Culture

Will Smith's Oscars slap has sparked some much needed conversations about toxic masculinity, ableism and more

Will Smith shocked millions after he slapped Chris Rock's face at the Oscars, marking the night as one that will go down in history.

Will Smith's strike on Oscar's host Crhis Rock left the auditorium stunned. Image: AMPAS/Screenshot

Will Smith shocked millions of viewers at Sunday’s Oscars after he interrupted a string of jokes by host Chris Rock to deliver a hard slap to the face. Rock had made a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has suffered from hair loss due to alopecia.

“Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see you alright,” the comedian said, referencing the 1997 Demi Moore film in which the actress shaved her head. 

The joke did not sit well. 

“Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” said Rock after Smith strode on stage and delivered the blow.

Amid a shocked silence in the auditorium, Smith returned to his seat and shouted, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” 

He later apologised during a tearful speech after winning his first Oscar for King Richard, but the incident sparked outrage and opened various discussions around ableism, toxic masculinity, sexism and violence. 

Ableism

Alopecia is a medical condition that results in hair loss from the scalp. Jada Pinkett Smith has been open about her struggle with alopecia on various occasions.

“It was terrifying when it first started,” she said in a May 2018 episode of her Facebook Watch series, Red Table Talk. “I was in the shower one day and had just handfuls of hair in my hands and I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, am I going bald?’”

Chris Rock made her the butt of a joke about a medical condition that has caused her pain. Not only did he do it in a room full of some of the most famous and beautiful people on the planet, but in a televised event broadcast to millions.

Content creator Sean Garrette highlighted their disgust around the issue:

“To make a hair joke when Jada is suffering from Alopecia is really kind of gross. Especially to make a joke like that in a room full of her peers. You don’t know how that may trigger her.”

Ahmed Ali, a researcher and PhD candidate, said alopecia is a condition that should not be joked about. 

“Alopecia is not a joke. Jada Pinkett Smith bravely shared her condition and doesn’t deserve the media circus that’s about to unfold.”

And the writer and columnist Amanda Parris demonstrated how alopecia affects many black women:

“Assault is wrong. Alopecia is a painful experience that many Black women go through and should not be joked about. The concept of being ‘the protector’ can be a form of toxic masculinity. Black women are rarely protected and deserve to be protected.”

Sexism 

For many women, Will’s actions undermined Jada’s agency as a woman, by not allowing her to speak up for herself.

Dr Michelle Kalehzan Human, a rights activist and clinical psychologist, said Will made it all about himself. 

“What a display,” she wrote. “As if he doesn’t know Chris Rock is a comedian and as if Jada can’t defend HERSELF. No, Will Smith had to get all attention on HIMSELF and then role models violence as the solution. What a fail. Seriously. Get over yourself man.”

Screenwriter Ramdi Mayem Singer added:

“Nice of Will Smith to want to ‘defend’ Jada, whose bald head is awesome and who can defend herself, but Chris Rock is a comic (even if it wasn’t funny). Not a good look for Will Smith at all. Should’ve kept it off stage. Sad for all of them.”

Toxic masculinity

Smith’s behaviour sparked a huge debate online about toxic masculinity. 

An ongoing issue associated with the pressure on men to maintain superiority and dominance, toxic masculinity is related to aggression, violence and misogyny. 

According to APA guidelines for Psychological Practice for Men and Boys, toxic masculinity can start from childhood and can go on to negatively impact adulthood. Perhaps surprisingly, much of the criticism came from other men, with many stating the assault was unnecessary.

“For the kids watching at home: A tasteless joke does not entitle you to assault another person. Calling this behaviour ‘manly’ is #ToxicMasculinity,” wrote Canadian businessman Thomas J. Brown, in a tweet that spread far and wide.

Carrick Ryan commented: “I feel sorry for the parents of young boys who watched their hero behave like that on Live TV”. 

Twitter user Nikki Temkin said that the incident was “all that’s wrong with Hollywood”.

Meanwhile the Women of Windsor Twitter account pointed out that Jada was capable of defending herself.

Violence 

The failure of the Academy to dismiss Will from the event caused many to ask questions about accountability for violent actions, especially given that the assault was watched on live TV by millions.

Sophie Blush, actress and activist said violence is not the answer. 

“Violence isn’t ok. Assault is never the answer. Also? This is the 2nd time that Chris has made fun of Jada on the #Oscars stage, & tonight he went after her alopecia. Punching down at someone’s auto-immune disease is wrong. Doing so on purpose is cruel. They both need a breather.”

Victims of violence in the home compared Smith’s justifications to those they’d heard from their abusers.

Domestic abuse survivor Jo said: “Will Smith acted in the heat of the moment,” Yeah? So did my boyfriend every crime [sic] he smacked me. That’s what he told me, anyway. It’s not an excuse. Don’t condone this in one breath and condemn violence against women in another.”

https://twitter.com/j0_mAmA/status/1508298899970314243

Fellow survivor Lori Mackey said it was triggering behaviour, adding: “‘Love will make you do crazy things’ a very triggering statement for those of us who have heard that same thing when our partners resort to violence.” 

Meanwhile, several American conservative commentators took the opportunity to call for Smith – who has previously vocally criticised Donald Trump – to be arrested.

“The fact that Will Smith wasn’t kicked out of the Oscars and arrested for assaulting Chris Rock shows how Hollywood allows, enables, and celebrates the very worst behaviours. Workplace violence isn’t tolerated in normal industries,” wrote media analyst Mark Dice, an upcoming online star who has been described as ‘alt-right’ by detractors.

Conservative podcaster Greg Kelly added: “Will Smith should be ARRESTED.  It’s not up to Chris Rock. The community cannot stand for this.”

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