Last night, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, on stage, at the Oscars, for telling a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The whole world was watching—and now everyone wants to tell you what this moment means.
Rock told a joke about Pinkett Smith which referenced her hairstyle. (She shaved her head because of her alopecia.) Smith then got up, walked onto the stage, and slapped Rock. After he returned to his seat, he shouted at Rock, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth!”
Moments after the slap, Smith became the fifth Black man to win the award for best actor, and the first since Forest Whitaker won for The Last King of Scotland in 2006. CODA, a film about a child of deaf parents, received the award for best picture in a historic win. Other things happened as well. The day after the ceremony, no one really seems to care about any of that. They want to talk about what Smith slapping Rock says not just about these two men but about society, comedy, and anything else you could possibly think of.
To be fair, this was the Oscars, Hollywood’s so-called biggest night, and anything that occurs during the ceremony has the potential to be take fodder. Even without the slap, Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith was always going to hit a sore spot for both people who have alopecia—an autoimmune disorder—and specifically Black women, for whom hair is a particularly sensitive topic. It’s unlikely that Rock even wrote the joke—one of the lingering mysteries of the evening is why anyone thought that a joke about a justly-forgotten Ridley Scott movie from 25 years ago would land—and whoever did write it is probably now very aware of why you should double-check whether someone is making a fashion choice when you make jokes about their appearance. But Smith did slap Rock, so now the moment has far eclipsed its origins.
To comedians, including people like Judd Apatow, this event became emblematic of the apparent risk that stand-up comedians face in their workplace. In a since-deleted tweet, Apatow said that Smith “could have killed” Rock, which seems unlikely. (A burst eardrum seems like the most apocalyptic possibility here.) Other comedians, like Jim Gaffigan and vaccine skeptic Jimmy Dore, echoed the concerns Apatow expressed. (Apatow was at the ceremony and up for multiple awards, so one might think he had better things to do than tweet with the hand he wasn’t using to clutch his pearls; evidently he did not.)
Professional critics have, meanwhile, treated the idea of someone getting slapped at the Oscars roughly like someone peeing on the Vatican, with the Telegraph declaring this the “most shameful–and unforgivable—Oscar moment ever.” Acting as if the Oscars are hallowed ground for cinema is an easy mistake to make, but personally, Crypto.com using the tragedy of the war in Ukraine as an opportunity for advertisement ranks a little bit higher in terms of shame.
Almost immediately, viewers at home started saying that Smith “assaulted” Rock, and should be arrested. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Police Department told Variety that Rock is not pressing charges. Still, for a segment of people, this event has immediately become a story about a dangerous man (Smith) attacking a harmless bystander (Rock), and the way the Hollywood elite has celebrated itself by defending Will Smith. This has then extended out to general opinions on how black men should comport themselves in public, often with racist subtext.
In contrast, many black people see this as a positive example of a black man standing up for his wife, specifically because Rock has previously told jokes about Pinkett Smith at the Oscars before. In this context, Smith is the hero and Rock is the villain, and the slap becomes a fulcrum on which the topics of race, masculinity, and heterosexual romance balance.
The further you get from the actual event, the more bizarre the takes get. To some political analysts, this is a story about how to use violence. They have compared Smith’s slap to the war on Ukraine, turning this story into a parable about how responding to an insult by escalating violence is inappropriate. How this is related to a single open-palmed slap between two rich men in their 50s is not immediately clear.
How you respond to this ends up saying more about you than it does Smith, Pinkett Smith, or Rock. It’s a Rorschach test, revealing the specific ways in which the take-havers imagine themselves as the protagonists of reality. Although there does seem to be a clear cause-and-effect in terms of why this went down, there’s also a distinct lack of context granted by the fact that celebrities and their lives are so distant from everyone else and theirs. Smith and Rock are both black men in Hollywood; it’s very possible that they know each other and that this beef extends beyond what we saw last night. It’s equally possible this was all a farcical misunderstanding brought about by Smith assuming everyone is up to date on his family’s various health problems and some writer not thinking to take 10 seconds to use Google. In any case, they seem perfectly capable of resolving it on their own, and neither Rock nor Smith seem to have left the night worse for wear.
Since we as a culture invented the idea of celebrity, we have used the lives of strangers to explain our own. They become like Greek gods or royalty; these are people who experience things for us, about whom we tell stories in order to understand ourselves. The internet has only made this process faster, so that the free association between what happened and what it reminds you of happens more quickly than one’s ability for critical thinking. Cultural events like this are made of clay. They have so little structure, they’re pliable enough to take any form that you need them to.