Roseanne Barr

In 21stcentury America, it’s undeniable that speech-related controversies are commonplace in our politics. The issue is distinctly political, especially as political figures such in case of Roseanne, increasingly weigh in.

In 21stcentury America, it’s undeniable that speech-related controversies are commonplace in our politics. The issue is distinctly political, especially as political figures increasingly weigh in. 

The most recent controversy revolves around Roseanne Barr, an actress and former star of the ABC show, Roseanne. On Tuesday, May 29th, Roseanne sent a particularly inflammatory tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a notable female, African-American politician born in Iran who worked as an aide under President Barack Obama. Roseanne’s tweet targeted Valerie’s appearance, claiming that she looked like a mix between the “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.” Not only is the tweet undoubtedly harsh, the comparisons are distinctly racially charged.

The feral, beast-like portrayal of black women is rooted deeply in history. From minstrel shows to modern depiction of cannibalistic, dark-skinned societies in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, there is no doubt that animalistic descriptions of African American women are almost always racist. Within politics, former First Lady Michelle Obama was constantly compared to a ‘monkey’—profoundly racist rhetoric in criticism of her fitness and appearance. Roseanne Barr, by calling Valerie Jarrett a child of apes, has drawn on that same form of racist ideology.

Roseanne soon deleted the tweet and apologized, but the tweet and subsequent backlash resulted in the cancellation of the Roseanne reboot on ABC’s network. In response to her firing, she tweeted and retweeted over 100 times. Amongst the firestorm were retweets of famous white supremacists like Katie Hopkins supporting her, fan criticisms of ABC’s firing as ‘liberal media pandering,’ and photos of Valerie alongside a chimpanzee. The tweets also contained Roseanne’s apology shifting gears: before, she had simply apologized for a choice in words. After her firing, she insisted that her tweet was due to being on the drug Ambien and that she was completely unaware of Valerie’s race when making the tweet.

There were plenty of responses to Roseanne, on both sides. Many supported her tweets in the name of free speech, President Trump even getting involved to criticize ABC’s overprotection of Valerie Jarrett, when ‘far worse’ has been said about Trump. There was a vocal criticism of Roseanne, as well: many of Barr’s Roseanne co-stars criticized the racist, insensitive nature of her words, and the pharmaceutical company that created Ambien, Sanofi, even tweeted that “racism is not a known side effect” of Ambien. The president of ABC perhaps had the harshest words for Roseanne, calling her tweet “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with [ABC’s] values.”

At its core, the controversy revolves around deeper debates involving the First Amendment, ‘PC culture’, and hate speech. Particularly, many Conservatives cited Roseanne’s First Amendment right to free expression and thought as a justification for her tweet—or, at least, a Constitutional reason she ought not to, be punished for the tweet.

The incident comes right after the NFL announced mandatory fines for players who kneel during the National Anthem, another free speech concern that had liberals lashing out, this time. The fact of the matter is, Roseanne Barr, alongside NFL players, are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights. But others similarly have the right to react and hold individuals responsible for their speech. In a world where Roseanne’s tweets are and are perceived as racially unacceptable, her network has the right to respond.

Grace Jin is a student at Yale University. She’s a multi-time national champion in debate and is passionate about intersectional politics from the perspective of Generation Z.

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