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ESPOSITO: Will Smith controversy overshadows progress at Oscars

Column: Unapologetically

Oscars' controversy should not minimize the progress that the show has made and the accomplishments that should be celebrated. – Photo by The Academy / Twitter

It was the slap heard around the world. I am sure, without any additional context, you already know what I am referencing. On March 27, at the long-awaited and postponed Oscars award show, Will Smith strode calmly onto the stage while Chris Rock was presenting the award for best documentary and slapped him across the face.

From his seat, he proceeded to scream to Rock “Keep my wife’s name out of your f***** mouth.” Rock had compared Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, to G.I. Jane (Jada Pinkett Smith has previously opened up about her alopecia diagnosis, which resulted in hair loss).

Within minutes, the slap, Chris Rock and Will Smith were trending internationally on Twitter. Everyone from news anchors, late-night hosts and politicians has discussed the slap. Some passionately defend Will Smith. Others express their support for Rock. Others are furious that this was the main takeaway from the Oscars when many monumental moments were achieved.

Will Packer produced the Oscars with a first-ever all-Black production team. Actor Troy Kotsur became the second deaf person to win an Academy Award. The show itself had three female hosts for the first time.

These are all incredible achievements to be celebrated. But this ceremony will only be remembered as the one when Will Smith punched a fellow celebrity.

Award shows have been struggling with declining ratings for years. Within the past decade, they have also been looked at from a different lens, and it is hard not to address their overwhelming whiteness and male-dominated aspect of them.

This came to its biggest head just this year when the Golden Globes were dropped by NBC over a series of controversies, and the results were not broadcasted but announced on Twitter.

It seemed like the end was nearing for award shows. Considered old-fashioned, not that entertaining and not evolving with the times.

Then, Will Smith slapped Rock, and the Oscars rating jumped significantly to numbers that have not been seen in a long time. This is so telling about where our culture is and what attracts viewers.

Viewership is still below what it once was at its peak, but with the Oscars turning into one of the most talked-about events in 2022, this could signal breathing life back into award shows and other live events that once transfixed the nation.

Despite the slap, it could be a good thing. If people start to watch the Oscars again, they might see some better representation and consequently become more interested in awards shows.

The issue of the Oscars and award shows more generally has been the explosion of streaming platforms. With the emergence of streaming services and many different entertainment platforms, TV has had to be reimagined in some remarkable ways that have made ratings a difficult thing to maintain. No live event on network TV is doing as well as it once did.

Even more to this point, even the Olympics suffered viewership this year. The Beijing Olympics actually drew the lowest US ratings ever recorded. This fact is shocking on its own, but points to the wider picture of how people’s relationships with TV are changing.

Even if these things are changing and we do not engage with TV at the level that we once did, I argue that there is still a place for these events to be broadcasted. These events deserve to be covered, even if live TV is not the best medium. Although the world might be changing, the arts still deserve to be celebrated and widely accessible.

Although it is true that this year’s Oscars will only be remembered for one thing — that infamous slap — it is also important to remember some of the good things that came out of the show.

Again, this year's Oscars was an inclusive and accepting show that was reflective of 2022, the changing times, and consequently, the show is ultimately worthy of our praise. If other award shows, like the upcoming Grammys follow suit, we should find a way to preserve these events. They will be able to inspire a new, more inclusive generation.

Laura Esposito is in the School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and political science. Her column, "Unapologetically," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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