Photo: Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock
It was the Slap that launched a thousand takes: At Sunday’s Oscars, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head (she has alopecia), then her husband (and soon-to-be Best Actor winner) Will Smith ran onstage and slapped him. Once it became clear that the incident was not staged, seemingly everyone felt compelled to form an opinion on it and to share their views with friends, family members, co-workers, social-media followers, their hairstylist, their dog walker, strangers in line at the grocery store, etc.
Perhaps by now you’ve run through your initial viewpoints but still can’t find the motivation to talk to other people about anything else. Or maybe you just want to marvel at the wide range of human reactions to one famous person smacking another famous person. Either way, you’ve come to the right place: We at Intelligencer are compiling the definitive guide to Slap takes. When this piece was first published on Monday, we had identified 29 distinct varieties of Slap reactions; now it’s up to 82 — and we keep finding more.
All of the opinions expressed below are solely the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Intelligencer or its staff.
In his USA Today column, former surgeon general Dr. Jerome Adams recommends leveraging the Slap for the greater good:
Life can be stressful – these past two years particularly so – and many people are at their breaking points. We see that stress playing out in harmful ways, with record rates of suicide attempts, opioid overdose deaths, and in verbal and physical attacks on others.
We must promote better awareness of and attention to personal mental health, and normalize that it’s OK not to be OK. … It seems Smith might have had some brewing frustrations and wasn’t in the best state of mind to respond to a trigger. He could have benefited from a moment of reflection or meditation and might have responded differently. Hopefully, this can be an example for young people moving forward on what not to do, and we can promote mental wellness, and discuss healthier ways to resolve conflict.
The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu spoke with some psychologists about why people might have difficulty processing the event. A few noted the Slap and its aftermath would likely trigger some survivors:
Psychologists and experts on violence aren’t surprised by the strong emotions generated by the incident, and their variety. “The complexity right now does center around the talks and discussions we’re having around race, gender and disability … and survivorship,” said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. “All of those things combined impacted the lens in which we saw this unfortunate event.”
At Teen Vogue, Stitch calls out how some people (mostly white) have decided to center their takes around themselves:
Will Smith isn’t your abusive daddy or ex-boyfriend, and Chris Rock is not you as an abuse survivor claiming to be triggered by a single slap. It’s a startling thing to have to say aloud, but after the slap heard ‘round the world – literally, thanks to uncensored coverage of the Oscars from Japanese and Australian television networks – it’s clear that plenty of people don’t understand that they aren’t the main character at this moment, and by projecting their experiences onto the situation, they’re showing they believe harmful stereotypes about Black people.
Most egregious, to me, are the number of people (largely white women) who have decided to implicitly connect Will Smith to abuse, suggesting or even outright stating that he is a domestic abuser and a danger to his wife or daughter. They claim that the slap and subsequent yelling triggered them, that it reminded them of experiences with abusive fathers or partners. Even though they are not even remotely the targets of Smith’s ire, they’ve decided to make themselves main characters anyway.
However, it’s also incredibly dangerous and part of a historical trend in which white women weaponize themselves and their reactions to Black people, reframing our neutral states or our valid anger as threatening to them.
Director Judd Apatow made this point in a now-deleted tweet:
Apatow has deleted this tweet as well.
At the Cut, Alexis Oatman points out that Black women are too often left undefended:
We don’t have to imagine how [Pinkett Smith] must have felt last night because we could see her face. She was visibly uncomfortable as Rock made his crack at her expense. Black women have been one of the least protected classes in our society, navigating racism and sexism simultaneously. They are expected to remain composed in the face of opposition, as judge Ketanji Brown Jackson just experienced during her Supreme Court nomination hearings. So what is the right way to stand up for Black women? …
If you take a step back and look at the situation in good faith, you see that Rock degraded a Black woman in a room full of her peers on live TV, and the world expected her and her husband to take it. Words, like fists, have power, and they can be just as violent.
