Another award season, another red carpet and another show that goes by where only a handful of film critics may watch to see their favorites clean up. That was not what happened this time. The 94th Annual Oscars ceremony caught fire on social media, but not because of the Academy's picks.
Chris Rock, presenting an unassuming documentary award, decided to give a comedic presenter's speech, crossing the line for at least one audience member. Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's newly bald head due to her alopecia damaging her hair, joking he was excited to see the new "G.I. Jane" with her in it. The minute the joke left his mouth, Will Smith, her husband, marched onto the stage and slapped Rock, returning to his seat only to continue to cuss Rock out. Only moments later did the seemingly unhinged actor take the stage again, this time to receive one of the most prestigious acting awards, that of Best Actor, providing the audience with a prime juxtaposition.
While the Oscars cut out the sound after the slap, the uncensored version spread like wildfire, creating the internet's new favorite scandal.
“It’s not every day you see a famous person getting slapped by another famous person,” journalism junior Maggie George said.
George explained this phenomenon was different than regular celebrity drama because there was no room for exaggeration — it was already sensational. Usually, tabloids use clickbait headlines with words like "fight" and "assault" for shock, but this time it was true.
So sensational, in fact, people immediately began speculating if it was genuine or not. Could the slap have been a product of the Oscars to gain viewership?
“They knew it was going to get them a lot of publicity … especially with what was going on with the Golden Globes earlier this year and how much viewership they lost,” George said. "People know that award shows aren’t as popular as they once were.”
George also believes Rock not pressing charges builds the case for a publicity stunt because being publicly embarrassed on national television would usually cause more legal harm. However, others are convinced there is more than manufactured anger.
"This is more than (a publicity stunt)," creative advertising junior Alexandra Simonelli said. "Chris Rock (has been) bashing on people he shouldn't be bashing on for many years, and it's probably just a long-time-coming punch in the face. It just happened to be pretty public.”
However, Simonelli does believe the punch did look faked to a certain extent, and she does not trust the Oscars and their intentions. Others think this press would not serve the celebrities in the feud.
“If it is a publicity stunt, we’re only validating it by talking about it," English senior Hannah Ramirez said. "I don’t really think that it was because I don’t think that’s the image that Will Smith would want to craft for himself, but, at the same time, it does seem like something that the Oscars would maybe do.”
While there is debate on the true nature of what happened on the stage, most people seem unanimous on the nature of Rock's joke.
“I just do think that can be extremely hurtful and regressive to what Jada has been doing," Ramirez said. "Being very open and public about her Alopecia has been very positive overall, but jokes like that really can ruin progress that she, as an outspoken woman, has made.”
Women also put themselves in Jada's shoes, feeling second-hand embarrassment not for Will but for the other Smith.
“I have always been a very feminist woman and standing up for myself," George said. "I don’t care how I come across, but I’m going to defend myself. … If that (were) me, I would feel so uncomfortable with a man, even if he (were) my husband, thinking that it was his place to go assault somebody because somebody said something about me.”
Others are not angry at the comment but at how Will handled it and how he is being dealt with — as an elite rather than someone who physically assaulted another person on a stage.
“You can always make a case for elitism, which there (are) so many examples of it, where somebody does something that's so blatantly wrong, and they just get away with it because they’re verified on Twitter,” George said.
People are beginning to compare the difference of what would happen if a person not adorned with awards and acclamations did the same.
“I do think that if this were more of a public thing, where someone slapped someone somewhere on campus (Rock not pressing charges) probably wouldn't have been the case,” Lyman Briggs freshman Ethan Prose said.
All of these elements of drama and scandal mixed together to make the perfect social media storm. While Ramirez expressed she was exhausted by the situation by the time it had gone the rounds on Twitter, she knew the exposure was profitable for the Academy.
“We’re hungry for whatever can grab the most attention the quickest," Simonelli said. "Punching someone in the face is a pretty big headline; if that’s what gets the publicity, I guess people will do anything for that spotlight.”
Ramirez noted the violent, sudden, shocking and, most importantly, unscripted aspect was why it has such a hold on social media.
Due to this heavy debate and worldwide attention on the subject, not only the Oscars but Will Smith himself put out statements. The Academy condemned Smith's actions while Smith publicly apologized to Rock and audience members. Some think while airing the drama created this mess, this response is the only thing they could do if the encounter were authentic.
“Even if they tried to cut the broadcast off at that time, there would have been thousands of recordings posted minutes afterwards, so they can’t really do anything about it," Prose said. "The most they can really do is condemn it.”
With these apologies clearing up any hostility hanging in the air, George is sure this moment will become another iconic pop culture phenomenon, like Kanye taking Taylor Swift's mic at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
The crazy moment has already been stripped of its importance due to the one thing that got the celebrities into this mess: jokes. Memes of the snapshot of Rock getting slapped have started rolling, only making it more of a social media phenomenon rather than a serious offense.
Michigan State has even found its own way to relate to it. George compared it to Juwan Howard, the University of Michigan head basketball coach, slapping his opponent at a game, explaining her peers have started making their own memes. It's true, MSU may always want to be the Will Smith to the University of Michigan's Chris Rock.
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