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In 1971, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin reconfigured a popular British sitcom featuring a bigoted working class patriarch (Till Death Do Us Part) to create America's All in the Family. A massive hit, All in the Family continued on not only to top the Nielsens for five years running but also went a long way towards mediating the racial, generational, and sexual conflicts that continued to smolder in the wake of the cultural revolution. A new kind of sitcom, All in the Family (along with other such ground-breaking TV comedies as The Mary Tyler Moore Show) provided a highly accessible platform for Americans to come to terms with the social upheavals of the sixties, thus contributing to that general reduction of tension that we can now see as characteristic of the seventies. The decade that came in with Kent State went out with Happy Days.

 

So the recent reboot of Roseanne in a new era of American social conflict is highly significant. Explicitly reconstituting Roseanne Barr's original character as an Archie Bunkeresque matriarch, the revived sitcom raises a number of cultural semiotic issues, not the least of which is the question as to whether the new Roseanne will help mediate America's current cultural and political divisions, or exacerbate them.

 

In short, we have here a perfect topic for your classroom.

 

To analyze Roseanne as a cultural sign, one must begin (as always in a semiotic analysis), by building a system of associated signs—as I have begun in this blog by associating Roseanne with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There are, of course, many other associations that could be made here within the system of American television (Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, and The Simpsons loom very large here), but I'll limit myself now with the association with All in the Family because of the way that, right off the bat, it reveals an important difference—and semiotic significance is always to be found in a combination of associations and differences—that points to an answer to our immediate semiotic question.

 

This difference emerges from the well-known fact that Norman Lear was quite liberal in his politics and intended his show to be a force for progressive television, while Roseanne Barr is an outspoken conservative—a situation that has already produced a good deal of controversy. Consider C. Nicole Mason's Washington Post piece "‘Roseanne’ was about a white family, but it was for all working people. Not anymore," a personal essay that laments the Trumpist overtones of Roseanne Barr's new character. On the flip side of the equation, the new Roseanne has been an immediate smash hit in "Trump Country," scoring almost unheard of Nielsen numbers in this era of niche TV. Pulling in millions of older white viewers who prefer the traditional "box" to digital streaming services, the show is already reflecting the kind of generational and racial political divisions that burst into prominence in the 2016 presidential election. As Helena Andrews-Dyer puts it in the Washington Post, "The ‘Roseanne’ reboot can’t escape politics — even in an episode that’s not about politics."

 

Thus, while it may be soon to tell for certain, I think that the new Roseanne will prove to be quite different from All in the Family in its social effect. Rather than helping to pull a divided nation together, the signs are that Roseanne is going to deepen the divide. I say this not to imply that television has some sort of absolute responsibility to mediate social conflict, nor to suggest that Roseanne's appeal to older white viewers is in itself a bad thing (indeed, the relative lack of such programming goes a long way towards explaining the immediate success of the show). My point is simply semiotic. America, at least when viewed through the lens of popular culture, appears to be even more deeply divided than it was in 1971. Things have not stayed the same. Roseanne isn't Archie Bunker, Trump isn't Nixon, and everyone isn't laughing.

 

In the age of screens and social media, with everyone talking (often at the top of their lungs), it’s easy to forget that silence can be a powerful communicative act. Think of Edvard Munch’s silent The Scream, or the horrifying silent scream in Mother Courage. Cheryl Glenn has written eloquently about silence (See Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence) and its wide range of uses and powers. I also think of Mary Belenky and her colleagues’ influential book, Women’s Ways of Knowing. In the first edition of that work, they referred to “silence” as the stage of knowing when women are completely dependent on powers external to them. But in the second edition, they changed “silence” to “silenced.” That added “d” changed everything; it’s one thing to be silent, another to be silenced.

 

During the last month, we have heard from many young people who are responding to the Valentine’s Day murder of seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Almost immediately following the tragedy, students began raising their voices, using the media skillfully to underscore their outrage and enumerate their demands for school safety. Their voices were echoed across the country, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, leading to a national school walkout and a March for our Lives on March 24, held in Washington DC but with sister marches occurring across the country. These young people demanded to be heard, staring down state legislators as well as members of Congress and speaking their own truths to power.

 

They also knew that silence can have power: we could see it in the dramatic pauses they inserted into their speeches. But no one used the rhetorical power of silence more effectively than Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Douglas who took the mike on March 24, announcing that it had taken all of 6 minutes and about 20 seconds for the shooter to end seventeen lives, calling out the names of the dead and noting all the things that they would now “never” be able to do. As the New York Times reported, Gonzalez

spoke for just under two minutes on Saturday before tens of thousands of demonstrators at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, describing the effects of gun violence in emotional detail and reciting the names of classmates who had been killed.

 

Then she said nothing for four minutes and 26 seconds.

The huge crowd was absolutely silent as Gonzalez spoke, and they remained silent as she herself fell silent. Early on in the silence, some began to chant . . . but those chants quickly faded away as the crowd stood in mute testimony to those lives lost. As Cheryl Glenn has said, silence can be a powerful rhetorical act, and on March 24, Emma Gonzalez proved the point in her moving, riveting, silent call to action.

 

I think it’s worth pointing out to our students that they too can be powerful users of silence, in class discussion, in oral and multimedia presentations, even in their writing as they leave certain things unsaid or use punctuation, line breaks, and white space to signal silence.

 

Sometimes silence can speak much more powerfully than words.

 

Credit: Pixabay Image 2591660 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License