There’s a lot of talk these days about the increased visibility of queer folk on TV. And while this is certainly true, there is one woman who repped lady love on mainstream TV way back when, back before any state had marriage equality, before Glee was even a glimmer in Ryan Murphy’s eye, even before Ilene Chaiken.
And that woman is Roseanne, y’all.
Gayer shows and characters may have come our way since Roseanne went off the air in 1997, but no one has covered both feminism and queerness in such blue collar realness since, and I worry no one else ever will. Lest we ever forget its greatness, here are my Top 5 Lesbian Moments of Roseanne
5. Bev in “Home Is Where the Afghan Is” (Season 9, Episode 10)
While we all know that Roseanne jumped the shark once they won the lottery in the last season, hence defeating everything the show stood for, there is one thing to say for it: everyone is queer. First we have the Thanksgiving episode, where the gayness kicks off with Leon and Scott, Roseanne’s super gay ex-boss and his partner, announcing they’ve decided to adopt a baby. Darlene quips, “Just for the hell of it, why don’t one of you have something ripped from your pelvis anyway?” God, I miss Darlene. (Darlene, disappointingly, never becomes a lesbian in the show, but she is married to David, so, same thing.)
A drunken Bev, meanwhile, loudly voices her disapproval, which leads to a rant about her own husband and men in general. This rage ends with her revealing that the only way she could get off by the end of her marriage was if she stopped by the store and picked up a Playboy first. To which everyone stares at her for a while, until Roseanne bitches her out for always making her and Jackie wear girly dresses growing up while she was a “big lesbo the whole time.”
The episode then ends with Leon, Scott, and another gay character from the episode watching the Wizard of Oz together and swooning over Judy. So.
4. Jackie in “Into That Good Night, Part 2” (Season 9, Episode 24)
This one is a little stranger. In the series finale, we have the whole gang around the kitchen table, gabbing and eating chinese food, as has perfectly been set up in the title sequence for years. As they laugh and talk about meaningless things, we hear a voiceover from Roseanne beginning with, “Everyone wonders where creative people get their inspiration. Actually, I’ve found it’s all around you.” This segues into the reveal that the entire show (or at the least, the last season) has been Roseanne, as her character, writing out her life the way she wished it could be. She makes her way around the table, talking about the ways she’s twisted details in the lives of the people she loves. Things begin to get interesting with her mother. She says:
“My mom came from a generation where women were supposed to be submissive about everything. I never bought into that, and I wish Mom hadn’t either. I wish she had made different choices. So I think that’s why I made her gay. I wanted her to have some sense of herself as a woman.”
She then moves on to Jackie.
“My sister in real life, unlike my mother, is gay. She always told me she was gay. But for some reason, I always pictured her with a man.”
It makes sense that Jackie is gay and always has been, as this fact has been apparent to the rest of us from the first episode. But Roseanne always picturing her with men (and abusive men, at that) simply doesn’t fit into her own progressive, queer-friendly, women-strong ideals as a character.
But speaking of those ideals, while this voiceover spiel continues to reveal some other harrowing ideas, such as David actually being with Becky and Darlene being with Mark in real life (shut up!), Dan dying a year earlier of a heart attack (no!), and winning the lottery all being a dream (oh), it does also include these killer lines:
“We didn’t teach our daughters to sacrifice more than our sons. As a modern wife, I walked a tightrope between tradition and progress. And usually I failed, by one outsider’s standards or another’s. But I figured out that neither winning nor losing count for women like they do for men. We women are the ones who transform everything we touch. And nothing on Earth is higher than that.”
Say what you will about Roseanne, or about this series finale, but show me a TV series that has lines like that today.
3. Riot Grrls in “The Getaway, Almost” (Season 8, Episode 7)
So Roseanne and Jackie go out for a shopping trip one day and end up giving a ride to a riot grrl played by Jenna Elfman, who’s in an all girl band called the Unit Shredders. Come on, this is amazing already.
Jenna Elfman proceeds to explain what riot grrls are all about, how they’re taking their place in rock & roll history. She starts listing them by name: Babes in Toyland, L-7, Bikini Kill. Roseanne jokes about her and Jackie’s ignorance, “Oh, Bikini Kill, are they back together again?” Jenna Elfman hands them a cassette tape, and they momentarily rock out to Kathleen Hannah.
Alone in the car again after they drop her off, Jackie moans, “Whatever happened to music these days?,” to which Roseanne replies, “Who the hell are you, Tipper Gore?” ’90s jokes, you guys! Roseanne then points out that a lot of the lyrics of these riot girl people are actually pretty good. “At least these girls are saying something. Not like the music we grew up with.” She then tears to shreds the misogynistic bullshit of the music they grew up with, not even leaving the Beatles unscathed. They muse that you never did hear women on the radio much, until Janis, that is. Which Jackie first takes to mean Janis Ian instead of Joplin, confirming her lesbianism for the 2108th time.
2. The Kiss from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Season 6, Episode 18)
The set-up was this: Jackie and Roseanne get invited to a gay bar called “Lips” (lolz) with Nancy (see more in my #1) and her girlfriend Sharon, played by Mariel Hemingway. While Jackie at first feels uncomfortable about going, Roseanne jokes that she knows the etiquette: ”Knives and forks on the left, vibrators on the right.” Things end up going pretty well at the club, however, until Sharon plants a big one on Roseanne’s lips.
While this wasn’t actually the first lesbian TV kiss — L.A. Law got that title in 1991 — the Roseanne kiss was still a huge deal, and one which ABC originally refused to air. They eventually relented, albeit with a parental warning at the beginning of the episode. (EYEROLL.) While on the one hand “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fits neatly into the Sweeps Week Lesbianism Trend, ie., sensationalism for ratings’ sake, it’s hard to get too mad when Roseanne said this about the network’s qualms a week before the episode originally aired: “It’s shocking to see a woman kiss another woman but not shocking to see a woman raped, mutilated and shot every two seconds.”
And the episode actually does prompt an honest conversation about sexuality after Roseanne gets into an argument with Nancy about the kiss, during which Nancy points out the grey areas of sexual identity. Roseanne also calls out Dan later in the episode for thinking the kiss was sexy because it was women, while he still has internalized homophobia about men.
1. Sandra Bernhard Does Coming Out Right in “Ladies’ Choice” (Season 5, Episode 8)
Jump back a season now to when Roseanne first introduces lesbianism, in the episode that’s actually my favorite. When Jackie and Roseanne press Nancy about a new guy she’s been seeing, she eventually comes out with, “Her name’s Marla.”
After Roseanne and Jackie both get over their shock, which is full of still hilarious comedic pauses, Roseanne’s first question is, “So — did you do it?” I love this so much. I love that no one cries, that no one storms off in anger, that this entire coming out is hilarious instead of dramatic. Nancy admits she didn’t know how they would react, to which Roseanne, as always, has the perfect reply: “We’d react the same way we react when you tell us anything personal. We make fun of you until it gets old, and then we move on.” Bravo, show. Bravo. And this aired in 1992, folks.
Dear TV writers and producers who don’t know how to do gay: just watch what this woman did two decades ago, and you might just be on the right track.
Roseanne airs weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. ET and Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m. ET on Logo.