I watched the television show Roseanne for a few seasons and enjoyed it for its irreverent humor and the fact that the cast of characters didn’t have entirely new outfits every single episode. (The regular appearance of wardrobe items made the show more “real” to me than non-décor “décor” or the factory Rosanne worked in.) I have not seen the show since the early 90s, but the other day I was thinking about Darlene and how much she meant to me as an adolescent.
Becky, the Connor family’s older daughter, was the girl I knew I was supposed to be. Becky spent hours on her hair, fashion and makeup and did what she could to fit in with the popular people and to get boys to like her. She was “typical American girl” right down to the –y ending of her name, so popular with girls in the 80s.
Darlene was just Darlene. Not only did she sport that out-of-fashion first name, she was a tomboy, flopped onto the couch in her jeans and lacked any accessories or hairstyles to perk up her personality. Darlene really just wanted to be Darlene. She was flip and funny and found most of the things her sister did ridiculous. I will forget Darlene asking Becky about kissing.
“Why do you have your mouth open?” Darlene asked in response to Becky’s illustrative pose.
“So he can put his tongue in my mouth,” Becky replied to Darlene’s disgust. As someone who at that point had never been kissed, I related to her reaction.
Though Darlene’s life appealed to me, I followed the Becky path by reading Teen Magazines for several years of my adolescence. I stopped when I realized that every other month I was treated to an article describing how to give myself a manicure. I did my best to make myself attractive, though I always felt—much like Becky—that I never had quite the right clothing. My name even ended with the appropriate –y ending. I wasn’t overtly trying to fit in and run with the popular people, but I certainly didn’t want to stray far enough from the norm to draw attention to myself as being weird.
Adolescent culture promotes conformity so strongly—in your own crowd, at the very least, and ideally the greater group. I had many examples from television of how I should act and the message was generally the same: do what you can to fit in; boys won’t like you if you are too different. But there were beacons of hope scattered here and there on the landscape. Darlene was one.
To this day I have incredibly warm feelings for Sara Gilbert, perking up whenever she appears on screen. Like many people, I got through adolescence as best I could. Under my thin adolescent veneer of self-confidence I looked everywhere for examples of how to be. I got lessons from the usual: friends, family, teachers, books. It was nice, every once in a while, to see examples in the media of who I might be.
Postscript. My time watching Roseanne was short, lasting only a few years until I got my first job or possibly my first boyfriend. But the show was on for quite some time and I have no idea how Darlene turned out. Did she stay cool? I hope so, but I’m not willing to watch the entire series to find out.