Arts & Culture » Television

Melania, Samantha & Roseanne, oh my!

by Victoria A. Brownworth

TV stars in trouble: Samantha Bee (left) and Roseanne Barr. Photos: Courtesy the subjects
TV stars in trouble: Samantha Bee (left) and Roseanne Barr. Photos: Courtesy the subjects  

There is no downtime during the Trump Administration. We keep waiting for it, the week where there's no news or even limited news, where the TV isn't abuzz with the latest "Wait, WHUT?" from the folks who hijacked the White House back in January 2017, even though most of us voted for Hillary Clinton.

But every day there's a new drama, every day there's a new outrage, every day we move further into a zone we had hoped never to see again where racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and any other phobia we'd hoped was dying a necessary death are being revived, embraced, and becoming a focal point yet again.

The latest drama centering on TV stars Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee shouldn't have become the days-long TV news event they have been, except without a Pres. Trump neither incident would have happened, and without a Pres. Trump the swirl of TV news wouldn't be nonstop Trump drama. Our other journalistic hat is politics, and we had weekends off during the Obama Administration, Mondays were slow news days, news didn't break at 9, 10 and 11 p.m., and we slept through the night without fearing nuclear or other holocaust.

As we write this, First Lady Melania Trump has been missing for nearly a month. Unseen by anyone in the media since she launched her grammatically incoherent "Be Best" campaign on May 7. After that, she entered the hospital for a kidney embolization, a relatively uncommon procedure used to either "starve" kidney tumors of blood supply from the renal artery in cancers or stop bleeding into the kidney from injury. While not a benign procedure, embolization usually requires an overnight stay to monitor bleeding, then the patient returns home.

Melania was in the hospital for six days.

Now we don't subscribe to conspiracy theories, but we've spent a lot of time in the hospital over the past 18 months, and we know that six days in the hospital, especially one devoted mostly to military personnel like Walter Reed, is a big deal. On May 31 we had a brief Twitter exchange with New Yorker TV columnist Emily Nussbaum, who wrote, "I'm genuinely concerned about the Melania thing & it's really bugging me. Maybe nothing is going on but it feels WEIRD, right? Where is she?"

As someone dealing with cancer, we are reminded of the bravery of two first ladies whose politics we abhorred, but who really stepped up to address health issues they themselves faced in order to further national discourse on their cancers. Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford both were diagnosed with breast cancer while in the White House, and both talked about their experience extensively. Ford also revealed her subsequent substance abuse problems.

Melania is a reluctant First Lady not given to public appearances, but she could have used her platform to discuss kidney disease or even issue a statement about it, since it is very common in the U.S. There are currently more than 100,000 people waiting for kidney transplants, and the number of people on dialysis has doubled over the last 10 years, according to the Living Kidney Donor Network.

But none of that happened. Although there have been numerous news pieces in places as disparate as CNN, People magazine and The New Zealand Times Herald querying "Where's Melania?," the White House has been silent about her whereabouts, only adding to the controversy by announcing on June 1 that the First Lady would not be joining Trump at Camp David. We're with Nussbaum: it's weird. Try as we might, we can't help thinking of "Rear Window" when we see that alleged sinkhole in the White House garden.

Also disturbing, but differently so, were White House calls June 1 for TBS to cancel Samantha Bee's show "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." Bee has long been a critic of the Trump administration and the president in particular. In the midst of a rant about Trump's grotesquely brutal immigration policy of separating children from parents at the border, Bee implored first daughter Ivanka Trump, her father's favorite child, to "put on something tight and low-cut" and "do something about your father's immigration policies, you feckless c-nt." There were wild cheers from the audience, but since Bee's attack was less than 24 hours after the Roseanne Barr firing (more on that in a moment), conservatives and Trump were eager to find a liberal scapegoat for their ire. Alas, Bee was it.

Our POV on this is consistent with what we've been writing since high school: misogynist language is the tool of oppression. Period. Don't call women bitches, whores/hoes, sluts or cunts. Ever. No matter who they are and how much you despise them. Some words are off the table.

