By William Paris
It was the slap heard ‘round the (Twitter) world. As soon as Will Smith sauntered onto the stage in reaction to Chris Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, it felt like we were about to witness something truly shocking.
Except we didn’t. Within minutes Twitter lit up with “takes” and analyses and cultural explanations of the barely discernible subtext hidden within a 10-second clip. If there was a moment of confusion or surprise, it passed before the commercial break. Otherwise, we might have had to reflect on what happened. Or, even better, we might have shaken our heads and thought a slap was a rather strange thing to see at the Oscars and then moved on. Instead, there was an explosion of engagement that divined the supposedly deeper truth that Smith, Rock, and Pinkett exemplified for our culture.
The emergence of takes is not in itself remarkable. As mediatized as our age is, it would be surprising if no one had anything to say about a millionaire slapping another millionaire on live TV. What was remarkable was that in the instant of the slap we not only knew that there would be takes, but we knew what those takes would be. Some of them included: toxic Black masculinity, patriarchy, Black male vulnerability, misogynoir, the white gaze, white feminism, cancel culture, ableism, hypotheticals concerning if Smith had accidentally killed Rock, the normalization of violence in U.S. culture, and even reflections on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Whatever interpretation you wanted could live seamlessly in this slap.
The need for this random event to stand in for something more, for something greater, for it to have philosophical depth is odd. There is no way to adjudicate which reading is right. And it should puzzle us that all the interpretations (except the Russia-Ukraine one) have equal plausibility. Given this, one might think there is nothing to learn from the slap. At least, nothing that has not been said elsewhere. It has been as if there were a drive to say something new while repeating only ideas that we have heard before.
Not that saying something new is good in and of itself. Great ideas bear repeating. However, they should be decisive and clear. Illuminating even as they are familiar. Much of the ideas around the slap are an indefinite muddle without any hope for criteria that would allow us to judge which of them are more insightful than the others.
This is why some voices protested against the slap becoming “discourse.” Of course, this was in vain given that the slap appeared almost prebaked and ready to serve for the public’s vacillating tastes. Its “deepness” already on the surface, ripe for being plucked.
Nevertheless, this constant search for depth is rarely promising in cultural criticism. Sometimes describing the surface with rich detail can be more than enough. Or, offering a well-placed joke and moving on could be an art in itself. Everything can mean something. But if everything means everything, what have we gained? Sometimes a slap can be just a slap.
Now that would be shocking.