Roseanne Barr Wants TV Viewers to Turn Off 'Bitches and Ho's' (Guest Essay)

Illustration by: Kyle Hilton

The outspoken comedienne shares her solution for the "sexism, classism and racism that pervades network television."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue.

People, young mothers, ask me, "What can we do about the vast invisible sexism, classism and racism that pervades network television?"

I say: "Turn it off!"

A simple solution is always the best. The poisoning of viewers' minds for profit still is largely voluntary, at least for adults.

The real problem is that the television-engineered, zombie-slave classes of overworked and underpaid parents allow and even encourage the ingestion of mind-numbing bigotry by their children. Too many stressed moms and dads may see TV viewing as a mostly benign way to engage, inform and socialize them, but studies are showing that, in fact, it's disengaging them from healthy thinking and relating to reality. By age 18, a teenager will have seen 350,000 commercials; 100,000 may be advertisements for beer! The onscreen mind control works even better if the child has been fed pink, slime burger meat previous to viewing said "entertainment," which features sniggering at women's body parts, laughing at other unfortunates and swallowing predigested opinions bereft of fact.

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Two out of every three shows on TV include sexual content, an increase from about half of all shows during the 1997-98 television season [the last season of the groundbreaking Roseanne, which ran for nearly a decade to top ratings]. The most widely viewed shows -- those airing in primetime on the major networks -- are even more likely to include sexual content. The bitches and ho's model isn't solely the province of gangsta rap. It's rampant in a more homogenized mode on TV.

Networks know that sex sells and their patron and cash cow is advertising. So we get female stereotypes with few exceptions, because that is what passes as humor in a culture that services the adolescent, chronically masturbating male -- the "target demographic" of network TV, which runs ads for movies that those chronic masturbators will pay to see.

Soft-core porn is big business with kids these days.

Back when I was a young child, the networks created female archetypes in order to pretty much "shoot fish in a barrel." Madison Avenue's geniuses, fueled by diet pills and envy, created the perfect victims' marketing campaign, which exploited women with headaches, low self-esteem, bored husbands and ungrateful children. These captive victims were ingesting images of others who were perfect physical specimens of white polite culture. The passive viewer-victim was encouraged to emulate the people on TV and -- SURPRISE! -- the products that sponsored the onscreen unified field of bullshit were available at every corner drugstore! Relieve your doubts, fears and shame by consuming this and that product!

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Time-saving convenience rather than intellectual satisfaction became the mainstay of a plastic culture that fueled itself on bullying and artifice. When you weren't slathering chemicals all over your floors, furniture, mirrors and countertops to keep them gleaming, you were slapping them onto your face to make it pretty enough, or into your face to make you think everything was fine and dandy, or to put you to sleep when you couldn't take it anymore.

Another profitable byproduct of endless greedy consumption is that it birthed the billion-dollar dieting industry! It was and is largely targeted at women. Encouraging unceasing consumption of television and the often-unhealthy products it peddles helped to create homegrown overweight families who would buy and ingest diet pills, diet programs and fat-then-thin celebrity-hawked diet plans, which fail almost every time. What a strategy! When you're not selling them burgers and fries or chicken by the bucket, sell them "miracle" weight-loss programs. Ka-ching! $!

Unfortunately, networks are not going to try to appeal to people who can't buy things, because their cash cow is advertising -- which is based on convincing people to buy things in between mildly entertaining sleep-inducing pre-commercials. You know the Super Bowl is fixed when you only watch the pigskin worshippers in order to see the high point in the programming, THE ADS.

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As video killed the radio star, cable television killed network TV, and now cable TV is busily trying to consume Internet programming in order to stay relevant and viable. It's fitting that the female characters on cable TV are becoming more and more three-dimensional, interesting and imaginative, though uniformly broken. At a certain point, network TV was fresh out of any ideas or people to marginalize, which was hilariously not foreseen by its own programming geniuses and network heads. Who are those captains of industry? They are privileged white males shored up by a relatively few privileged white and somewhat ethnically mixed females, all of whom are scrambling to greenlight programming that means less than nothing to anyone but advertisers.

Of course, those same networks are going to keep losing viewers every single quarter as they continue to ride along on the tracks they laid in the 1950s and 1960s. It's why they remain far behind the cable networks and the Internet in terms of innovative female characters. Because, NEWS FLASH: Intelligent viewers are turning away in droves at all ages. LOL!

That was my fight on Roseanne, which they are always trying to copy but can't because it had guts and heart, and they do not.

I had to fight so very hard in order to break through the layers of sexist notions at every level of the development process in the late 1980s in order to create a woman who spoke for and to the viewer. It is literally impossible for me to do that now.

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It makes me sad for my fans, though. They want to watch me on non-paid TV, but I'm not valued there due to the fact that I want to include some reality in the show I would be doing -- some trace of the mention of class war out there in the "flyover zone." The wrong things are censored in what they arrogantly call the mainstream media. Let's face it: You can't say "shit" on network TV, literally AND figuratively. Its days are numbered, and for that we should be grateful.


"My fans want to watch me on non-paid TV, but I'm not valued there due to the fact that I want to include some reality in the show I would be doing -- some trace of the mention of class war out there in the 'flyover zone.' "