#15: Vitamin String Quartet Version
It’s been quite a week for people in media, and as a person trying to be a person in media, I’ve felt a little off. This week, I originally intended to write about The Gilded Age, Bridgerton, and the conundrums of race-blind casting. Building on handy critiques from the likes of Khadija Mwobe and Brooey Deschanel, I was going to examine The Gilded Age’s revival of the Black Best Friend trope, and why it fails to escape the tokenism trap. As someone with a Pavlovian reaction to any show about beautiful gowns, I was very excited about the prospect of this essay. Unfortunately, like almost everyone else, I was just too distracted this week to get it done.
Do you remember where you were when you first heard about “The Slap”? Were you watching the Oscars in real-time (unlikely)? Perhaps, like me, you were quietly enjoying a (not very well-done) documentary about the Theranos scandal—despite having already read the book, watched the show, and having just written an essay about the foolishness of derivative media—when you glanced at your phone saw a flood of notifications from not one, but several, of your group chats. We have to pause, you told your partner, and then spent the next several hours scrolling through the trainwreck of media discourse that followed.
It seemed that everyone, even before the Oscars ended, was dreading the resulting onslaught of related media that was to surface over the next few days.
There were some good takes.
There were even some good takes about takes:
“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.”
Which, I suppose makes this, at least in part, a take about meta-takes. Fortunately, that feels like appropriate territory for an email newsletter.
For me, the slap and the reactions to it, and the reactions to those reactions, resulted in an existential crisis of sorts: to engage or not to engage? It was an incident tailor-made for online media. In January, I took a “Pitching for Freelancers,” class, where I learned that the perfect story has the following qualities:
Fresh Perspective + Peg (to a current event, media release, or other relevant happening) + Why you?
If you can identify these three elements in a story, you just might be able to sell it. At first glance, the slap has all of these elements in abundance. First, as Hunter Harris points out, everyone has a different angle on the slap, whether you were in the room or not. Since its first telecast in 1953, the Oscars have worked hard to become the international public’s most intimate evening with Hollywood stars. As a result, even the millions of us under the age of forty who only experienced the incident as a minute-long excerpt on a social media feed feel like we, too, were in the room.
For someone just starting out in media, getting a byline anywhere about anything is incredibly helpful. And the slap supported takes from every angle: something something race, something something late capitalism, something something the white gaze, something something virtue signaling. I even considered tying it to Bridgerton and The Gilded Age—you know, something something Hollywood aristocracy—but, ultimately, I didn’t want to contribute to an environment we all agree is toxic, overtrodden, and base. As Daniel Radcliffe so eloquently put it on Wednesday in a take that garnered several takes of its own, “I’m just so already dramatically bored of hearing people’s opinions about it that I just don’t wanna be another opinion adding to it.” I also just don’t type that fast.
At this point, the slap discourse is worse, both in volume and quality, than anyone could have predicted. The Intelligencer has rounded up a list of over 78 different categories of slap takes, ranging from “Will Smith could have killed someone,” to “actually, GI Jane 2 is a compliment.” The Slap has practically pushed the war in Ukraine out of the social media news cycle. Did you know that wastewater testing has found alarming increases in COVID in NYC, signaling the possibility of a BA.2 outbreak? On Monday, in freezing weather, NYC Mayor Eric Adams oversaw the removal of a homeless encampment under the Williamsburg Bridge, destroying almost all of their possessions, and then went to a party celebrating a new Wells Fargo credit card targeted at renters. Still, nothing has been able to overwhelm the slap discourse.
The thing is that, while the slap itself is likely not symbolic of anything, even if people want to project their own various polemics onto the issue, the response to the slap—whether genuine or not—captures so much of the American cultural zeitgeist. At the heart of the slap discourse is a dying industry that depends on engagement metrics for its survival and the people at the bottom of the totem pole, who need attention to thrive. Every newsworthy incident has become a miniature gold rush for both the paid and unpaid laborers of the attention economy. The bigger the controversy, the more binary, the more high-profile, and the more easily opinion divides along political axes, the bigger the shockwaves of discourse.
