanne voices her frustration.  Running both errands would mean that she would have to take off of work early.  Dan sticks to his guns.  One can assume that this is because Dan makes more money as a construction worker than Roseanne does as a factory worker. Roseanne has to do both errands.

It may have been the intent of the writers to show the sacrifices and pressures of mothers, but the narrative also reinforces the ideology of the traditional family structure where the father has the ultimate authority and his job holds more importance and value than the mother.  Hence the ideology that men are more important and powerful than a women.
It is also a reinforcement of gender roles.  The male, Dan, does masculine chores like fixing the sink and working in construction; while the female, Roseanne, takes care of the children, household chores, and does the shopping.  Those are traditional male and female roles in American society.

Roseanne as the Single Mom

The women’s movement brought independence and power to women on a larger scale than ever before in American history.   The dominant idea that the role of a wives was to be subservient partners to their husbands and support to their children was a diminishing ideology in American society.

Because of the accomplishments of the women’s movement, women were becoming free to voice their opinions and flex the muscle of the economic and political power that they obtained. Women now felt empowered to leave unhappy marriages and relationships.  As a result, there was a substantial increase in the divorce rate in the period after the rebirth of the feminist movement in the 1960s (Spain 30).

The connection between the effects of women’s movement in the real world and became more evident on television.  One show in particular that reflected this change was One Day at a Time (1975-1984).  The show focused on life after divorce for newly single mom Ann Romano.  Ann had been under the command of men for most of her life.  She married her husband immediately after leaving her parent’s home.  She went from being under the influence of her father to being under the eye of a domineering husband.  This was the first time she was technically out on her own.  In addition to claiming her own independence, Ann was now faced with the hardships of being a single mom raising two teenage daughters.

Many would argue that Rosanne was married throughout the entire series and was not a single mother; but there was a point in the final season (episode 13, season 9) when Dan cheats on Roseanne and she asks him to leave (“Say It Ain’t So”).  The couple separate for a while and Roseanne is the sole parent in the household.

In the previous season Roseanne had given birth to another son, Jerry Garcia Conner (“Halloween: the Final Chapter”), and DJ was now a teenager (Becky and Darlene were adult women).  However brief a period, when Dan left, Roseanne was now the sole caretaker of her dependent children.  She had encountered life as a single mother.

Roseanne as the Independent Business Mom

By the 1980s it was common to see women in powerful professional positions, especially in the media.  Women were now leading news anchors and editors of prominent newspapers and magazines (Heinemann 302-303).  Viewing women in those powerful positions allowed society to adapt quickly to the idea that women could do and have it all.  They could have a career, get married, have children, and still take care of the home.  No character exemplified this version of the American mother better than The Cosby Show’s (1984-1992) Clair Huxtable.

Clair Huxtable was a powerful attorney by day and a loving, wise, and patient mother at night.  She also had elements of the 50s traditional mom: She was the main care taker of the children, and it was assumed that she was responsible for maintaining the home (although they could clearly afford to hire a housekeeper).

Roseanne portrayed the independent mom that could do it all in season 5 when she launched her restaurant, The Lunchbox. In episode 6 “Looking for Loans in All the Wrong Places,” Roseanne decides to open her own business; a restaurant specializing in her creation, loose meat sandwiches.  The Lunch Box was Roseanne’s attempt to obtain financial independence and put an end to the string of disastrous experiences with her bosses.

While some may not agree that a restaurant owner whose educational experience did not exceed high school can be compared to those of a highly degreed attorney, I believe otherwise.  The feminist movement was about empowering women; not necessarily obtaining a power position.  What’s more empowering than being able to be your own boss?

Roseanne as the Frustrated Mom

Roseanne has been the poster child of the real life struggles of mothers.  During the very first episode she makes it clear that she was not from the June Cleaver era.  When her responsibilities became too much, she did not sit quietly.  She did not hesitate to ask her husband to pitch in and help, nor did she pause to vent her frustrations when he didn’t.  She was also vocal at expressing her frustrations to and about her children.
June Cleaver would never do such a thing.  Roseanne’s sharp wit and sarcastic humor are now commonly seen in the TV mothers on current family sitcoms.  You can find television mothers like Claire Dunphy (Modern Family) and Frankie Heck (The Middle) reprimanding and scolding their children and husbands every week.  Voicing frustratios is now a common, accepted and understandable trait associated with American television mothers. With the assistance of blogs and social networking this trait has slowly been working its way into reality (which is converse to previous eras).

Conclusion

As the feminist movement progressed and changed the lives of American women in the real world, those changes were displayed and supported by the female characters on television.  The evolution in the role of the television mother reflects these changes and Roseanne Connor embodies them.  She is independent, empowered and powerful while never abandoning her role of nurturer.  Roseanne is the mother of all mothers.

Works Cited

Anderson, Mary. “The Post War Role of American Women.” The American Economic Review 2nd ser. 34.1 (1944): 237-44. JSTOR. American Economic Review. Web.

Chillman, Catherine. “Working Poor Families: Trends, Causes, Effects, and Suggested Policies.” Family Relations 40.2 (1991): 191-98. JSTOR. National Council on Family Relations. Web.

Fineman, Elissa. Powerpoint Presentation and Lecture.  “Cultural Studies: Identity Politics Audience Reception.” Columbia College. Chicago, IL. Spring 2011.

“Halloween: the Final Chapter.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 31 Oct 1995. Television.

Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women’s History. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1996. Print.

“Life and Stuff.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 18 Oct 1988. Television.

“Looking for Loans in All the Wrong Places.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 20 Oct 1992. Television.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

“Say It Ain’t So.” Roseanne. ABC. WLS-TV, Chicago. 7 Jan 1997. Television.

Spain, Daphne and Bianchi, Suzanne M. Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage, and Employment Among American Women.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996. Web.