You Don’t Know Celebrities

In the aftermath of Will Smith’s infamous slap, I’ve heard and read remarks that basically boil down to, “I just didn’t think Will Smith of all people would do that. He’s such a nice guy.” I’ve blogged about this before (five years ago, when Joss Whedon turned out to be far from a shining example of awesome), but it bears repeating: unless you’ve spent significant time around someone, you don’t know them. (And honestly, even if you *have* spent significant time around someone, you still don’t necessarily know them.)

In the case of celebrities, all you really know is the persona they project onto the world. True, some of them seem to be more “authentic” than others. Kanye tweets enough to make you fairly sure who he is in person. Same for Donald Trump. See enough off-the-cuff remarks by people (especially people with filter), and you can begin to get a feel for who that person is, especially when those off the cuff remarks leave a significantly bad impression. Most people don’t try to project a persona that’s actually worse than their true self.

But for everything else? You’re typically seeing a slice of that person that they want you to see. Whether it’s attending charity events, or visiting sick kids in a hospital, or joking around at a public performance. We see little glimpses here and there, and we feel like we can fill in the blanks between those glimpses, so that we get to the point where these celebrities no longer feel like strangers. They’re friends.

Will Smith seemed like a genuinely good person, from what I’d seen of him. He played funny characters in movies and on television. He always seemed to be more or less the same when we saw him. And yes, we all have bad days, but I’m not sure we all have “I got up on stage in front of millions of people and slapped someone because they insulted someone I love” days. I mean, I love Denisa, but I don’t think I have it in me to ever ever (ever) respond that way to someone making a joke at her expense. (Sorry, Denisa.)

People are talking about how they admire Smith for sticking up for his wife. At first, I tended to believe that as well. But the more I think about it, the less I accept that. There are so many other things he could have done. He could have stood up and left the room. He could have scowled at Chris Rock. He could have waited until he won his Oscar, and then told everyone how much he loves his wife, and how petty it was to make fun of someone because of a medical condition. (Or any other reason, honestly.)

Should Chris Rock have made the joke? I’d say no, but then again, he made it at the expense of a movie star. Someone who makes millions of dollars to be out there, for better or worse. It comes with the territory, sadly, and it’s not something Smith hadn’t encountered before. But none of that really matters, in terms of how Smith responded.

He might have always seemed like a good person, but the fact is, he’s now proven himself to be a person who’s ready to do exactly what he did. And then after the slap, when the Academy asked him to leave, he refused, apparently convinced he wasn’t the one at fault. (Or at least, the fault was on both parties.) And then he stood up and tearfully explained how he was trying to protect someone he loves. Then he got a standing ovation for it.

At the time, I felt sorry for him. My knee jerk reaction was to justify what he’d done, and I think that’s because (even though I try not to) I felt like I knew him. Will Smith wouldn’t do something like that unless it was very necessary. I don’t like Chris Rock (or at least, the persona he wears in public). So I wanted Rock to be wrong and Smith to be right. And because all of this happened in the setting of movie-land, it was perhaps a bit easier to justify what had happened. It’s the sort of thing that might happen in a film.

But what if that had happened in front of me? What if I were in the middle of a work meeting, and someone said something someone else disagreed with strongly, and that person stood up, marched over to the speaker, and slapped them? I have a hard time seeing how that would ever be acceptable.

If someone is attacking you first? Sure. Defend yourself. But to respond to insults with violence? No.

I’m not sure what the fallout for Smith will end up being. Since it’s Hollywood, probably not much. Mel Gibson still has acting roles, after all. Though then again, Smith did this against Hollywood itself in many ways, and that might be enough to make him a pariah. But one thing’s for sure: there are a whole lot of people who no longer view Will Smith as Mr. Nice Guy.

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