“People around these parts don’t eat that way”: Representations of Midwestern Taste in Roseanne

Curator's Note

 After the Connor family wins the Illinois state lottery in season 9 of ABC's hit sitcom Roseanne (1988-1997), Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) plan to travel to an elite health spa. As seen in the excerpted clip, Jackie flips through a fashion magazine and notes, "I have got to get some new clothes for the spa, everything I have stinks like Lanford." This comment is indicative of the series' inclination to make overt comical connections between the family's Lanford residence and their taste while encouraging the audience to laugh at the joke along with the laugh track. 

In their introduction to the Midwest, Joseph Slade and Judith Lee discuss the binarized public conception of the Midwest as either "Heartland" or "Hinterland." On one hand, the Midwest stands in as the idealized verison of pastoral Americana (Heartland) but, on the other, it is conceived as a cultural wasteland and "backwater" (Hinterland) populated by "rubes".  I am interested in the way that Roseanne, in its progressive rejection of the conservative ideologies of a dominant patriarchal society, ends up rebuffing the image of the Midwest as Heartland and, in doing so, swings to the opposite of the binary, reinforcing the place of the Midwest as a cultural other in the national imagination. 

The series' comedic logic trades in representations of bad taste, representations that grow in exessiveness in the later seasons. In order to mock high culture and taste, the Connors draw attention to their own love of low culture and justify that low taste through their Midwestern regional affiliation, a move that allows the show to define something about Midwestern preferences. When asked why a vegetarian restuarant would not thrive in Lanford, Roseanne explains that "people around these parts don't eat that way." Her daughter Darlene (Sarah Gilbert), the perpetual starving artist, strives to leave Lanford because the "great minds of Lanford just don't appreciate" her work. The Connors--and other people around "these parts"--prefer bologna, peanut butter and Frito sandwiches and TV to tofu, feng shui and theater. The way the show lampoons high culture, as showcased in this clip, opens the Connors--and a version of the classed Midwest--up for mockery. Though Roseanne admirably works to deconstruct cultural ideals of beauty and taste, it further solidifes the audience's notion of the Midwest as a backwater Hinterland by, at times, inviting them to laugh at the Connors instead of with them. 


Staci- A great reading of Roseanne and the love/hate relationship it has with its Midwesterness. I agree that its admirable (and in its first seasons, revolutionary for television) challenges to the standard normalizing of patriarchy, heterosexuality, working-class dismissiveness/erasure and upper class taste setting are offset by the "laugh at them" nature of the "Langford stink" line (which comes dangerously close to "white trash" stereotypes). I think that this did become more of a tension in the later seasons of the show, perhaps partly because of the changes in the actors' lives and public personas as they (above all Roseanne) became megastars. Perhaps the growing gap between the actors actual lives and the characters they portrayed helps account for the growing use of self-loathing jokes like the above? Still, the mocking of feng shui and other fads of the "beautiful people" still reflects the old spirit of the original Roseanne show that made it such a revelation when it first aired. And Roseanne holds true to this goal of challenging the "happy ending" of the supposed American Dream as shown by the reveal at the end of seaso 9 that the lottery win never happened and Dan Connor had died of a heartattack. She even purportedly said in 2008 that "I've always said now that if they were on TV, DJ would have been killed in Iraq and [the Conners] would have lost their house" (Wikipedia). But the Heartland/Hinterland duality is at the very essence of the Midwest's (and Flyover's) meaning in the American imaginary and this clip reveals it perfectly.

Thanks for your comment- I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about the stars' personal lives. There is definitely a tension with respect to Roseanne's star sign as her character Roseanne Connor is so tied up with Roseanne's own past (dealing with sexual abuse, homosexual siblings, etc.). As Roseanne the star gains fame, status, and therefore class rise, the show attempts to work out some of these tensions with Roseanne Connor also gaining fame, status, and class rise (but still maintaining her humble blue collar roots). I'm interested in the way the show purports authenticity as it aims to represent what people from "these parts" really do, think, like, etc. (There's a season 8 episode arch in which Roseanne gets her own news spot that I think also speaks to the way the Connors represent the whole "blue collar outlook" of the region- S 8 E 21 "Morning Becomes Obnoxious"). A newscaster introduces Roseanne as such: "It’s time to meet Roseanne with her report from the Heartland." Roseanne then proceeds to give loud, abrasive opinions about how Hollywood portrays women and what Americans and people in the Heartland really look like. This is especially interesting for two reasons. One, Roseanne the character gains fame in a public platform and shoots off one-liners in a way very similar to Roseanne the star's original stand up. Two, Roseanne Connor makes loud and visible certain types of bad taste and opinions of "real" Americans/ "real" women as she delivers her report from "the Heartland". There are many rich episodes like this that walk this dicey line, straddle both sides of the binary, revel in some of the white trash associations that Americans have of the Midwest and, in the same. breath, claim to stand in for Heartland values of all Americans

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.