The Fishy Smacks The Zebra?…


This is America in 2022, tantalized by immersive special effects, mesmerized by reality TV, upended by misinformation spread by both the malevolent and the sloppy. And forever asking, albeit about a constantly evolving set of circumstances: What around here is real?

Minutes and hours after Will Smith accosted and slapped Chris Rock before a live audience of millions, social media platforms lit up with a breathless and emphatic hot take: Surely, multitudes insisted, the whole thing was staged.

Hollywood, the illusion factory, had churned out some unexpected reality at the Oscars. And, surprise!, a lot of people thought it was another illusion.

“We are always looking for these authentic moments. … We feel kind of a triumph when we see something that was actually real,” says Lindemann, a sociologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “But when we encounter what is really an authentic moment, we have the skepticism about it.”

Is it any wonder? After all, we exist in a culture where clothing factories pre-rip blue jeans to make them look “distressed”, like they’ve been worn and frayed through years of actual life experiences. Where followers on Twitter, or faces appearing in your LinkedIn feed, might not be actual people at all. Where lip-syncing in “live” performances, not too long ago a major faux pas, now passes with barely a second look.

Each asks, in short: Where does actor end and performance begin? Or is the line a blurred and muddy one?

That’s what produced some of the confusion Sunday night in media both social and professional: Was this a scripted skit, embedded in a nonfiction show that itself is designed to reward the pinnacles of artistic artifice? One in which Will Smith and Chris Rock played “Will Smith” and “Chris Rock”? Or was it what it actually (apparently) turned out to be, real anger and violence, both genuine and unscripted, playing itself out on stage?

For every person who frame-grabbed in service of proving fraud, another made an equally intense case for the opposite, sometimes using the same evidence.

“We are so used to things being scripted,” says Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which studies the impact of entertainment on society. “And we’re kind of hip and savvy about these things, except we’re not.”

“Awards shows have a certain kind of organization and protocol. You’re supposed to act in a certain kind of way,” says Shilpa Davé, a media studies scholar at the University of Virginia. “We’re not used to seeing this in real time on these kinds of shows. We always see them in movies, we see them performing this, but not really doing it.”

Live events, particularly sports, are generally still perceived as trustworthy, Davé says, because they’re happening in real time and “you can make your own assumptions about what you’re seeing.” But Sunday’s events, particularly since the profane audio was bleeped out for U.S. audiences, challenged that.

“The fact that there’s skepticism about whether this was real is people bringing that cynicism to live events,” she says.

“Believing everything you see, especially in the technology era, is naive. But not believing anything ever, no matter how much evidence comes out, that’s equally unhealthy and debilitating,” Thompson says.

Yet in a nation where the “real” often proves to be fake, the “fake” can turn out to be real and we all join the masses in mass assumption along the way, how do you ever sort it all out? Particularly because, in the end, all of what happened Sunday night felt distinctly of a piece, whether real or fake or somewhere in between: There was a stage, there was an audience, and there were players.