By Emily Erickson
The 94th Annual Academy Awards aired this past Sunday, March 27; and, despite Hollywood’s best dressed, most celebrated stars gathering as they do every year to accept awards and be entertained on national TV, the big takeaways from this year’s show were far from usual.
In his Oscars monologue, wherein it is tradition for the performing comedian to direct jibes at the rich and famous in attendance, Chris Rock performed a bit about Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head — a hairstyle decided by her medical condition, alopecia. He joked that he couldn’t wait to see her in GI Jane 2, which famously featured a bald Demi Moore. But, as laughter sounded around the audience, Jada’s husband, Will Smith, charged on stage and slapped Rock across the face — an unscripted act followed by exclamations from Smith to Rock to “keep my wife’s name out your f*cking mouth.”
More interesting (to me, anyway) than the confrontation itself — or even that it was captured on live TV — was the explosion of coverage, dissection and speculation that followed. Every news station, podcast, publication and social media account had a hot take, a meme or an official statement about “The Slap,” as well as Smith’s apology and the potential aftermath of the event.
The coverage was a sensation, a gossip-like dissemination of theories, responses and stances on something that happened between people living a life most of us can’t even dream of comprehending at an event designed to flaunt the chasm between regular people and the most extravagant in our society. Which made me wonder, why did everyone seem to care so much?
In the sociological tradition of Structural Functionalism, originating with French sociologist Emile Durkheim, every part of society plays a critical role in maintaining the systems to which they contribute. Everything and everyone has a function, and gossip, or sensationalized small talk, is no exception. In this tradition, the four functions of gossip are sharing information, providing entertainment, fostering friendship and establishing influence or social control.
Using Durkheim’s framework to explore The Slap and its subsequent reactions, our widespread cultural investment in it begins to make a bit more sense.
By way of sharing information, much of the discussion about The Slap was geared at providing context for Smith’s unresolved trauma, he and his wife’s relationship, the Oscars as an event and Rock’s punchlines. In sharing information about the exact set of circumstances that caused a highly-regarded and historically non-violent individual to act out in a violent manner, we seek to establish warning signs, collectively deciding on what to look for and what to avoid in our shared future.
In providing entertainment, covering a scandal with such excess allows us to delight in the disruption, temporarily distracting ourselves from the heaviness of our regular programming. Headlines about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock are a welcome reprieve from the stories we’ve been inundated with for years: about the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, inflation and political peacocking, giving us something to fixate on that doesn’t dramatically or even directly impact our health, safety or security.
At a time of rampant division, sensationally talking about The Slap offers common, relatively benign ground for us all to stand upon; fostering friendship or fellowship in a way that can feel otherwise inaccessible, especially right now. By having conversations about celebrities, people so far removed from our everyday lives, we’re establishing ourselves as a group that is fundamentally different from them. We talk about their “other-ness,” speculate about their lives and their behavior, in order to accentuate what we share.
Finally, in establishing influence or social control, we’re using coverage and discussion of the Oscars incident to reevaluate our unwritten social rules — the social contracts we all subscribe to — that have felt less and less defined over the past few years.
By asking questions like, “Is Will Smith just going to get away with hitting someone on live TV?” and “Did Chris Rock go too far in making a joke about a medical condition?” we’re also asking, “What are we, collectively, willing to accept apologies and make excuses for?” and “What is ‘too far’ in this new paradigm of ‘cancel culture’ and political correctness?”
We use situations like these to redraw our lines in the sand and reestablish what we find culturally acceptable, forgivable or irredeemable.
The Oscars coverage will run its course, or maybe already has, but our response to it provides a glimpse into where we are and what we care about as a society — the GIFs reflecting back a bit of ourselves on repeat, if only we pause to examine the possible depths behind a smack across the face.
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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