On his Substack, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wholly rejects the idea that Smith should be praised for defending his wife:
Smith’s slap was also a slap to women. If Rock had physically attacked Pinkett Smith, Smith’s intervention would have been welcome. Or if he’d remained in his seat and yelled his post-slap threat, that would have been unnecessary, but understandable. But by hitting Rock, he announced that his wife was incapable of defending herself—against words. From everything I’d seen of Pinkett Smith over the years, she’s a very capable, tough, smart woman who can single-handedly take on a lame joke at the Academy Awards show.
This patronizing, paternal attitude infantilizes women and reduces them to helpless damsels needing a Big Strong Man to defend their honor least they swoon from the vapors. If he was really doing it for his wife, and not his own need to prove himself, he might have thought about the negative attention this brought on them, much harsher than the benign joke. That would have been truly defending and respecting her. This “women need men to defend them” is the same justification currently being proclaimed by conservatives passing laws to restrict abortion and the LGBTQ+ community.
Worse than the slap was Smith’s tearful, self-serving acceptance speech in which he rambled on about all the women in the movie King Richard that he’s protected. Those who protect don’t brag about it in front of 15 million people. They just do it and shut up. … By using these women to virtue signal, he was in fact exploiting them to benefit himself.
“I know Chris and I know what it’s like to be on a stage in front of an audience that doesn’t like your material,” commented stand-up comedian Judy Gold to the Associated Press. “But to be physically assaulted, that’s a whole other thing. It felt like every comedian was smacked across the face. It really felt like that.”
In a popular but now-hidden tweet, one person offered that:
I think as a society we’ve outgrown the need for comedians. Everyone and their grandmother is funny. I’ve gotten more laughs off of Twitter than watching a set by a comedian.
James Surowiecki writes that Chris Rock was playing the critical role of the court jester, who “can say the things that others may be thinking but are too afraid to say,” but only if they don’t fear punishment and/or violence:
What isn’t reasonable is accepting that we have people who have been given the role of comic and then saying that sometimes they should be hit if they go too far. Once you do that, you take away the thing that makes the jester as a figure interesting, namely the fact that they’re outside the rules of normal life. We all have to think twice before we talk. The comic, in some sense, is the one who doesn’t.
That’s why, when Smith slapped Rock, what he was breaking wasn’t some general social rule against responding to insults with violence. (There are lots of place in America where that norm isn’t really a thing.) Instead, he was breaking the bubble that we’ve let comedians exist in, and insisting that they can be punished for what they say. He was whipping the jester.
Washington Post critic Robin Givhan is appalled at Smith’s behavior:
Smith was really nothing more than the gussied-up equivalent of a street corner punk who throws punches because someone disrespected his girlfriend or sullied his sneakers or just looked at him the wrong way. That guy’s emotions are complicated, too. The violence is about more than that pivotal moment. To paraphrase fellow nominee Denzel Washington, who tried to calm an overwrought Smith, the devil doesn’t just come for a person during their highest moment, the devil is always lurking.
The culture has little patience for the damaged thug in a T-shirt and jeans who’s lucky if his power extends the length of a neighborhood block, but it has the stamina to dissect the psychic pain of a mogul in a made-to-measure Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo. It has the wherewithal to pause and consider the complexity of a powerful Black man who says that he was protecting his powerful Black wife, when society too often doesn’t have the patience to deal with anonymous Black folks just trying to get by.
At the New York Times, Roxane Gay delivers “a defense of thin skin”:
I think a lot about how we are constantly asked to make our skin ever thicker. Toughen yourself, we’re told, whoever we are, whatever we’ve been through or are going through. Stop being so brittle and sensitive. Lighten up. I’m not talking about constructive criticism or accountability but, rather, the intense scrutiny and unnecessary commentary people have to deal with when they challenge others’ expectations one way or another …
I’ve stopped aspiring to be thicker-skinned, and I no longer expect or admire it in others. Because sometimes, people can’t take a joke. In some situations, yes, we’re humorless. If our skin gets too thick, we won’t feel anything at all, which is the most unreasonable of expectations. And we won’t know we’ve been wronged or wounded until it’s too late.
