For such a random pop culture moment, there are a surprising amount of nuances to the Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars™ conversation.
It feels strange to summarize an event that’s already been discussed to death in the media, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the rundown: at the recent Oscars, comedian Chris Rock made a rather a distasteful joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s haircut that caused her husband, Best Actor winner Will Smith, to get up from his seat and slap Chris Rock.
The public reaction to the slap was overwhelmingly one of bewilderment – for many people, especially white people, Will Smith was viewed as family-friendly, genial, safe. Through magazine covers, interviews, and heartfelt movies, Will managed to position himself in opposition to racial stereotypes that portray Black men as violent and anti-family. But by slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, Will disrupted the public’s idea of who he was as a person. Hollywood wasn’t just scandalized that night, but devastated; White America lost their favorite Black man.
Before anyone offers up any judgment of Will’s actions, there are a few pieces of context worth consideration. In his newly published memoir, Will, Smith expounds upon his childhood and growing up in a home plagued by domestic abuse. What’s particularly relevant here is his revelation that he still harbors guilt after witnessing his mother being abused and failing to take action. “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood,” he wrote. “Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and the attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day.” In no way do I cite this very personal admission as a means to pathologize Will, but rather to possibly explain what may have colored Will’s decision to defend his wife in the manner that he did. His wife was under attack, and thus, he jumped in to protect her.
As a Black woman, my initial reaction to the slap was one of jubilation. Misogynoiristic sentiments in the media have only seen an uptick in the past few years with the introduction of social media as a vehicle to spread these views in a faster, more accessible way. We can look to comedy as a perfect example of how men – and for the purposes of my argument, Black men – center Black women as the subjects of their jokes. Typing in the term, “snatching weaves” on any search engine results in numerous videos of Black women being humiliated publicly as men, many of them Black, proceed to put their hands on these women and exploit their justifiably angry reactions for laughs (Many of these videos accumulate thousands of views.). Movies like the “Madea” series and its similar offsprings such as “Norbit” show Black men dressing up as women and parading harmful stereotypes. And if we examine the career of Chris Rock specifically, you’ll find old clips that parrot similarly archaic beliefs about Black women.
Black men and Black women are grappling with an ever-growing divide that is only worsened when Black men act as perpetrators in the harm of Black women. So to see Will Smith defend his wife so loudly, stand up against jokes that poke fun at the sensitive relationship between Black women and their hair, it felt like justice. It felt as if Will Smith was responding to a call that Black women have been screaming for: protect us. Show up for us.
But after sitting with this event for the past few days, and interrogating my own reaction, I began to wonder why I was celebrating violence as a means for justice. That very notion – that violence can and should be used to serve accountability – is what is used to uphold systems like the death penalty, the same notion used by abusers who attack their partners.
What’s sad, and mildly ironic, is that in the media circus that has occurred since the slap, one person has somehow been forgotten: Jada Pinkett-Smith. Apologies have been issued, but not one person has acknowledged Jada, whose condition was exploited in front of a global audience. I wonder if Jada — the true victim of this situation – was comfortable with how Will chose to defend her in that moment. I wonder if Will’s reaction was truly that of a man determined to protect his wife, or that of a man trying to assert his masculinity after being repeatedly stripped of it by the media in the past few years.
That last question is especially relevant when we look at how Will and Jada’s marriage has been dissected after the revelation that Jada engaged in an “entanglement” with musician August Alsina. When the couple sat down together on Jada’s show, “Red Table Talk”, defending themselves from allegations that Jada cheated and explaining that the relationship occurred during a period in which they were amicably separated, the internet responded with jokes that casted Will as weak and Jada as a villain. Will was memed for showing emotion and made out to be a lesser man for allowing his wife to “step out” on their marriage without consequence. Jada was treated with a similar vitriol as critics attacked her for what they viewed to be a habitual lack of regard for Will and their marriage. I attribute these reactions to the fact that most heterosexual men cannot comprehend a relationship in which a woman is allowed autonomy. They cannot comprehend love if it does not resemble a patriarchal framework.
That is not to say that Jada’s relationship with August Alsina is free from critique; their age difference of 21 years, coupled with August’s battles with illness, illustrate a clear imbalance of power that deserves necessary reproach. But the bombardment of attacks Jada faced then and now show that Black women are forever scrutinized, even in situations in which we act rationally. Jada has not said a word since the Oscars, yet media outlets are publishing quotes from unnamed sources that are providing even more fuel to critics that are determined to make her the villain in a situation in which she was victimized.
Though The Slap™ was a largely inconsequential event to regular people like you and me, it does beg a very important question – what does it look like to protect Black women from harm in a way that does not reinforce violent notions of accountability? Perhaps that is something that should be articulated more extensively by someone a lot smarter who can comprehend these ideas in a way my 17 year old, inexperienced brain cannot. But until then, let’s continue to call out misogynoir when we see it.