The substance of what Bee said was spot-on. Ivanka promised to be a voice for women and children in her still vague and unclear role in the White House (she's back to playing First Lady in Melania's absence). Ivanka posting a photo on Twitter on May 27 of her holding one of her children when the crisis at the border was exploding on the news was tone-deaf at best, and it was against that photo backdrop that Bee spoke.

Any other descriptive - and there are so many to draw from that don't require bleeping, monster comes to mind - would have done just as well and not brought the White House down on Bee, and by extension, on the left. Sadly, that substantive message about an issue that was in the news cycle for all of two days before fading into the oblivion of the next Trump-inspired drama, was utterly lost by Bee's quest for cheap applause.

The fallout was swift and intense. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders exemplified the White House's double standards by calling Bee's comments "vile and vicious."

Bee posted an apology on Twitter: "I would like to sincerely apologize to Ivanka Trump and to my viewers for using an expletive on my show to describe her last night. It was inappropriate and inexcusable. I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it."

TBS issued their own statement: "Samantha Bee has taken the right action in apologizing for the vile and inappropriate language she used about Ivanka Trump last night. Those words should not have been aired. It was our mistake too, and we regret it."

But Trump went after both comedian and network (part of one he has tried to buy in the past), demanding that Samantha Bee be fired and her show be cancelled.

Herein lies the daily problem with this presidency: Trump doesn't get that whole Constitution thing. While it's unfortunate that Bee chose to use that word and clearly regrets it, at most Trump could request an apology for his daughter, had Bee not already given it. But to demand a network cancel a program that offends him or members of his family is full-on dictatorship mode, and as such, unacceptable in a free society. We're not in Russia, yet.

At press time, several advertisers had pulled their ads from "Full Frontal." The debacle will no doubt play out over the coming weeks, likely fueled by random rabid Trump tweeting. It's to be hoped TBS stands behind Bee and doesn't accede to either Trump or advertisers. But money is always the bottom line with TV programming.

Trump's low intellect is one reason he conflated the slur used by Bee, a well-known feminist, and the pattern of racist commentary by Roseanne Barr, who was fired the day before Bee's outburst for calling former Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is black, a terrorist ape.

Full disclosure: we were briefly friends with the comedian, but broke off that connection in 2015 over her increasingly right-wing politics and her embrace of conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and Obama, among other disturbing commentary. We have witnessed the spiral ever since, and are on record here and elsewhere saying we didn't understand why ABC was rebooting the show given Roseanne's political views, which have very much included regular racist commentary on social media, as well as extremes of Islamophobia.

In April, Jewish groups called for the comedian's firing when a photo essay of her dressed as Hitler and holding a tray of burnt cookies in the shape of humans re-surfaced. The spread was supposed to be satire (Roseanne herself converted to Judaism some years ago) but it was unsuccessful. For those of us who lost family in the Holocaust, it will always seem too soon to jest about Jews and ovens.

At that time, "Roseanne" co-producer Bruce Helford dismissed the controversy. "My feeling is that people should just watch the show and judge it on its merits," said Helford. "Watch the show without the accompanying background noise." The "noise" apparently being Roseanne's extremist political views.

That ABC was going for ratings and the concomitant ad revenue was apparent, because the network also ignored the things we could not, like Roseanne's embrace of the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory that had Hillary Clinton running a pedophile sex ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza place owned by a gay man. Roseanne also made equally absurd and dangerous claims that Trump was breaking up "trafficking rings in high places everywhere," and that he was freeing "hundreds" of "children held in bondage to pimps" each month. If this were actually true, that Trump were freeing kids from sex traffickers, Trump would be congratulating himself on social media 24/7.

Roseanne was also one of the first conservatives to attack the Parkland students as they began their anti-gun violence activism in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school in Florida. We're not sure what the tipping point was between the attacks on students who survived a massacre, dressing up as Hitler, calling Hillary the leader of a pedophile sex ring or Roseanne's previous racist tweets comparing former Obama Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, who is also black, to an ape, but apparently it was reached with the tweet about Jarrett.

