Roseanne Barr has never been shy or retiring. She made her name as a brash big-mouth whose targets were lazy kids, lazy husbands and the general frustrations of life as a working-class woman in small town America. With the reboot of her eponymous ABC show, Roseanne, after 20 years, Barr won herself some ratings-helpful controversy and the dismay of liberal TV critics with the declaration that, like the comedian herself, the show’s matriarch Roseanne Conner is a Trump supporter. Now Barr has raised the heckles of a whole new community: the transgender lobby.
The source of the upset is the penchant of Roseanne’s nine-year-old television grandson, Mark, for wearing dresses to school. His fashion choices alarm his grandparents, particularly his grandfather Dan, played by John Goodman, who worry he will be a target for bullies. By the end of the second episode, however, everything is resolved, with Roseanne and Dan accepting it’s OK for Mark to wear whatever he wants. Along with Mark’s mother, Darlene, the grown-ups in Mark’s life agree that the most important thing is that he be true to himself. “You just gottahang in there until people figure out that weird is cool,” Darlene advises him. The storyline should, one would think, be hailed as a sign of progress; even red necks can cross dress these days! The problem for some, though, is that apparently Mark just isn’t queer enough.
In Slate Magazine last week, Brynn Tannehill, a writer and transgender activist, took umbrage at an exchange between Darlene and Mark in which the former asks her son if his dress wearing means he wants to be a girl. His response, that he’s happy as a boy, is too easy for Tannehill:
“Mark is the perfect character for people who wish to deny the experience of folks for whom transition is the correct choice. He freely admits to being a boy in a dress. He’s fine with it. His gender identity matches his sex at birth. He has no desire to use the girls’ bathroom.”
Tannehill suggests that, were the character of Mark to have surfaced on another show, he might be more worthy of celebration. But because Barr has been outspoken in her opposition to practices such as the use of women’s bathrooms by male to female transsexuals (a view shared by many feminists, admittedly with less cursing than the comedian) her motives over the creation of the character of Mark are called into question. “If Mark identified as a girl, Roseanne would be the first to throw her under the bus,” Tannehill concludes, darkly.
Far better for the show’s creators to have bestowed Mark (Martha?) with full gender dysmorphia, with the Conner clan encouraging him/her towards the extreme route of hormone therapy, surgery and full gender reassignment. It seems a lot for a nine-year-old to take on.
As Sarah Gilbert, who plays Darlene and is the show’s executive producer, has said:
“He’s not a transgender character. He’s a little boy. He’s too young to be gay and he doesn’t identify as transgender, but he just likes wearing that kind of clothing.”
Barr may be full-blooded in her views on gender and transsexuality, once tweeting:
“Women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms. Respect that FACT.”
But hey, it’s Roseanne Barr, that’s how she rolls. In fact, Roseanne Conner is a far gentler creature than her creator. For all its status as an early trail blazer in its portrayal of working class women, Roseanne the show, then and now, generally plays by the sitcom rules, wrapping up its dilemmas neatly within 26 minutes before moving on to the next crises.
Mark and his family seem happy. They love each other, they accept each other’s differences and see their eccentricities as a cause for celebration — there’s not much wrong with that.