Roseanne vs. Puerto Rico: A Fight Where All of Us Lose

Because if we’ve learned anything, it’s that we really can pay attention to two awful things at once.

Last week, a few different infographics and tweets started floating around that compared the abundance of media attention on Roseanne’s comments to the dearth of media attention for the new report that showed that over 4,600 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The overall tone of these comparisons was scolding—it implicated both media outlets for covering the deaths so little and Roseanne so much and viewers for caring more about the Roseanne news than the Puerto Rico news. But I’d like to break down this comparison a bit more, because while there are aspects of it I agree with, I think that it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that our attention spans work.

Agreement point 1: I absolutely agree that the media should have covered the deaths more, and covered Roseanne’s comments a bit less.

This death toll, which is almost equal to the death tolls from 9/11 and Katrina combined, absolutely deserved increased attention, potentially at the expense of coverage of Roseanne’s comment. The fact that Fox News apparently managed to diminish coverage of the Puerto Rico deaths to just 48 seconds out of a day and a half of news coverage is absolutely sickening. It should certainly be a larger part of our cultural consciousness.

Agreement point 2: The disparity between the coverage reflects in some way on our inability to address systemic racism.

As Pete Vernon points out, “We’re comfortable calling individual actions or comments racist, but struggle to paint systemic issues—the criminal justice system or the lack of attention to Puerto Rico, for example—with the same clear strokes.”

I agree to this up to a point—I believe that it is harder for us to come to grasp with systemic racism, because it is a giant problem with few obvious solutions besides “be less racist” and “get into a time machine and prevent colonization.” But I also think that we often give individuals a pass on their own racism because they are either “joking,” deemed too culturally important to lose, or it is too uncomfortable on a personal level to confront them. We’re sometimes willing to admit that a system or institution is racist, but when it comes to applying that same label to individuals within the institution (especially people we care about), we start mumbling.

Counterargument 1: The Roseanne comments are still important, even if they are not as important as the death toll.

One of the things I will go to my grave arguing about is the extent to which the media and pop culture influences and is influenced by those who consume it. While Roseanne’s comments are certainly not as important as the death toll in Puerto Rico, they are still important. First, it’s very important that someone in a public position of power and authority said something terrible and was actually punished for it. When was the last time that actually happened? (Aside from the smokescreen of concern on the right for Samantha Bee saying the C word. We might talk about that later.) I’ve lost count of the number of politicians and other public figures who have said absolutely terrible racist, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic bullshit and had absolutely no consequences happen. I don’t believe that Donald Trump created terrible people, but he sure as hell emboldened them. And every time they have been able to spew their shit in public with no retribution has only emboldened them further. ABC actually punishing Roseanne for her words is actually a very important moment in the current conversation.

Not only that, but her comments, and ABC’s response, bring up a whole host of other questions. This isn’t Roseanne’s first brush with racism and terribleness. (Google “Roseanne + Hitler outfit.” I’ll wait.) Why would ABC, knowing Roseanne’s history, greenlight a reboot of her show? Why would liberal women, queer women, and women of color (looking at you, Sarah Gilbert and Wanda Sykes) sign up to work on a show helmed by a woman who has become increasingly vitriolic, conservative, and hateful over time? Why did anyone think this particular jaguar was not going to eat their face? We need to be having a conversation not only about the people who do terrible things, but the people who enable them. Trump is a ridiculous pumpkin, but there are dozens of people enabling his terribleness. Roseanne would have (hopefully) slowly faded back into obscurity if it weren’t for the popular renewal of her show. Now instead of a shameful historical footnote, she’s a goddamn martyr for people who misunderstand what “free speech” means.

Counterargument two: We should be caring about both things. / Things are only a “distraction” if you let them be.

The thing that ruffled my feathers the most about the infographics was the way that it seemed to scold viewers for caring about the Roseanne comments at all. You’ll see this pop up every once in a while when there is a big pop culture or gossip item. The media will be in a tizzy over the lighter topic, and there will usually be a deeper topic happening simultaneously (because seriously, when is there ever a day where something terrible *isn’t* happening?) Viewers get scolded for caring about the light item, everyone gets called sheeple, and we’re all told to stop getting distracted. I remember this happening when Mike Pence was confronted at Hamilton. Pence was met with boos from the audience and a prepared statement from the show’s creators and stars. Trump, accordingly, lost his damn mind on Twitter, and then Vox scolded everyone for caring about the Hamilton incident more than / letting it distract us from the then-top level scandals of Trump’s various conflicts of interest and “in all but name” bribes he received from foreign leaders staying at his hotel, and Congress still had time to stop some of his more disastrous cabinet nominees. (It was a simpler time.)