Likes beget likes, clicks beget clicks, and moral outrage sends us all hurtling into a vortex of ever more obscure and absurd takes, and takes on those takes. It’s a little like that scene in The Big Short, in which Selena Gomez and Behavioral Economist Richard Thaler describe the ballooning credit default swaps derivatives market, the collapse of which triggered the 2008 recession. Every time an incident of note happens, media outlets, social media celebrities, and media/celebrity hopefuls exhaust every possible angle on an issue until there are no takes left, no likes left to give, and no one left to publicly shame, cancel, or stan.
And while a lucky few of us might get a few ¢/word or viral attention, most of us get just enough dopamine to keep ourselves going through the day, a nice little clip that might revive the group chat, a temporary distraction from our boring, bullshit jobs, and a chance to unleash our aggression on the media elite.
In the short story “Speech Sounds,” Octavia Butler explores a post-apocalyptic world in which a plague has largely stripped mankind of spoken and written language. The result is a society that has descended into aggression and ignorance, with no way of expressing more than the most primal of human emotions.
Butler’s gifts for prophecy appear to have aptly described the breakdown of a society that has lost the ability to effectively communicate. And though we seem to have reached this point of regression through a kind of semantic saturation rather than through erasure, we’ve nevertheless become numb to deeper levels of inquiry and quick to act on whatever emotions a particular word or perspective inspires in us, regardless of context.
The slap represents the death of something. The death of the hot take, perhaps? The death of navel-gazing? The death of Twitter? Whatever it is, the attention economy is entering a new phase. I suspect a pendulum swing toward action over critique and reportage over reflection, which I think will be good for all of us. The fallout of the slap is a healthy reminder that not having something to say about everything isn’t a fault. More importantly, it may lead us to decide that commentary should no longer be the primary form of social discourse and might even persuade us to take on more proactive forms of engagement.
I’m speaking to myself as well, as a freelance writer trying to “make it” in the world who has felt somewhat paralyzed by the pressure to make something salable out of everything that I consume. When I was pitching my Gilded Age essay idea to a friend, I explained what I thought would be the crux of the argument—that we’ll never rise above tokenism unless we begin telling different stories. I told her I would much rather watch an entire show about a Black ingenue making her way as a writer at the New York Globe than a show that turns this character into little more than a Black best friend.
“Oh, that’s a great idea. You should write that,” she said. “You should do one of those—what do they call it—a spec script?”
It was a truly humbling moment.
Last week, I celebrated six months of Soup Season! This has been an exciting ride and I thank you all for taking the journey with me. Here’s to another wonderful six months!
This Week’s Top Five:
It wasn’t easy to find non-slap related pieces this week, but rest assured, this list is slap free:
Mary Annaise Haglar makes an argument for using science fiction to save reality.
“As we careen from crisis to crisis, it’s hard not to wonder whether the world is ending. But, for the only species with a record, for better or worse, of intentionally changing the planet, that’s a cop-out. The real question isn’t about what the world is doing, it’s about what we’re doing. It’s not whether the world is ending or beginning. It’s whether we’re creating or destroying it. And the answer is, of course, both.
The climate crisis is a crisis of many things: science, economics, politics, immigration. As the author Amitav Ghosh said, “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” To be clear, that doesn’t mean innovation or invention—we’ve got loads of ideas for solar panels and microgrids. While we have all of these pieces, we don’t have a picture of how they come together to build a new world. For too long, the climate fight has been limited to scientists and policy experts. While we need those skills, we also need so much more. When I survey the field, it’s clear that what we desperately need is more artists.”
Keke Palmer, because why not:
It looks like Amazon workers in Staten Island have won their election, earning recognition of a union that covers over 8,000 employees!
This, which I desperately want to make a veg version of: