I fell in love with a girl for the first time in the sixth grade. I didn’t conceptualize it as a crush at the time, because I was supposed to be having those on some white boy in Tiger Beat. My taste in men was influenced by Spin and Rolling Stone—Dave Gahan, Jeff Buckley, Damon Albarn, Beck. I got it up for Christian Slater and an androgynous Leonardo DiCaprio, couldn’t get it up for Tom Cruise, and had an alarming (and mercifully brief) infatuation with Robin Williams.
My affections turned toward Darlene Conner, Roseanne‘s jaded middle child. In high school, I would more likely have palled around with her honor student older sister Becky (or at least until she started dating Mark, because Becky’s totally the kind of girl who has girlfriends when she’s single and his friends when she’s in a relationship). But through junior high, I was enamored. She was unimpressed and angry and also had a mischievous smile and killer delivery. I didn’t know Bikini Kill existed until Roseanne and Jackie picked up Jenna Elfman’s riot grrrl hitch-hiker in season seven. But I wanted to take Darlene home, try on her clothes, dye her hair black, and play her Daisy Chainsaw tapes. Ughn!
Darlene and I met some time in Roseanne‘s second season when my parents started watching it. No doubt the Conners’ doomed entrepreneurial spirit spoke to my parents, who ran a fledgling print shop. Roseanne became a site of multi-generational female bonding, as did many feminists and like-minded women on prime-time network television at the time, including Dorothy Zbornak, Khadijah James, Murphy Brown, Clair Huxtable, and life partners Mary Jo Shively and Julia Sugarbaker. All these women, including my mother, contributed to my insistence that I bellow the 19th Amendment at my fifth grade open house. But Darlene was the first girl character on television who really resonated with me. I had intermittent cable access, so Clarissa Darling and Alex Mac weren’t always around. Plus they were plucky and blonde. I was not, and neither was Darlene.
I began to relate to Darlene when I caught season two’s “Brain-Dead Poet’s Society” in syndication. This is the episode where she begrudgingly read “To Whom It May Concern” at her school’s culture night. It’s a major turning point. Prior to that, Darlene was a gifted athlete who was quick to defend herself against the world with a joke, usually at Becky’s expense. Season one hints at Darlene’s interiority when she gets her period and has her appendix removed. It was clear that Darlene was far brighter than her below-average grades indicated, much to the bemusement of her parents and sister. I was famously useless in athletics, so we couldn’t play horse together. Instead, I was my room drawing or writing something for myself. So I felt this moment in my bones. I wanted to give her a hug and my diary.
Once Darlene started high school, she stopped playing sports and returning her friends’ calls. She started wearing black, writing comics, and refusing meat. Luckily she found someone who pulls her out of her existential crisis. No, it wasn’t David Healy. It was Karen, a local bookstore owner, with whom the Conners have misgivings.
I forgot that Karen isn’t a lesbian. I sublimated that Darlene’s parents don’t like their daughter hanging out with her because of what it might suggest about their daughter’s sexuality. They just think it’s weird that their daughter would spend so much time with an adult. Still, I think there’s queer anxiety embedded into Roseanne and Karen’s meeting in season four’s “Santa Claus.” Roseanne is hurt that Darlene found another mother figure in whom to confide. But she’s also uncertain about who her daughter is. So Karen and Darlene could still scan as mentor and baby dyke to me.
I might be assuming network imperative here. It’s been reported that actress Sara Gilbert, who came out privately during the show’s run, wanted Darlene to be a lesbian. ABC was reticent. To Roseanne‘s credit, alongside its consideration of working-class angst, the show forged a space for queer visibility before Ellen DeGeneres came out on the network and Will and Grace skyrocketed on NBC. It could have done a lot more for people of color, though I’d attribute the success of Friends and Seinfeld on NBC’s Must See Thursday line-up, a marketing construct that rose to popularity with The Cosby Show, to the whitewashing of the sitcom in the second half of the 90s rather than blame Roseanne exclusively. But for a show that featured a bisexual female character, a lesbian character, and a gay male character in the supporting cast (along with the reveal of a gay principal character in the series’ finale), it’s vexing that the one queer person in the main cast played straight. At least we had Sandra Bernhard.
A friend made a convincing argument for why it’s okay that Darlene was straight. She pointed out that there aren’t many heterosexual masculine women on television. Fair point. She may have pointed out that queer actors shouldn’t be relegated to playing queer characters, which is also true. But if Darlene had to be straight, couldn’t she have had some female bonding? Her mom and aunt were tight and had several lady friends. They started a restaurant with Nancy. They hung out with childhood pal Crystal. They reconnected with high school friend Anne-Marie (one of the few women of color on the show). When Roseanne waited tables at a diner, she brought coworker Bonnie over for girls’ nights. And in a regrettably truncated season two narrative arc, Roseanne befriended young newlywed Debbie, refugee Iris, and haunted widow Marsha when she briefly works at a hair salon. Seriously, Pedro Almodóvar could have turned those few episodes into a feature.
I knew I loved Darlene when she started dating David in season four. Yes, I was jealous. No, this isn’t why I haven’t watched Gilbert reunite with Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory (credit creator Chuck Lorre, who was on Roseanne’s writing staff for a few seasons). At first, I thought it was cool that they made comics. But as their relationship developed, it was apparent that he was manipulative and insecure over Darlene’s talent. David was a textbook emosogynist. As the series focused on Darlene and Becky’s relationships and growing resentment, it never recovered.
Season five is when the show falters. After Becky elopes with Mark (an Amy Sherman-Palladino masterstroke that so totally informs Rory’s romantic trajectory on Gilmore Girls that it’s pretty surprising Roseanne didn’t hail her in her New York Magazine essay), sexpot neighbor Molly Tilden (Danielle Harris) is the token good girl gone bad. Darlene is threatened by her boyfriend’s attraction to her. When Molly strands her at the Daisy Chainsaw concert, any possible good will between the two is gone. Then Darlene goes to art school in Chicago. We hear some talk of friends, but never see them. Ultimately, she marries David and has a daughter. I watched all of this, and rooted for Darlene to complete school and help her mother live through her dad’s heart attack. It’s revealed in the finale that Darlene paired up with Mark, but this seemed incongruous with Roseanne’s vision for her daughter, so she fictionalized a romance between her and David. Sadly, this felt disingenuous to me too. I hoped she kept in touch with Karen.