Beto: Sorry for being a sexist theater critic when I was, um ... 19

Andy Warhol once predicted that everyone would get 15 minutes of fame in the future. If he were still around today, maybe he’d predict that everyone would be forced to give a 15-minute apology to renounce one’s past, as Beto O’Rourke felt compelled to do. Last night, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz apologized for his sexist take on women from, er, let’s see … 1991. As a 19-year-old theater critic:

In 1991, the 19-year-old O’Rourke reviewed the Broadway musical “The Will Rogers Follies” for the Columbia Daily Spectator, the university’s student newspaper. Writing under the byline Robert O’Rourke, he panned the performance as “one of the most glaring examples of the sickening excesses and moral degradations of our culture.”

He went on to bemoan the bevy of “perma-smile actresses whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks.”

The review in the Oct. 10, 1991, edition of the Spectator, which according to an archive search was the only article he wrote for the newspaper, offers another glimpse of the former life of the Texas Senate candidate, who has given Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) an unexpectedly serious reelection challenge. It also shows how drastically the sensitivities surrounding descriptions of women have changed over the past three decades: While it’s unclear whether O’Rourke was criticizing the musical’s use of scantily-clad women for effect or commenting on their bodies himself, his prose, in hindsight, is jarring either way.

“Basically, the show documents the life of Will Rogers, the ‘lassoing fool,’ who rose from being an insignificant side show attraction to one of the more prominent political pundits and cultural statesmen in our history. Yet it is produced and directed in such a showy, glitzy, and ultimately, tacky manner, that one cannot help feeling disgusted throughout the show. Keith Carradine in the lead role is surrounded by perma-smile actresses whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks.”

That’s it? Clearly, O’Rourke was criticizing the use of “scantily dressed women,” and not the women themselves. Unless O’Rourke is somehow turned off by “phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks,” those aren’t insults, although they certainly can be seen as dismissive. That’s hardly the worst part of Beto’s review, which is as superficial and silly as one would expect from a 19-year-old critic. At the end of the review, O’Rourke suggests that he’s the only one there under 80 and dismisses the audience as irrelevant:

One thing that should be taken into consideration, however, is that I was the youngest person in the crowd by about 60 years. Though I found it revolting, most people from that long-ago, faraway generation really enjoyed the show, and were very pleased with the performances.

Basically, the review is a brief demonstration of the arrogance of youth, and Exhibit A for advising people not to write cultural criticism until they’re in their 30s. It’s hardly worth pearl-clutching 27 years later, however, except to note that maybe O’Rourke has benefited from maturation in the period since then.

But 2018 being what it is, O’Rourke went through a public confessional for having been a 19-year-old who snarked about the physical appearances of women involved in the play. He issued this statement to Politico last night:

“I am ashamed of what I wrote and I apologize. There is no excuse for making disrespectful and demeaning comments about women,” he said.

But what about the ageism? (That’s a joke, by the way; we’ve had too many apologies for this nonsense as it is.)

We seem to be entering a weirdly schizophrenically puritanical era in American politics. On one hand, we are trending toward legalization of marijuana and insisting on not just tolerance but celebration of non-traditional lifestyles. On the other hand, we’re pillorying people for teenage behavior from decades earlier for the same kind of sins we all commit, as though these public beatings somehow show the rest of us as enlightened beings. It’s one thing to look into serious crimes, such as allegations of sexual assault or police reports of felony drunk driving and attempting to flee; it’s another thing entirely to shriek like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers over teenage parties and teenage theater reviews from a quarter-century ago or longer.

We don’t look like enlightened beings when demanding apologies for youth. We look like Cotton Mather. Enough with the deep dives into teen years, and enough with the sappy fauxpologies. Playing along might be politic in the short run, but in the long run it only encourages the modern Mathers and Robespierres. O’Rourke would have been better off telling people to grow up and focus on 2018. Would that we all take that advice.

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David Strom 2:31 PM on October 04, 2022