My TV lagged for the entirety of the Oscars on Sunday night, so I had to lean on Twitter to stay up to the minute. I’d watch my feed update with who won awards well before their names were called on my screen. Which meant at 10:27 p.m., when I received a text from a friend asking, “Was that real?” I had no clue what he was talking about for several, excruciating minutes. “Wait, what?” I responded. “The Oscars! It looked like Will Smith actually punched Chris Rock.” Minutes later, when the action finally hit my television, I found he was right. It really did look like Smith hit Rock. (Technically, it was a slap, not a punch.)
Was that real? The question rippled through Twitter. No, it wasn’t real. Just look at how Chris Rock smiled the whole time. Nobody could keep that grin after being really slapped. Yes, it was real. Just watch Jada Pinkett Smith roll her eyes. No, it wasn’t real. It was a stage slap. It didn’t actually hurt him. Yes, it was real. The whole thing aired uncensored in Japan complete with audio of Smith yelling, not once but twice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your FUCKING mouth.” In this full clip, Rock looks utterly stunned, all words having just been slapped from his face. Seeing this version, it’s hard to think for even a moment this was all a bit. Chris Rock, after all, is not a very good actor.
But for those of us watching a censored telecast, what we watched go down between Rock and Smith seemed just manipulated enough that it could be part of the time-honored tradition of staged bits engineered for virality at the Academy Awards. (We talked a little bit about this history on an episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, last week.) The time the Girl Scouts arrived to sell cookies to the audience in 2016. Specifically, then-host Chris Rock’s own daughters and their troop, who Rock claimed sold more than $60,000 worth of boxes. (Subsequent reporting revealed that the sales were worth a less impressive yet still substantial $2,500.) Ditto when Ellen DeGeneres brought the pizza delivery guy onstage in 2014. Or last year, when a trivia segment showed Glenn Close evincing a surprisingly deep knowledge of Experience Unlimited’s 1988 single “Da Butt,” before demonstrating the appropriate dance. Which seems, now, like an obvious gag. But at the time, people bought it. There was a brief moment where, at least to some, it seemed completely plausible Glenn Close organically decided to shake her ass on camera to the iconic number from Spike Lee’s School Daze. (It was only later the same night that the Los Angeles Times reported confirmation that it was scripted.)
As viewers, we’ve been primed to assume everything we’re seeing at these events is orchestrated. Rarely are moments at the Academy Awards raw or real. That’s by design. Maybe, maybe on a good year you’ll get a genuinely spontaneous outburst of emotion or a political diatribe that isn’t triangulated to serve one’s personal brand. More likely just a bleep or two when somebody curses live on air. But for the most part, you get canned jokes and cutaways to pretty people who are making precisely the staged faces people make when they know they are at risk of being on camera at any moment. When Mila Kunis took the stage to introduce a performance of “Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days by Reba McEntire, the song ended with on-screen text asking for a moment of silence in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Kunis, who is arguably the most famous Ukrainian-born person in Hollywood, said only a few vague words about “recent global events” and “devastation.” Because that’s how the Oscars work. They control as much of the narrative as physically possible. (Not for nothing, viewership has been on a steady decline for years. Sunday’s ceremony earned a slight boost in viewership when compared with 2021’s broadcast, but its audience was still less than half the size of what it averaged in the previous decade.)
This immediate skepticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. If you pull back and consider applying that same amount of room for doubt to, say, what you see on the internet on any given Tuesday, you’re smart to pause and ask questions. Back in November, my Twitter feed was full of tweets about a grainy video of a couple fighting on the sidewalk. Behind them is a woman in the street with a walker trying to pick up a bag of fruit she has dropped. Cars are whooshing past. There’s a random cat. When the couple steps into the street to help the woman, a sign falls directly into the spot where they were just standing. It’s art! The rise and fall of action. The stakes. The low-budget, CCTV cinematography. On Twitter, people joked it was better than many a Best Picture contender. Except the whole thing was staged by an Egyptian magician. And the original video quality—over on Facebook—was crystal clear. Nobody would have ever thought it was security footage that randomly captured an incredible moment.
In January, a Pennsylvania ski resort went viral after posting a video that appeared to show a skier trying and failing to walk down snow-covered steps in full gear. Once again, extremely funny. Also extremely fake.
This digital culture where almost everything is scripted and engineered for fame makes it difficult to believe that something, like a slap, could actually be real. TikTok creator Emily Morrow aka @ReallyVeryCrunchy experienced this after she made a name for herself posting videos that appeared to satirize “crunchy moms.” Think vegan baby food, eco-friendly linen clothing, Montessori schools, and essential oils. That last one set off some alarm bells on TikTok, where people began to theorize she was an industry plant by an MLM intended to help sell oils. Was this woman really crunchy? Or was she just being crunchy to be clicky? The answer, it turned out, was a bit of both. While Morrow is, in fact, a fairly crunchy mom, she told Katie Notopoulos at BuzzFeed, “The character is the world’s perception of a crunchy person.” Meaning the TikTok sleuths were, as they almost always are, both right and wrong in this instance.
And so we questioned if Will Smith truly slapped Chris Rock. Because in that moment the Oscars, unwittingly and despite, I imagine, dozens of folks with walkie-talkies absolutely melting down internally, actually showed us something live. Something unscripted. It was a moment that for once required us to be paying attention. To have all eyes on our TV rather than one eye on our phones. If you blinked, you missed what really happened. If you blinked, you were genuinely upset you missed it. And when does that ever happen at the Academy Awards?