Political and Cultural Implications of Will Smith’s Public Persona
December 1, 2016
Critical and Cultural Studies, Intercultural Communication
In the United States, celebrity culture is ubiquitous. The way celebrities are depicted and the ways in which people talk about them actively shape what audiences and fans come to know and believe about themselves and the world around them. In her recent essay, Claire Sisco King of Vanderbilt University examines the ways in which the images and personae of celebrities might help to challenge, or even revise, dominant cultural narratives.
King focuses on actor Will Smith, using a method called metonymic analysis. Strictly speaking, metonymy is a figure of speech that substitutes one word or phrase for another with which it is associated, as in Hollywood being used for the U.S. film industry. But metonymic analysis looks at more than just the words that people are using. It looks at how people interpret images, and the connotative associations people make regarding those images. For example, referencing the work of Roland Barthes, King explains, a person might look at an advertisement for Panzani pasta and associate certain foods, such as spaghetti and tomatoes, or colors, such as green and red, with “Italianicity.”
The Case of Will Smith
In her essay, King takes a close look at how Will Smith’s public persona might disrupt various associations that audiences have with race and gender in U.S. culture. First, she says, critics often dismiss Will Smith’s work because it lacks “gravitas.” King contends that this attitude risks overlooking the important role that representations of Smith may play in shaping cultural discourses. Second, as Lorrie Palmer writes, Smith’s tendency toward “deliberately integrating his star persona” and his family life into his fictional roles introduces “multiple levels of dialogue around race, visibility, and identity in the popular media imaginary.” Third, Smith’s persona has become a site of contestation. Some think he is a trailblazer, paving the way for men and women of color, while others call him a “sell-out” whose success relies on his assimilation to white culture.
King’s analysis also looks at the ways Smith’s image has been and might be deployed. In one example, the author points to a Facebook photo of Will Smith and his son Jaden at Ft. Hood in Texas. Almost everything about the photo is in black and white, except for an American flag, which is rendered in color. This stylistic choice, argues the author, implies that the only colors that matter in the United States are the patriotic red, white, and blue, advancing fantasies of the United States and the American Dream as colorblind. “While attempting to displace race from the image, the use of color also asserts the exceptionality of the United States as a land of opportunity,” explains King.
Metonymic codes in this image conjure several interpretations of Smith and his son. For example, connotations of black and white photography are timeless or classic, amplifying perceptions of Smith and Jaden as stars. The white color of their t-shirts might connote wholesomeness or innocence, just as the military setting may ascribe nobility or virtuousness. Through these interpretations, the author writes, the actors can be understood to embody and confirm narratives about equal opportunity in the U.S. culture, disavowing those structural injustices that privilege some and punish others.
While American Dream rhetoric encourages this conclusion, an oppositional reading can refute the photograph’s move toward whitewashing. Looking at race in this image of Smith among a group of white fans reveals how uncommon it is for people of color to hold positions of privilege in the United States and how often these positions depend on the approval of white audiences. “Try as it might,” King argues, “this image does not fully succeed in its efforts to displace, or even deny, the ‘color issue.’”
But this photograph doesn’t act in isolation. Its ability to confirm post-racial American Dream rhetoric comes from its position within a much larger discourse in which similar images and associations circulated. The connections among images are inherent and crucial to this type of analysis.
Movie Poster Depictions
King also points to the role of movie posters. While generally designed as disposable promotional tools for movies, these posters have “unintended longevity and mobility” as collectors’ items and home décor, as well as art for DVDs and laser and Blu-ray discs. The posters also circulate digitally, appearing on myriad online sites such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu. “Movie posters occupy an important space in the political economy of the film industry, while also doing significant cultural work,” King writes.
In the multicolored Six Degrees of Separation poster, as in images promoting The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith wears clothes that connote a version of masculinity that is widely associated with black culture: the athletic jersey and the tracksuit. However, in many of his other posters, Smith wears a different type of suit: a business suit. Examples include the posters for Enemy of the State, the entire MIB franchise, The Pursuit of Happyness, and others. Photographs of Smith wearing a dark suit abound online as well.
Typically, the business suit metonymically signifies professional success, hard work, and responsibility. The depictions of Will Smith in dark, simple, and conservative suits connote a centuries-old bourgeois norm of respectability. This stylization might influence perceptions of Will Smith as an assimilationist, or, as film critic Amy Taubin says, “probably the only African American actor in Hollywood guaranteed to be non-threatening to a white middle-class audience.”
This essay serves as an example of metonymical criticism, which King argues can destabilize cultural associations and also create new ones. She explains:
The value of metonymic criticism derives from its attention to networks of meaning that connect texts not only to each other, but also to the bodies that affect and are affected by them, including those bodies that create, circulate, inhabit, and interpret them.