On NPR’s All Things Considered, Eric Deggans expressed his disappointment over the support and applause Smith was immediately awarded:
What bothered me most, after The Slap Seen Around the World, was how the giants of Black Hollywood immediately circled to protect Will Smith …
Smith has always been aware of his status as a role model and beloved figure among Black people, so to let stand a moment where he responded to a joke with violence — especially after so many young Black men have lost their lives in violent altercations over insults or arguments — feels like a betrayal.
After highlighting how “Black people and white people aren’t necessarily talking about the incident in the same way,” The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill addresses a general anxiety she’s noticed:
A number of the people who texted me also worried that the incident—an embarrassing moment involving two prominent Black celebrities—would sully Black people more generally. Last night’s Oscars were the first with an all-Black production team. Black people are conditioned to believe that we deserve respect, admiration, and recognition of our humanity based only on good behavior. But Smith’s overreaction does not reflect on anyone but him, and the suggestion that our community should feel any measure of collective shame is completely misguided. Nor should we feed into the dehumanizing stereotype that Smith’s conduct is typical for Black people.
There have already been at least 66 complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission over the live broadcast of the Slap:
“I haven’t been able to sleep as a result. My child was also scared. I had to take medicine to calm me down,” [one] viewer told the FCC. “I think the Oscars were not child friendly and shouldn’t be allowed on TV if they are going to have violent assaults LIVE.”
Other members of the TV viewing audience blamed the FCC for failing to anticipate that there would be a physical assault at the annual show for the first time in 93 years.
“This display was disgusting and beamed directly into our living room,” read a complaint from Connecticut. “I thought your agency was supposed to keep this type of violence and cursing off television. I hope you can bring sense and reason back to the public airways,” the viewer urged.
In an op-ed at NBC News, Tiffanie Drayton writes that Will Smith demonstrated that he was nothing like the man he won an Oscar for portraying:
Smith spoke of the importance of defending one’s family, but added insult to injury by twisting the concept of protection to justify his aggression, and making this moment all about himself.
It should have been about Williams. Through grit, hard work, commitment and love, he helped his two little Black girls defeat the odds over and over again as they rose through the very white ranks of elite tennis. … [In Williams,] we had a Black father who fought — metaphorically — for his family, who stood strong and proud and unashamed. It was a portrait of a Black family who loved fiercely. It was a portrait of a Black family who thrived. And it is a portrait now overshadowed by the toxicity of patriarchy and machismo.
Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse believes Will Smith stole the attention Jada Pinkett Smith deserved:
Will Smith might have believed he was protecting his wife. But violence performed in the name of protecting wronged women only steals away the attention from where it belongs: on the wronged woman … The fallout might have been whatever Jada Pinkett Smith wanted it to be: a chance to raise awareness about alopecia, or to publicly forgive Rock, or not publicly forgive him. She might have talked about how difficult it was to remain in her seat while jokes were made at her expense. And yet remain there she did, for she might have worried that reacting could result in viewers thinking of her as a killjoy who couldn’t take a joke — or, even more unfairly, as an angry Black woman.
Ryan Broderick tries to take a step back:
To understand why everyone was bemoaning the imminent Oscars takes last night, first, we have to define what Twitter is in 2022. It’s a fandom app for current events. The users on there don’t have anything in common other than an increasingly pathological need to consume either news as content or content as news. Which can get kind of dark, like when a pandemic starts or an actual war breaks out. But an awards show is the perfect kind thing to bring every pocket of Twitter user out of the woodwork. It’s essentially the school assembly that all the app’s different insane cliques have to attend. And then they use it to project whatever weird fixation they have on the rest of the platform’s users. So, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, it acted as a sort of take big bang …
But I don’t actually find all the absolutely garbage takes that interesting — even as something to hate read. Instead, what I find more interesting is the viral pre-exhaustion that users described feeling immediately after the slap. The dread and anticipatory boredom at the idea that this will dominate the national conversation for at least the next three days, the next week if Smith or Rock comment on it further, or the next month if some kind of governing body — either America’s or Hollywood’s — gets involved.
Broderick also blamed the Trump era, noting, “What was the Trump administration if not a constant series of unscripted awards show moments?”