Roseanne and Bee have been conflated, but they are in no way similar. Bee made a vulgar gaffe. Roseanne has a regrettably long history of racist comments among other disturbing views. The question isn't whether ABC should have fired Roseanne, but why she was hired in the first place. Co-stars and writers have made statements about their disappointment in the comedian. But much of this, we feel, is disingenuous. No one who knew the comedian even rudimentarily was unaware of her views. She expressed them daily on social media, had her own radio show, gave interviews on TV talk shows, and was a strident supporter of Trump. So for lesbians like Sara Gilbert and Wanda Sykes to agree to co-star with her and write for her was quite disappointing to witness. Their post-cancellation comments ring hollow in the aftermath.

We have long said when we are behind the camera, we are in front of the camera. But what was in front of the camera on "Roseanne" was not the feminist writing of Whitney Cummings who also helmed the show, nor Sykes' often biting commentary on race and sexuality, but Islamophobia writ large, Trump "values" and Roseanne herself. Everything else receded into the background of her and her politics.

It's notable that Trump never decried Roseanne's comments about Jarrett, but rather demanded an apology from ABC chairman and CEO Bob Iger for remarks made about Trump on ABC talk shows. Again, dictatorial behavior.

Roseanne was in trouble long before Trump, but Trump's support for her emboldened her behavior and her hate speech, as it has so many others. And for the record, Ted Nugent, one of the first guests to a private party at the Trump White House, has regularly called Hillary Clinton a cunt, whore and bitch, and posed in front of her portrait while at the White House with Trump and Sarah Palin, photos of which were posted all over social media. So if there's a double standard, it originates with Trump, whose supporters wore "Trump that bitch" and "Vote for Trump, because she's a cunt" T-shirts to his rallies.

Years past

On Memorial Day, while Trump tweeted not about the service of the fallen to our nation, but about witch hunts, Hillary and spies, we watched CNN's brilliant series "1968." It was a revelation, and we urge you to watch it. (It can be viewed in its entirety at CNN.com.)

We were too young for 1968 to have any clear meaning for us at the time, but we definitely recall the trauma of the back-to-back assassinations. Our parents were well-known Civil Rights workers, so the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy resonated through our household like deaths in the family.

"1968" is a tightly woven 4-hour chronicle, divided by season, of the evolution of turbulence. The pivots are San Francisco's Summer of Love, the breadth of the anti-war movement (California politician Tom Hayden is featured prominently), Nixon's rise and the Democrats' fall post-RFK, and the expansion of the Vietnam War, even as LBJ said he would wind it down in an effort to help Hubert Humphrey's election. The scenes of Vietnam, the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, footage of the pre-Watergate Nixon few of us are old enough to have known (a smart, focused, intellectual politician): it's all fascinating history. Thoroughly researched and brilliantly laid out, it's one of those histories that is close enough to touch, despite being 50 years past. There are messages throughout the four hours that are cautionary for today, and vital to recall. The series is unapologetically skewed toward reason and facts, and deserves a careful viewing or two. "1968" presages now in so many respects. Highly recommended.

As summer begins to sizzle, we recommend some frothy TV to watch with an umbrella'd drink. The contestant shows are all starting, including our personal fave, NBC's "America's Got Talent," now in its 13th season, which always features some gay contestants with stories for all of us.

NBC also premieres season 2 of Jennifer Lopez's stunning "World of Dance," again with gay contestants and stunning displays of amazing dance. (No Adam Rippon, but he can't be everywhere.)

The cooking shows are also in abundance, with "Master Chef" kicking it up a notch after an adorable non-binary contestant won "Master Chef Junior" in May. Martha Stewart is joining "Chopped" as a judge, which will no doubt be delightful. Also, if you're thinking it's time to renovate over that summer staycay, "Nate and Jeremiah by Design" is the gayest help you can get to make your place look gay, gayer, gayest. And of course, the summer and Pride leads with FX's "Pose," which began airing this week.

So for the relentless Sturm und Drang, the high-toned and the low-brow, for catching delights where you can, you know you really must stay tuned.

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