When Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock, Did He Consider What Jada Pinkett Smith Wanted?

[First published in Women’s Web]

The Oscar Awards, 2022 will not be remembered for the Best Movie, the Best Actor(s) or the Best Director. It will go down in history as the ceremony where a Best Actor nominee slapped the person anchoring the show.

By now, we would have all heard the sexist, ableist and distinctly unfunny “joke” that Chris Rock cracked about Jada Pinkett Smith and her struggle with Alopecia. And we would certainly have seen Will Smith stride onto the stage, place a resounding slap on Rock and continue to utter profanities well after he returned to his seat. Maybe we would have heard Will Smith’s speech after accepting the Award for Best Actor, where he said that “love makes you do crazy things.”

The so called joke made fun of a medical condition, and was in extremely poor taste. Thankfully, nobody is defending the crass joke, but there are still three main reactions-
- People defending Will Smith for “protecting the honour of his family”
- People condemning Will Smith for resorting to a public act of violence, instead of calling it out with words
- People calling out the people calling out Will Smith, though their reasons for doing so are not clear
Let us leave the last category out, and look at just the first two.

The people in the second category agree that the “joke” was sexist and ableist, and that ideally it should never have been cracked. However, they firmly believe that violence is not an appropriate response, and that if Will Smith wanted to be seen as doing something, he should have taken the mike and called out Chris Rock in no uncertain terms. As a public figure, Will Smith is, willy-nilly, a role model for young people, and this sends out the message that violence is justified when you perceive that the honour of “your” woman has been questioned.

Will Smith’s acceptance speech after winning the Award for Best Actor, they say, is quite problematic too. While he apologised to the Academy and the other nominees for the violence, when he said, “love makes you do crazy things”, he was in a sense justifying the act of violence. Violence is never an answer, yet Will Smith’s action and subsequent reaction send out a clear message that when you perceive that the honour of your family is threatened, you are allowed to indulge in acts of violence.

The people in the first category are drawing on their own experience of times when they were called upon to defend their loved ones to justify what Will Smith did. Though they say that they will not themselves slap someone in public, they argue that when you are enraged, you can be excused for over-reacting. There are people who are sharing stories of their loved ones who suffered from the same medical condition to tacitly justify his action. What this category of people doesn’t seem to recognise is that nobody is denying Will Smith’s right to be enraged; all that people are questioning is the manner in which he acted on that anger.

There is no justification for the physical and verbal violence unleashed by Will Smith, and people defending the action do not seem to be aware of the strong message that he has sent out to young people. Also, the only reason he was able to get away with it was because he is a top actor who was nominated for Best Actor- had it been a relatively unknown person, would the organizers or the audience be as charitable in defending him?

If you look closely at the video, you see that when Chris Rock cracked the “joke”, Will Smith’s immediate reaction was to laugh. The camera was panning him, and he was enjoying the moment. It was only when he saw Jada Pinkett Smith roll her eyes and glare at him that his smile disappeared and he got up and strode to the stage. While it is possible that the laughter was not because he found the “joke” funny, but because the ‘Bro Code’ kicked in, the fact that he laughed undermines his future action- if you laughed at a “joke”, do you have the moral right to object to someone else cracking it?

“Don’t you want a partner who will defend you the way Will Smith defended his wife?”, some people ask.

Actually, no. I do not want a partner who first laughs at a ‘joke’ made at my expense, and then flexes his muscles to defend me.

What Will Smith did was indulge in toxic masculine behaviour. By walking up and punching Chris Rock he behaved exactly like men throughout history have behaved when they perceive that their property is in danger. He didn’t really care about what Jada Pinkett Smith wanted — at that moment all he wanted to do was to show the world what a wonderful man *he* was, and how well he could protect *his* wife.

That was certainly not how Jada Pinkett Smith would have wanted to deal with the issue. Her eyeroll was evocative. She would have certainly followed it up by either a sound byte, or an article or an interview where she would have spoken about the medical condition and how such jokes were inappropriate. The focus would have been on the condition and how such jokes were insensitive and potentially triggering. By choosing to walk up and punch Chris Rock, Will Smith actually appropriated his wife’s pain and made it about himself.

In his Acceptance Speech after winning the Oscar, though Will Smith apologised for the violence, he justified it by saying “but, love will make you do crazy things”. As an A-list celebrity who is a role model for young people, Will Smith should be aware of the impact of a statement like that. “It is love that made me do it”, is the standard excuse used by every perpetrator of domestic violence. By saying it on a global stage, Will Smith provided legitimacy to the standard excuse, and that is something women do not need.

The entire incident has exposed the fault line in how men perceive women. Unlike what men believe, women do not need knights in shining tuxedos to save them. Women are perfectly capable to defending themselves; all that they want from men is for men to back them up when required. Men, if they want to be allies, should take cues from women instead of appropriating their struggle for personal glory.

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Natasha Ramarathnam

Mother | Education | Youth empowerment | Gender rights | Civic Action | Book slut | At home everywhere | Dances in the rain | Do it anyway | Surprised by Joy