According to Howard Stern:
Now the first thing I said to myself was “what the fuck is going on, is this a bit?” because where is security? This is a live television event! Not one person came out, because he’s Will Smith, this is how Trump gets away with shit. Will Smith and Trump are the same guy. He decided he’s going to take matters into his own hands.
At The Atlantic, Olga Khazan links the Slap to a wider phenomenon:
Everyone is acting so weird! The most obvious recent weirdness was when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars. But if you look closely, people have been behaving badly on smaller stages for months now …
More than a dozen experts on crime, psychology, and social norms recently walked me through a few possible explanations.
According to those experts, the causes may include overall stress, excess drinking, and the impact of pandemic isolation — though not necessarily mental illness.
Anti-racism activist Tim Wise advises white people to see the event through the lens of white supremacy and the intergenerational trauma it has inflicted:
The history of America is one in which Black men, in particular, have been consistently disempowered when it comes to defending themselves or their families. It happened when they were split from them, their children and wives sold away. It happened when their ability to provide financially was circumscribed by economic marginalization and discrimination. It’s still happening with a justice system that has long focused disproportionately on their misdeeds rather than those of others. And that history may not have consciously entered Will Smith’s mind at the Oscars, but it’s part of the cell memory of Black men across America. Though perhaps not visible, its scars are there if you know where to look …
But if you do not know that history — have never even contemplated it and what it can do to those against whom its weapons have been deployed — you are not ready to enter this conversation. This is why we as white folks must come to understand the Black experience and what white supremacy did and still does to call into question Black masculinity, the legitimacy of Black families, the permanence of Black love. It’s why we need to be in authentic relationships with Black people. All the books and trainings on these subjects will never substitute for meaningful human connection. That connection is all that can allow us to understand why Rock’s joke was so hurtful to so many Black women in particular. And it is all that could even remotely enable us to comprehend the soul wound in response to which Black people have persisted and thrived despite its severity and against all odds.
At The Guardian, Tayo Bero writes that “this kind of performative pearl-clutching is only ever reserved for Black men who mess up”:
It would seem that there’s a layer of hyper-violence that’s being projected on to Smith simply because he is a Black man who was defending his Black wife. While it’s justifiable — important, even — to interrogate his motives for delivering the slap (was this really all about defending his wife or more about his own ego?), it’s clear that the backlash against Smith is rooted in not just anti-Blackness, but respectability politics as well.
It’s also not just about what Smith did; it’s where he did it and who was watching. Anyone who has been following these shows can see that Smith is being held up to much stricter standards than white men who have behaved just as badly or even worse in those settings. In 1973, John Wayne had to be restrained by six security guards when he tried to rush the stage and attack the Native American actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. Littlefeather was on stage to accept the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando, who was boycotting the awards in protest at Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans. Wayne got to keep his awards after the incident, but pending a review, Smith could very well have his historic best actor win revoked.
At the Washington Post, Travis M. Andrews notes that Sunday night’s drama followed years of Smith being much more open about his life and struggles, to the point that it became integral to his public persona and work:
Smith, 53, seems to have embraced this chance to err toward sharing in recent years, publicly touting his every thought and feeling with an audience that once loved him precisely because he did the opposite. He now embodies a singular type of public figure: an old-school movie star who embraces radical honesty and seems to be on a quest to exorcise his demons in public.
