Over the Rainbow (and Back Again)
It’s 2020, so mid-August seems like a lifetime ago. But it’s only been a few short months since Kamala Harris joined Joe Biden’s ticket, a California gender reveal party sparked fires that soon consumed the state, and some old tweets written by Randy Rainbow resurfaced, causing many to wonder if the wunderkind’s career was meeting a premature end.
For many a liberal fan of musical theatre, Randy Rainbow has been a godsend during the Age of Trump. His political parody versions of songs from Oklahoma!, Grease, and Hamilton (and the occasional pop song—his rendition of “Desperate Cheeto” to the tune of “Despacito” is classic) have provided an outlet to our existential dread that involves chuckles and guffaws when we could have very easily just wept or shrieked or howled at the moon.
So it was disconcerting to read some of the tweets written a decade ago that targeted Black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, and transgender people in ways that were crude, often unfunny, and occasionally cruel. It seemed very much at odds with the Randy Rainbow who typically made fun of rich, white men in ways that were always hilarious and sparkled with wit.
I had friends who worried that Rainbow would be forever “canceled” by overzealous liberals and our obnoxious purity standards. There were voices on my Facebook feed saying exactly this—they were done with Randy Rainbow forever, and good riddance; he was a horrible person and this proved it.
Others pointed out that these tweets were 10 years old and also he’s a comic and by the way, have you ever heard of a little thing called free speech. I was somewhere in the middle of these views: I hoped Randy would be entertaining us for years to come, but it was clear the story was a minor scandal, and that Rainbow would certainly have to issue a well-crafted apology if he wanted it to go away.
For three days, the debate raged on. Of course, in the year 2020, three days seems like at least three weeks. But after this eternity had passed, Randy Rainbow emerged in the pages of the Advocate, with the apology I expected. Soon after, he would release a new video (“I Won’t Vote Trump” to the tune of “I Won’t Grow Up” from the 1954 musical Peter Pan) that would be well-received by fans. All was forgiven, or so it would seem.
And if you’re wondering why he wasn’t instantly devoured by a screaming liberal mob, it’s because his apology worked. Like all good apologies, it conveyed regret, contrition, and evidence of change.
It’s frankly amazing to me how many people caught in similar situations craft apologies in which they refuse to apologize. When Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was called upon to answer for photos in an old college yearbook depicting him in blackface, he held a press conference in which his repentance included jokes about how difficult it is to remove shoe polish from one’s face, and he might have moonwalked for the assembled journalists had his wife not prevented him.
When Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was criticized after she mocked trans-inclusive language in a tweet, she responded with a pages long manifesto about how misunderstood she was as a cisgender woman. (Since this time, she’s gone full TERF- Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist, doubling down and promoting online stores that sell blatantly anti-trans merchandise.)
When Kevin Spacey was accused of child sexual assault, he quickly explained he’d been very drunk and then chose that particular moment to come out of the closet—perhaps he believed this would be big news and people would forget about the whole kerfuffle about fondling underage boys.
There’s a myth, widely parroted by conservative politicians, that the liberals have created a new and insidious “cancel culture,” in which any public figure can see their careers and lives destroyed upon the detection of any single human flaw. It’s not true.
First of all, it’s not new. Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was canceled in 1947 when he refused to answer Joe McCarthy’s questions before Congress. In the late eighties, Gary Hart went from front-runner to has-been when a photo leaked of him with a mistress on his knee. But most importantly, it’s not true.
In 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized for not paying artists when their music was streamed in customer trials—then changed the policy. In 2018, television anchor Joy Reid expressed real regret when old homophobic statements resurfaced. And in 2020, Randy Rainbow apologized for decades-old tweets and then got on with his life, simply for following what should be an obvious rule.
When you say you’re sorry, you should actually be sorry.
Eric Peterson is a writer and teacher. He co-hosts a podcast about old movies—visit rewindpod.com to learn more.