For many years, a major function of the split screen in unscripted TV has been to set up a gladiatorial relationship between the speakers. They may be geographically and ethically removed, yet the split screen hinges them together. One of the most infamous split screens in 21st-century American television involved two people sitting a table-length from each other. It is catalogued in the glossary of Ladies Who Punch, Ramin Setoodeh’s book about the morning talk show The View, as the “split-screen incident” of 2007.
During cohosts Rosie O’Donnell and Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s increasingly heated argument about the Iraq War, the audience at home got a view of both women at once. This technique had never before been used during the show’s “Hot Topics” segment. When O’Donnell noticed what was happening on a monitor, Setoodeh reports, she became even angrier. The aggression of the format was arguably more upsetting to her than the content of the fight. “When I saw the split screen,” O’Donnell said later in a video on her website, “I knew it was over.”
Since then, split screens have become relatively simple to produce outside the professional studio. On social media, “reaction videos,” in which people film themselves responding to a piece of embedded video, are a popular variation on the genre. Users might react to a makeup tutorial, a news clip, or their first time listening to a vintage hit. These videos imply that all the world really is a stage. Both a performance and the experience of that performance are performed, side by side. Reaction videos dramatize the intense self-consciousness of our digital age, which continually invites us to place ourselves inside an event, to individualize mass, pop-cultural moments with our comments, our emojis, our tweets, and our blissed-out grimaces to Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
While reaction videos cleave an artwork into its substance and its effects, the split screen is also being used on social media for the purposes of political activism. One recent viral video by Momentum, an organization affiliated with the UK’s Labour Party, sets footage of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden’s various announcements about her successful pandemic strategy alongside those of the UK government, which currently presides over the worst death toll in Europe. On the topic of herd immunity, Arden says: “That would have meant tens of thousands of New Zealanders dying, and I simply would not tolerate that.” Cut to the right-hand side of the screen-cum-boxing ring, where British prime minister Boris Johnson “replies” with the idea that “perhaps we could sort of take it on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population.”
This kind of split screen, where one side is paused while the other side rolls, is a powerful rhetorical device. It’s adversarial, of course, engineered to allow one side all the wisdom and the other all the folly, but a similar use of the split screen places people in combat with themselves. The Washington Post produced a devastating set of split screens in a video called “How Fox’s Coronavirus Rhetoric Has Shifted.” The compilation compared various anchors’ commentary early in the second week of March (“worst-case scenario it could be the flu”) with what they said less than 10 days later (“we are facing an incredibly contagious virus”).
In this way, the split screen has become a significant tool in exposing hypocrisy, especially when it manifests as political cynicism and expediency. How easy it is now, with the great database of tweets at our disposal, to set a politician’s former condemnations of a rival against their present-day fawning (or vice versa). In an age of political denial and the brazen rewriting of recent history, the split screen is a vital tool of resistance. Just as it brings people together across geographical distance, it also tethers the past to the present, creating a timeless space in which they coexist.