At Puck, Baratunde Thurston imagines what Smith might have said:
I wish he hadn’t struck Rock or angrily yelled profanities. But I wish even more that, when graced with a second chance on stage, he would have said something different. What could he have said? Something like: “I apologize to my brother Chris Rock, who somehow managed to keep the show going after I hit him in the face. I apologize to my wife, to my family, to the Williams family, and to everyone who has worked so hard to be a part of this celebratory night. I resorted to violence in response to words, and that is not the way. It’s not what I want to be known for. It’s not what I believe I’m called to do in this world. To the little boys who look up to me, I apologize. Sometimes, even us trained professionals lose control of our emotions, and this night has been full of emotion. Chris’s joke hurt my wife, who many of you know suffers from a disease that impairs hair growth. I thought defending her meant hitting him, but I was wrong. As someone who portrayed Muhammed Ali, an advocate of peaceful protest, I know better. As a boy, I missed a chance to defend my mother from abuse. I’ve written about this and am clearly still dealing with it. Apparently I’m dealing with it in the worst possible way, at the worst possible time, right now at the Oscars. Now about this award…”
Opines Lewis Wallace at the Cult of Mac:
Will Smith slapping Chris Rock during Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony shows why Apple should go back to doing live events. No, not because we need to see deranged audience members assaulting Apple execs onstage. However, the mere possibility that something can go seriously sideways gives live events an undeniable advantage over the type of canned productions Apple began cranking out during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m sure this goes against Cupertino’s deeply ingrained cultural bias toward controlling absolutely everything within its power. But if Apple doesn’t get back to putting on live events, its product launches will drift deeper into the uncanny territory of the overproduced infomercial. That’s boring — and it’s bad for both Apple and Apple fans.
(Hat-tip: Rusty Foster)
At Vulture, Tirhakah Love argues that the spectacle was a win:
The moment, the 48-hour immediate afterlife of the moment, and the eventual exposé of said moment are all worth it. The Smiths and Rock know this as well and will likely capitalize on the Slap once tempers ease. Will already got the ball rolling on that front. During his Best Actor acceptance speech, Smith made the discursive connection between his King Richard character and his actions: “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.” Imagine the Red Table Talks, stand-up material, and literature that’ll transpire from this.
After observing how the event seems to have divided Black America, Detroit Free Press columnist Darren A. Nichols offers a warning about the illusion of familiarity:
Instead of celebrating, millions of Black Americans spent Sunday night and most of Monday analyzing every aspect of the event on social media. Even my eye doctor couldn’t resist, devoting 15 minutes of my Monday afternoon exam chewing over the slap …
What we must remember is that we don’t know any of these stars. What we see is only what they show us on screen. Denzel Washington is not Alonzo Harris in “Training Day.” Regina King is not Sharon Rivers in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Those are characters; what we saw Sunday was real life. … The reality is we’re not clued into the intimate details of the Smiths’ lives, challenges, and troubles even if Jada does admit to an “entanglement” on her Red Table show. We have to begin to stop living vicariously through stars and pay more attention to our own choices. And we need to remember that in the real world, the consequences of mistakes like Smith’s can be much more dire.
At The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert writes about how difficult the moment and aftermath were to comprehend:
If, as the media theorist Neil Postman observed, jokes and entertainment might one day undo our ability to perceive things properly, then Smith’s televised assault on Rock illustrated that thesis eerily well—offering a colossal WTF moment to digest and meme and tweet-then-delete dubious takes on into infinity. But for me at least, the moment also felt like a rupture, a glitch in the Matrix. It almost felt staged. It was too wild, too uncalibrated, and then too immediately and obviously smoothed out in figurative postproduction.
At Slate, Joel Anderson calls for everyone to cool it with the takeaways:
We don’t have to take this too seriously. We don’t have to live like this, mapping complex social phenomena on something fundamentally as straightforward and unexceptional as dudes using a personal slight—or a perceived one—as a pretext for getting physical.
Unsurprisingly, the social media response has followed its own inevitable arc, from shocked to bemused to serious to exhausting. As a sports fan who has seen scenes like this play out umpteen times, I’ve felt the familiar dread of watching relatively minor transgressions by Black men turn into a vehicle for everyone’s agendas. We can’t even gawk at a little scuffle without worrying that it’ll become a referendum on Black male anger. There was no real harm, and we don’t have to call a foul. Smith and Rock have reportedly reconciled, according to Diddy. Hockey players regularly pound at each other in front of enormous audiences, and fans almost never have to deal with the anthropological weight of this kind of discourse. Is it unprecedented at the dolled-up Academy Awards? Sure. But let’s have some perspective.
In a piece at Salon, Jacques Berlinerblau notes that something seemed off about Smith’s approach:
My street fightin’ days back in Flatbush Brooklyn are far behind me, and were, nevertheless, unremarkable in the extreme. Yet something about Mr. Smith’s getsure struck, even me, as not quite right. He missed a step in the tango of toxic masculinity. A belligerent man, in my experience, generally signals to his target that he is about to hurt him. There are lots of ways to communicate this malign intent. You can get all up in someone’s face. The two-fingered chest poke is a well-worn technique. Some aggressors have been known to deliver pointed monologues prior to pouncing.
