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Opinion The Will Smith slap says more about us than him

Jada Pinkett Smith, left, and Will Smith hold hands after he slapped presenter Chris Rock onstage at the Academy Awards on March 27. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
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Movie-watchers everywhere wanted to know one thing after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards on Sunday: How were we supposed to feel about it?

The story is simpler than most of those feted during the ceremonies. Rock, an award presenter, quipped that he “couldn’t wait” to see Jada Pinkett Smith in “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference to the actress’s close-cropped hair. Her husband then strode onstage, raised an open palm, and slammed it against the offender’s face.

“Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth,” he called, twice, when he’d returned to his seat.

The episode was fundamentally incomprehensible to any outsider — which is precisely why, when outsiders nevertheless set out to decipher it, it said far more about them than about Rock, Smith or Pinkett Smith. Most of all, these assessments of who was the good guy and who was the bad guy were based less on our genuine convictions than on our desire to pick whatever side our ideological allies deemed right in a confrontation laden with cultural baggage.

First, there was the question of knowing how to take a joke, or knowing how to tell one. Rock’s jibe was not particularly funny, but it was also particularly not funny: Pinkett Smith has alopecia, an autoimmune disorder resulting in hair loss that disproportionately affects Black women. A roast is a roast, many onlookers said, but some subjects should stay off-limits. And those who didn’t get that were probably missing something else: the complicated history of Black hair in this country.

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Race and racism sat at the heart of another dispute. Hollywood director Judd Apatow suggested in a now-deleted tweet that Smith “could have killed” Rock with his “pure out of control rage and violence” — before admitting he hadn’t even been watching the show. The masses chimed in, too, with assorted hysterical accusations of “narcissistic abuse” or physical assault, prompting some commentators to point out the double standard for Black men who society demands appear always unthreatening.

And what about Black women? The slap split feminist interpretations. Maybe Will Smith robbed Pinkett Smith of her agency when he rushed to the stage to “protect” her. Maybe he was the egomaniacal embodiment of misplaced male chivalry. Or maybe he was striking out against misogyny, and defending Black women who usually get left to fend for themselves, and then criticized when they try.

These days, the Oscars aren’t just a chance to assure ourselves we’re the kind of people who keep up with movies. They’re a chance to show we’re the kind of people who have the correct opinions on these movies, too, not just pop culturally, but politically. That’s easy when issues that pop up at the ceremony map neatly onto culture-war battle lines. Yes, the Oscars were so white, and yes, time was up.

But the slap, with all its cultural crosscurrents, is harder. Some takes surely came from the heart, but a lot of others appeared to come from the head, with everyone sorting through the slew of mini-screeds online to determine what was the right thing to think. A young woman who fancies herself a White ally, for instance, might have balked at the sound of flesh hitting flesh, but then reconsidered when she saw a post about Black hair, and then reconsidered again when she saw another about toxic masculinity.

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Apatow certainly appeared to rethink things when he deleted his racially loaded tweet; so did Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who has been outspoken about her own alopecia, when she scrapped her thank you to “all the husbands who defend their wives in the face of daily ignorance & insults.”

Society has separated into so many groups with so many identities that sometimes we spend more time scrambling to ensure we’re aligned with whichever we consider ours than we do figuring out what we actually believe. How are we supposed to reconcile our anti-violence, and our anti-racism, and our anti-anti-feminism, all at once?

The answer might be that we’re not. A daily question from YouGov asked American adults whether the slap was acceptable, and, as pundits joked, it appeared the pollsters had finally landed on a nonpartisan issue. About 22 percent said “yes” and 61 “no,” almost uniformly among regions, genders and politics. Even the divide along racial lines was relatively small.

The reaction to an event so strange, so personal, really does take place in the gut, and there’s little point in trying to take it out and put it somewhere else. The way we feel about things doesn’t always have to prove that we’re progressive, or conservative, or a crusader for or against cancel culture, or woke or still asleep. Sometimes it proves only that all of us are human.