But, and this may surprise you, I can care about two things at once. Sometimes I even manage somewhere between “three” and “what feels like goddamn a million” depending on how stressed I am and how much caffeine I’ve had. And just as it is important for Roseanne to be publicly punished for being racist, it was important to see art and artists, (and particularly a form of art where the lead character was being played by a gay, HIV-positive actor) confront Mike “Hoosiers don’t discriminate (except all the gays are evil and we don’t like them, plus Mulan is making girls want to be dudes)” Pence in a public forum. I can, and did, care about both Pence’s Hamilton visit and Trump’s conflicts of interest at the same time. Just because I was laughing at the idea of Pence getting booed by a bunch of theater-goers doesn’t mean that I wasn’t also writing my Congressperson in a vain attempt to keep Betsy DeVos from being confirmed. And again, the more “serious” issues likely should have been receiving more attention. But calling either the Hamilton incident or Roseanne’s meltdown a “distraction” is a disservice to both the events themselves and to the mental acuity of culture consumers.

Counterargument 3: The death toll, while an important news story, also wasn’t something we didn’t already know (sort of).

Now, before you call me a heartless bitch, let me explain. (Though if you call me a heartless bitch, I’m one step closer to getting a blackout on my “woman writing on the internet” bingo card!) The death toll is indescribably tragic. I’m disgusted in our government, in our country, in our response, in everything. I cannot believe that Puerto Rico is about to face another hurricane season and that they still haven’t been given the support they need to recover from the last one. I can’t believe how long it took the president to respond to Puerto Rico. I can’t believe how much less we care about Puerto Rico than we cared about Houston. I can’t believe we left so many people to die.

What I can believe, and what anyone who has been paying attention has always believed, is that the death toll in Puerto Rico is much, much higher than the official 64.

Puh-leaze. Within weeks of the hurricane I was reading multiple articles about how the hurricane itself, and the lack of access to water, electricity, food, and medical care that followed, was resulting in more deaths than could be handled by many local mortuaries, and that many morticians were having to quickly bury or cremate people rather than send them to a centralized hospital for government autopsy (the only way for a death to be counted as an official consequence of the hurricane) because the roads were impassable, the mounting bodies were a health risk, the centralized hospital was overwhelmed, etc. I was reading articles about families having to bury their family members on their own property because they had no way to get them to mortuary services. While we may not have known the exact number, we have known that the death toll had to be in the thousands. After watching the clusterfuck of a response, there was no way that the death toll wouldn’t be in the thousands.

And again, it is important to the conversation to know the exact number. It is important for the death toll to be brought forward in the cultural consciousness once more, because we’ve been doing our best as a country to forget about Puerto Rico and just hope all will be fine the next time it is overtaken by a hurricane. But the report was not a bombshell. Not to anyone who has the awareness to distrust official numbers. So it is disingenuous to imply that caring about Roseanne’s comment’s more than reporting on the death toll means that people did not care about the death toll report. For many, it just meant that people weren’t paying as much attention to a report that was telling them what they already know.

And in all of this, it is important to remember that emotional fatigue is a real thing. I truly do my best to care about as many issues as I can at once. I read internet news, listen to podcasts, and read political and social science books in the precious little free time I have. But while caring about things is certainly not a zero sum game, there are some very real limits to my time, my attention, and my mental and emotional well-being. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve probably noticed that the last couple months have seen a nosedive in terms of me getting a Feminist Friday post done on an actually freaking Friday. Part of that is scheduling, but part of it is emotional fatigue. Trump has been president for almost two years. I have been screaming into the void for almost four years, and it has been equal parts cathartic therapy and weekly reminder of how terrible the world is. I’m my own production of the Gift of the Magi. Yes, it would be fantastic if people could care about everything all the time. But we have to be patient with others, and with ourselves. We have to be kind to ourselves. We have to acknowledge that it is okay to care about multiple things, and just because someone else isn’t caring in the exact way and amount that you want them to doesn’t mean that they don’t care.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a Perto Rico flag hanging outside a building in New York, by Christopher Edwards, CC BY SA 2.0

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