In every cultural figure or moment’s lifespan, there comes a point where they are subject to what can be summarized as the “You’re Wrong About” treatment, or the concept that even our most deeply held beliefs and cherished orthodoxies are ripe for reappraisal. (There’s even an eponymous podcast devoted to this process.)
The “You’re Wrong About” treatment isn’t necessarily contrarianism, though it can be a result of that impulse; nor is it what people these days call “cancellation,” though it can often be a precursor to that. More often than not, it’s just a natural byproduct of a rapidly moving culture trying to slow down, catch its breath, and take account of where it’s been before it heads back toward where it’s going. Oftentimes, this process works in favor of the once-maligned. Think Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, and Monica Lewinsky, all of whom started out cultural villains at the turn of this century and have now assumed their place in the pantheon of big-haired, postmodern-feminist icons. If it prompts us to lend renewed appreciation to late-1990s Kirsten Dunst box office bombs — then so much the better. But sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, and for some vaunted pop culture idols, it can go very wrong. It happened to Jennifer Lawrence, through pretty much no fault of her own; it happened to Bill Clinton and Woody Allen, through every fault of their own. And it appears to be happening right now to 40-year-old Hamilton star and writer, Pultizer Prize-winner and MacArthur genius grant recipient, and near-EGOT (he’s just missing the Oscar) Lin-Manuel Miranda, thanks to bloodthirsty teens on the social media platform TikTok.
Scrolling through LMM TikTok feels like watching a sociopathic teenager’s highlight reel of his own cyberbullying efforts. There’s the lip-biting meme, a series of photos of Miranda gazing into the camera with mock-bashfulness, seductively chewing on his lower lip like a teenage My Chemical Romance fan on 2009-era MySpace. There’s Miranda’s 2013 Hamilton demo of the first draft of “Helpless”; “This One’s Mine,” featuring Miranda’s caterwauling vocals (“hauuuuugh we were married that night”); and Miranda’s voice reading a pornographic passage from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with particular attention lavished on his pronunciation of the word “clit.” There’s a clip from a performance during his freshman year at Wesleyan of a Holocaust-themed production of Jesus Christ Superstar; a cringey POV video taken from his bed, where he talks about his testicles; the screengrabs from his store of framed selfies, which he sold on his website for $79 each; and an interminable array of parody videos, which range in tone from gently mocking to eviscerating. Predictably, Miranda has responded to such criticism with a freestyle rap on Twitter, saying “Bite my lip/Aw shit/TikTok hates when I do that.” Also predictably, this response led to teens continuing to roast Miranda like a $5.99 Kenny Rogers chicken.
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Such mockery is a tectonic shift from the halcyon days of 2015-2016 Hamilton Mania!, when Miranda went viral for rapping about rainbows and pancakes on Fallon, appeared on the cover of this magazine, and near-universal acclaim for his show bordered on ejaculatory. And indeed, even some of the teens who have posted these TikToks claim to still stan the musical, insisting they harbor no ill will toward its creator whatsoever. “A lot of people think I hate him or have something against him, but I really just think it’s a silly picture. it’s no different than any other meme,” 19-year-old Nicholas, one of the progenitors of the lip-biting meme, told Insider. But that’s not entirely true. There’s a very specific reason 17-year-old girls with green hair and ironic wallet chains are roasting Miranda, and while it doesn’t stem from overt antipahy, it’s an extension of the general cultural divide between millennials and Gen Z, as well as growing opposition to the politics represented in Hamilton.
Few people who don’t spend too much time on the internet actually care, but there’s long been a war raging between millennials and Gen Z. The latter views the former as overly earnest and only superficially progressive, deeming them the generation of #GirlBoss feminism and self-care memes and pink pussy hats; by contrast, millennials view Gen Z-ers as an almost otherworldly species, expressing bemusement at their obsession with upper body-heavy dance movements and the eye makeup in Euphoria. Politically, the divide can pretty much be summed up thusly: Gen Y advocates for change by working within the system; Gen Z, by contrast, wants to smash the system entirely.