But one thing the Code Of The Streets demands is that a combatant never hit a person who, like Chris Rock, had his hands behind his back (Mr. Smith delivered his monologue only after his attack). Couldn’t he just have pushed Rock backwards and let the dudes with the headset mics come charging out from the wings, “Jerry Springer”-style, to separate the combatants? Where are these guys when you need them?
At the Los Angeles Times, Ryan Faughnder worries that Slap-driven attention on the Oscars will be fleeting and caustic:
I doubt that this specific kind of absurd spontaneity will help keep people interested. How many viewers are going to sit in front of a 3 1/2-hour ABC telecast on the off chance that the star of “Down to Earth” will get his clock cleaned by a man who credibly played Muhammad Ali? It’s not the academy’s fault that Smith, however justified in his rage, couldn’t keep his cool until the commercial break. But this is very bad for the Oscars, nonetheless. If it generates interest in the show itself, it will be the cheapest, shallowest kind. The Oscars are supposed to be glamorous and fun. Smith turned it into “Jerry Springer.”
(At the Mary Sue, Vivian Kane includes that ovation in a list of five Oscars moments that were uglier than the Slap.)
Vulture’s Alison Willmore highlights how riveting and refreshing the drama was, arguing that the Slap “was the best thing that could have happened to the Oscars” and is “destined to keep the ceremony in conversation for weeks”:
The incident that spawned a million takes was shocking both because it was so unexpected and because it made the awards feel abruptly intimate — not some distant glitzy gathering but a work event for a constricted group of people with its own internal hierarchies and long-standing grudges. Will Smith getting up out of his front-row seat and walking the relatively short distance onto the stage to smack Chris Rock was a breaking of protocol, and it was also a breaking of the Oscars pretense that this is the night Hollywood gets together to enjoy its own company. It’s an industry function, and plenty of industries have their own star system and awards, and they’re probably all as messy — they’re just not televised …
The A-list façade cracked to reveal something vulnerable and unplanned, which is, in its conflicting, electric uncertainty, why a lot of us still watch the Oscars — not for montages of James Bond or the empty banalities but for unscripted moments from some of the most carefully manicured and impeccably public-personae people in the world. Movie lovers, unite?
“Why did nobody think of this before?” wonders New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane:
It’s such a brisk, economical method for waking the TV audience from our slumber and preventing us from fetching another tub of Phish Food and switching over to an old episode of “Columbo.” When Steve Martin made a gag about the swan dress worn by Björk at the Oscars of 2001, she could have flown to the podium and pecked him to the ground with her angry beak. And why stop at the presenters? Nominees for the acting prizes are traditionally required to smile at one another through sharpened teeth, but it would be so much more enjoyable—and more morally honest—if their carnivorous competition could be laid bare for all to see. Take 1951, and the best Best Actress contest in the history of the awards: Bette Davis versus Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Judy Holliday (the eventual winner), and, in the veterans’ corner, Gloria Swanson. I can almost hear the words of that evening’s host, Fred Astaire, graciously inviting the contenders onstage for the announcement: “Now, you know the rules: no blades, no biting, and stay away from the eyes. Otherwise, ladies, the floor is yours, so let’s get ready to rumble! It’s swing time!”
At Tortoise Media, Matthew d’Ancona goes there:
“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” said the star of King Richard – who had reacted violently to a joke Rock had made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. “Love will make you do crazy things.” This is the closest Hollywood gets to what Putin would call a “special military operation”: I know you all think I acted terribly by invading Ukraine, but, really, I had the best of intentions, and was only defending the vulnerable …
As things stand, the primary lesson of the 2022 Oscars was that you can engage in an act of violence live on global television and still walk away with one of the night’s big awards: in disgrace, but still a winner. In years to come, military strategists may well call this the Will Smith Doctrine.
This post has been updated with additional takes.