A Handmaid’s Double-Standard
by Kevin Kelton
Yesterday I joined the national chorus applauding ABC and Disney for firing Roseanne Barr after her tweets about Valerie Jarrett and George Soros. Today I am reconsidering my stand.
I think I was wrong, and I think ABC was, too.
In light of the Samantha Bee’s controversial c**t comment about Ivanka Trump, and considering other recent controversial jokes in the news, we need to decide on one national standard. Either we have freedom of expression or we don’t.
Thirty-eight years ago comedian Charles Rocket was summarily fired from Saturday Night Live for ad-libbing the word “fuck” in the goodbyes segment. Sixteen years ago Bill Maher lost his ABC late night show, Politically Correct, after suggesting the 9/11 attackers were “not cowardly.” Last year, Kathy Griffin was fired from CNN’s New Years Eve coverage (and lost millions of dollars in bookings) for a photo of her holding the dismembered head of the president. SNL writer Katie Rich was suspended for tweeting a joke about Barron Trump. And ‘lest we forget, Sen. Al Franken was hounded out of office over a joking photo (and some unverified allegations of mild misogyny).
I was opposed to all those forms of politically correct censorship, so I have to be in Roseanne’s case, too, as awful as her tweets were.
Though I give ABC and Disney executives great credit for trying to do the right thing under very difficult circumstances, I now think in the light of another day that maybe there was a more appropriate punishment for Roseanne Barr – one that didn’t unfairly punish her fellow cast members, crew and fans.
Maybe ABC should have instead insisted on the first episode of season two of “Roseanne” addressing the tweet controversy in some positive light. What if Roseanne Connor were shown taking to Twitter for the first time and sending that exact same tweet about Valerie Jarret or Michelle Obama or Oprah or another high-profile woman of color. And suppose that person were somehow brought face to face with the TV Roseanne to explain why the comment was hurtful to all black people and especially young black girls. What if Roseanne’s character actually learned and grew from the experience, much as was done with Archie Bunker when he met Sammy Davis Jr.
Obviously, this consequence would not have hit home with Roseanne the way cancelling her highly profitable series did. And it could have been written off as a cheap publicity stunt. But it also might have had more lasting social impact to show an avowed Trump supporter coming face to face with her own ingrained racism. Wouldn’t that have potentially made a more positive cultural shift than simply firing their right-wing icon?
If there needed to be a harsher consequence for Roseanne’s actions, it should be handed out by the market place of advertisers and ratings. If Americans want to punish her for her actions, they can do it with their remote controls. That is the jury that should be making these decisions, not a C-suite of entertainment executives trying to impose morality on all of us. They are TV programmers, not ministers or ethicists. I like Bob Iger, and I’d probably like ABC President Channing Dungey, but beyond the bounds of what they put on their airwaves, I’m not sure I want them determining what’s acceptable public conversation and what’s not. We don’t give the power of public censorship to elected officials. Let’s not give it to corporate bosses.
If we give private citizens that power, they will take it and they will use it. If Roseanne can be summarily fired for one misstep of poor judgment, so can you. Anything your employer deems inappropriate can be brought back to haunt you, and maybe derail your career forever. I know we have “at will” employment already, but this current trend will only magnify it. Yesterday it was Roseanne. Today it is Samantha Bee. Tomorrow it may be your spouse, your child, your parent, or you. If you think you are so infallible that you are immune from such a fate, guess again. So did Barr, Bee, Griffin, Franken, and the others.
The steps between our world today and the world of A Handmaid’s Tale are incremental and often imperceptible in the moment. Little individual rights that get taken away. Little individual injustices that no one else stands up against. Until we ask, how did we get here? We got here because we allowed it.
I’m not ready to turn a generation of comedians and other celebrities into handmaidens.
Valerie Jarrett and Ivanka Trump will be fine in the morning. But our culture is on life support. Let’s not keep tugging on the plug.