To teens and early-twentysomethings, Miranda is “sort of like the ultimate millennial,” says Joseph Longo, who covers Gen Z culture and wrote about the lip-biting meme for MEL Magazine. That’s not just due to his overly earnest, goofy, high school-teacher demeanor, but also to the praise Hamilton garnered during the Obama era for its diverse cast and hip-hop influences, both of which were, at the time, unprecedented in lily-white Broadway. “He created a musical that is valued for its representational politics,” says Longo. “And that feels very millennial in the same way Girls was valued as transgressive for that same reason.”
What Longo is referring to here is an emerging consensus on Hamilton that has been growing louder by increments since its premiere in 2015: that the show is problematic, or at least not entirely beyond reproach. The musical, for instance, fails to acknowledge that most of the Founding Fathers were slave owners (indeed, Phillip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, owned so many slaves that a monument to him in Albany, NY, was recently removed). It also erases historical black figures and glosses over the fact that Hamilton did not push back against the three-fifths compromise, which created a union in which the North profited off the labor of enslaved people in the South, while simultaneously claiming some sort of moral high ground. There’s also something to be said for the fact that, while the show has a predominantly BIPOC cast, it still prioritizes a white-male perspective, pushing more marginalized voices, such as those of the female characters in the show, to the background. (The fact that every female character, almost without exception, is defined solely by their desire to bang Hamilton, as played by Miranda, does not help matters.)
Miranda himself has graciously acknowledged such critiques, and certainly it is more than possible to hold space for them while stanning Daveed Diggs regardless. Yet some critics, such as Ed Morales, the author of Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture, believe that the show’s attempts at representation fail to counterbalance its deficits — and that younger audiences are waking up to this idea. “A play like Hamilton imagines freedom through casting marginalized people as the Founding Fathers while leaving the system intact, reinforcing a notion of American history that creates massive cognitive dissonance in its believers,” he says. “Today’s movements — which have been a long time coalescing — not only want to replace old leaders but substantially change the racist, classist, and colonial structures that the country is built on.”
Though Hamilton was viewed as transgressive in 2015, it’s important to note precisely who was deeming it as such: liberal, white, primarily rich ticket buyers. “There is no doubt that Hamilton has reshaped the culture in incredibly positive ways,” says Kimberly Exum, an actor and writer who is a fan of the show. “But because it attracts an audience that is mostly white and caters its historical inaccuracies to that audience, we have to question who this work is really for.” Miranda may have broken boundaries by bringing hip-hop to Broadway (though he was not quite the first to do so), but he still did it within an establishment framework. “A lot of Gen Z-ers would rather dismantle the system rather than work within it. It seems like highlighting the Founding Fathers the way Lin-Manuel did is still very much working within the system,” says Longo, who sees Hamilton as “working within the boundaries of respectability rather than fully separating from them.”
Thanks to the labors of TikTok teens, a wider audience now has to confront that we may have been “Wrong About” Miranda and Hamilton — or, at the very least, that the show reflected a rosy-cheeked view of American history. Such an optimistic perspective no longer feels appropriate in our current era, in which we’re openly acknowledging that black men are being suffocated by police in broad daylight. As the United States’ current president tweets conspiracy theories, and protesters are getting shoved into unmarked vans, audiences are demanding more from their entertainment — no matter how inclusive its intentions may be. But none of this is to say that Hamilton is “bad,” or that Lin-Manuel Miranda is “canceled,” or that it’s an unforgivable sin that the choreography from “Alexander Hamilton” is perhaps cheesier than you remembered from just a few years ago. In 2020, we should all try to take our little joys where we can get them — and if that means mercilessly mocking a corny Wesleyan kid-turned-multimillionaire’s pronunciation of the word “clit,” then so be it.