How Smith and social media have changed the definition of normal
Let’s get the facts out of the way first. Jaden Smith, the oldest child of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, has been signed on to model womenswear for Louis Vuitton. He has appeared on his own Instagram account wearing skirts and nail polish, and his dad recently said on a BBC radio show, as lovingly as possible, that the whole hands-off parenting philosophy may have gone a bit too far.
If you’re wondering right now, “Why do we care about Jaden Smith?” the answer perfectly illustrates the great ouroboros of our digital lives. As someone like Jaden, who was born famous, gets more social media traction, this in turn makes him more famous. As a result, his social imprint gets even bigger, his influence and reach compound, and he becomes more famous still. Suddenly the snake has eaten its own tail and you can’t distinguish the end from the beginning anymore. Such is the condition of fame in the post-Twitter world. The emergence of a celebrity feels arbitrary until one day a person becomes essential and you can’t stop talking about them.
And so we find ourselves confronted with Jaden Smith and his cadre of ultra-hip, anti-glitterati friends who are feeding the mill with so much delicious grist, and perhaps most maddeningly to their detractors, not giving a damn what anyone thinks about it. On the surface, Smith and his cohort are just flaunting the greatest gifts of youth, presumed immortality and infallibility. But if you look closely it’s easy to see that Smith is just part of a greater movement toward socially conscious DIY activism among the young Hollywood set.
Preternaturally self-actualized actress Amandla Stenberg, 17, has spoken loudly and decisively about racial inequality in magazine profiles and all over social media. Tavi Gevinson is already a feminist icon, digital media entrepreneur and veteran of the publishing industry at 19. And even Jaden’s younger sister, Willow, 15, looks like she’s modeling her music career after FKA Twigs more than Beyoncé or Rihanna. Each of these young creatives is unique, but through their differences they have found community in a mutual appreciation for individualism and self-expression.
Social media didn’t invent the intellectually curious teen. It just gave them ubiquitous screens on which to broadcast their personal revolutions. As a result, two key things have happened:
If that sounds like a banal rallying cry, you’ve probably never been a young boy or girl trapped in a system that enforces binary gender norms with parents who tell them, “You’ve gone too far. It’s time to be normal again.” And not even eminently Cool Parents like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are immune from bristling when the taboo of male feminization is broken. They raised a pair of free-range kids in a house engineered to foster creativity at every turn, with live mics by a piano to record songs at a moment’s notice and painting materials, cameras and editing equipment on standby to seize upon any artistic impulse. But when it came to his son wearing women’s clothes in public, Father Smith admits his knee-jerk response was still to say, “You cannot wear a skirt.”
Jaden quickly allayed his dad’s concerns, and to the elder Smith’s great credit he seems to have quickly come around to Jaden’s avant-garde aesthetic preferences, calling him “100 percent fearless.” But this is a microcosm of the divide between gender-fluid, hyper-individual youth who are hooked up to a mainline of constantly refreshing images of self-expression from all over the world and the Olds who don’t “get” social media. Neither Smith is wrong for feeling the way he feels, but where Will represents where we come from as a nation regarding hetero-normative conventions and aggressive individuality, Jaden represents what we are moving toward.
So here’s the new truth everyone: “Normal” is over. The mainstream has dissolved into innumerable niche pockets catering to individual interests. Prediction algorithms tell us what movies and music we might enjoy. Targeted advertising presents commerce opportunities tailored to items we’ve proven that we want. We can decide who we are and how we want to define ourselves as our needs are catered to at a granular level. As a population we have proven through demand that we have a huge appetite for convenience, so the system responded by supplying us with extremely curated consumer goods. We have turned into 300 million private ecosystems.
As our codependency on that convenience has grown, we have slipped into more deeply entrenched feedback loops that tell us the items we want are the only items we need to be exposed to. The rest is just frustrating noise. So when a Jaden Smith shows up on the Internet wearing a skirt — or Miley Cyrus, 23, comes out as genderqueer or rapper Angel Haze, 23, says she is pansexual or Disney Channel actress Rowan Blanchard, 15, gives an address to the UN about gender equality — it disrupts the sense of “normal” expected by (typically older) people who aren’t about that hashtag life.
So, yes, Jaden Smith is a niche figure, but to dismiss his quiet activism or anyone else’s as youthful folly is a gross underestimation. And it’s just completely behind the times. Once a conversation hits the analyst circuit, the topic immediately expands beyond the focal point of the person with which it originated. Right now we are talking about Jaden Smith, but then again, we’re not talking about Jaden Smith at all. He’s not a martyr for a cause. He’s a 17-year-old boy feeling out his identity. The biggest difference between Will Smith‘s kids and yours is the size of the financial cushion they have to fall back on. That could fool you into dismissing his actions as a privilege move, but really what it means is that he has the platform to reach more people with his innate celebrity appeal. And when more people get the message that progressive is good, everyone wins.
So even though you probably don’t follow Jaden Smith on Instagram (search: christiangrey) — unless you’re a media professional or a media junkie — there’s a good chance that your kids or your little siblings or your nieces and nephews do. And that’s a good thing, because when they see a boy in a skirt who became influential enough to spur 100 think pieces, they might find the gateway to a community they didn’t even know they were searching for in the first place. And before you shift uncomfortably in your seat, remember: Thinking someone’s decisions are in poor taste doesn’t make them wrong.
Three years ago, Will and Jaden Smith sat for a joint interview with New York magazine to promote their upcoming (and terrible) movie “After Earth.” The article spawned 1,000 pull quotes and included Jaden using the term “multidimensional math,” but it also had Will sharing his philosophy on parenting, “You can choose anything that you want to do, anything you want to be, and you can decide you want to act crazy and run around. I respect your ability to choose a life for yourself.”
To make “The Jaden Conversation” entirely about gender fluidity — or entirely about him — is to miss the point, because it’s about all kinds of fluidity. It’s about people of all ages and backgrounds choosing a life for themselves and using the social sharing tools at their disposal to cement those choices in time and find community in what makes us different. So go find your sub-Reddit and stop obsessing about the mainstream, because it’s about to dry up entirely.