Is the Medium Still the Message?
Which came first, the TV chicken or the TV egg?
As this year’s television series’ cancellations, renewals, and pick-ups are announced, a new twist on this age-old question might need to be asked. Which came first, the politics or the creative?
If, as Canadian Professor and Philosopher Marshall McLuhan claimed, the medium is the message, what message is it sending us?
For example, back in the day of three networks, the five o’clock news didn’t showcase bloody crimes. So the message behind our current inundation and near constant hype about heinous crimes might be less about an individual news story—the content—and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscasts reflect. Serving us a little heinous to enjoy with our dinner.
McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog. In other words, people tend to focus on the obvious, being the content, and therefore, overlook the structural changes that are introduced subtly, sometimes over long periods of time, and sometimes too fast to process.
As society’s values, norms, and ways of doing things change because of technology, it’s only later most of us realize the social implications of the medium. Facebook anyone?
And although this is a long preamble, I think you’ll see my point. ‘Cause now, we’re gonna talk about—brace yourself— Roseanne. Is she the message, or is she ironically the victim of messaging?
Huh? Roseanne…a victim? I can hear the apoplexy.
One of the most interesting, and I think under-publicized aspects to the Roseanne reboot is exactly who is producing the show. Scroll through the credits and you will find out-lesbian, Sarah Gilbert. Now I know, because she is an original cast member, you’re probably tempted to discount her appearance with a shrug. Maybe even an eye-roll. After all, there’s a lot of money at stake.
But read just a wee bit further and whoa, look whose name you stumble upon. Wanda Sykes. Yep, that Wanda.
So now—maybe—your ears are perking up just a bit.
Just in time to get to Sandra Bernhard. Yeah, you know, that just another opinionated ground-breaking lesbian, who, at the time, played the risk-taking role of Nancy, the first openly lesbian recurring character on American television. And if you’re a fan of Sandyland, you have to acknowledge Sandra does seem thrilled to be returning to the series.
And the new series itself features a cross-dressing grandson (but to be clear, not, at least at this time, a transgendered child), who Roseanne Conner defends. And, that’s not all.
If perchance you remember the 1994 episode “White Men Can’t Kiss” from the original run (the plot revolves around young DJ feeling conflicted about participating in a school play because he’s uncomfortable kissing his black classmate, Geena Williams) you might be amazed to know that Geena is now his wife, and their child is biracial. Another rather bold choice.
And yet, all this is completely at odds with Roseanne Barr herself, who’s been photographed as Hitler, baking/burning people-shaped cookies in an oven (it was for a Jewish magazine); promoting birther conspiracy theories and accusing Barack Obama of being a Nazi; accusing a Stoneman Douglas student of employing a Nazi salute; equating Muslims with Nazis; accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and murder; and accusing Palestinians of owning “black slaves.”
Have I missed anything? I’m sure there’s many a slur not covered in the above.
This does, however, make me wonder if, back in the day of All in the Family, Carroll O’Connor or Jean Stapleton, or even producer Norman Lear, had not only a bottomless need, a constant craving to seek attention, but also a slew of new media called Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, would All In The Family have been considered less groundbreaking, less progressive in its message, and discarded as just more ugly noise?
I don’t know. What I do know is Roseanne Barr and Roseanne Connor are the perfect example of mixed media, new media, old media, hot media, cold media, gone awry.
But it begs the question, if the media is the message, do we tune in or out?
And either way, do we tell conservatives they’re watching a show that supports gay and transgender people, and ethnic minorities? Maybe they’ll accidentally learn, or remember, to be more tolerant. Maybe even the “Barr” can learn something from the “Conner.”
Or, regardless of the message being imparted, do we believe this messenger has eclipsed the media, and now she is the only message.
I wish Marshall McLuhan were still here to give us the answer. ▼
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was written before Roseanne’s latest derailment. Current events answered the questions raised. No, you cannot leave the messenger out of it.
Stefani Deoul is a television producer and author of the award-winning YA mystery On a LARP. Contact Stefani.