“muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj” This little tweet, lacking both capital letters and punctuation, was the shot heard round the world for its writer, Roseanne Barr. ABC moved quickly to cancel her eponymous hit sitcom, a reboot of the original which aired from 1988 to 1997.
The “vj” Barr referred to is Valerie Jarrett, who served as Barack Obama’s senior advisor for the duration of his presidency. Born to American parents in Shiraz, Iran, Jarrett is African American. Comparing blacks to apes and other primates is an oft-used racist trope. It serves to portray the targets as similar to but less than humans, much in the way Jews and other perceived undesirables were called Untermenschen (subhuman) by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.
While Barr deleted the tweet, apologized, and blamed the incident on the sleeping pill Ambien, the damage could not be undone. This isn’t the first time Barr has been at the center of an outcry. In 1990, the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds were playing a doubleheader in San Diego and Barr was chosen to sing the national anthem between games. She did so by plugging her ears with her fingers and screaming the words. The crowd reacted by booing her so she gave an obscene gesture and spat. In a photoshoot in 2009, Barr dressed up as Hitler and was seen pulling a tray of baked and burned people-shaped cookies from an oven. While she claimed she was making fun of Hitler and not his victims, even Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly felt the choice did not “reflect well” on Barr.
The aforementioned tweet isn’t even the first time Barr referred to a person of color as an ape. In December 2013, she said Obama’s National Security Advisor “susan rice is a man with big swinging ape b*lls.” She also supported the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory which posited that Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking Democrats were connected to a human-trafficking and child-sex operation being run out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., restaurant.
Some Roseanne defenders have mentioned that racism is nothing new to television, pointing to Archie Bunker of the 1970’s sitcom All in the Family. They fail to differentiate between a character, which is what Archie Bunker is, and a real-life person like Barr. Characters often do terrible things on screen, but we should never tolerate that same kind of behavior from the actors themselves.
In addition to ABC canceling her show, Barr’s talent agency, ICM, chose to stop representing her. Episodes of the original Roseanne have been dropped from syndication (re-runs) by TV Land, Paramount Network, and CMT. Episodes of the new show have disappeared from Hulu’s offerings. Barr’s racist tweet not only hurt her professionally and financially but it also included collateral damage with losses being seen by her costars and by the show’s behind-the-scenes crew. Nevertheless, everyone but Barr may get a second chance as there have been talks of a spinoff show focusing on Sara Gilbert’s character, Darlene.