March 28, 2022
I didn’t expect to be writing about the Oscars again so soon, but, as most people who follow current events probably know by now, Oscars 2022 was… exceptional. First off, I want to state I grew up in an abusive home and I do not condone hitting, especially in anger. Next, I should also disclose I’m a feminist and I’m especially sensitive to women being abused, both verbally and physically. Finally, the incident at the Oscars highlights one of my core issues, i.e., often, we only look at physical abuse while at the same time, discounting other forms of abuse, including verbal and retaliatory. The effects of which can have much greater consequences on a woman’s self-worth, career and overall well-being.
So, my take on Sunday night? Two men behaving badly.
The incident started with Chris Rock making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith being in the sequel to G.I. Jane. Because Jada has a shaved head, which she candidly shares is due to alopecia, the joke landed flat with many. Rock’s joke was seen as “punching down” on a woman with a medical condition. A comedy taboo. Nonetheless, many in the comedy world expressed outrage (and I used that term in a very literal sense) over what happened later.
Many say that because Will Smith initially seemed to laugh at the joke (while Jada rolled her eyes) he only felt the need to take action after seeing how much the joke affected her. Some even describe Jada as manipulating and Will as a puppet. I don’t ascribe to unsubstantiated personal attacks and simply won’t take up an argument which seeks to further villify a woman who was already under attack. No one other than Will and Jada knew what they were thinking in that moment and even if we had a window into their minds, it doesn’t matter.
What we do know is that Chris Rock made a joke about a Black woman’s hair. The same Chris Rock who made a documentary which featured a Black woman talking about her battle with alopecia — the same disfiguring medical condition Jada has publicly battled since 2018. The couple has laughed off every other joke made at their expense up to this point, so it’s relevant that this insult crossed a line.
Again, some contend that Chris didn’t know that Jada suffered from alopecia. Again, I take exception to the apology-making on Chris Rock’s behalf. People making excuses for abuse are nothing more than enablers. Since I have not seen a public comment from him, it’s uncertain whether he knew or not. Personally, I have a hard time believing Chris Rock, who seems to be fixated on the Smiths, constantly using them as the butt of jokes for at least the last six years, was unaware of Jada’s condition. I was aware of her condition and I’m hardly someone who keeps up on the latest celebrity gossip. If I knew, there’s a good chance people living in a cave in China knew.
Moreover, none of the second-guessing is relevant because of what actually happened. Will Smith walked onto the stage during Chris Rock’s introduction of the Best Documentary nominees and slapped him across the face. Upon returning to his seat, Smith shouted “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” Rock tried to keep the joke going with “It’s a G.I. Jane joke,” to which Smith repeated, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” as a stunned audience of celebrities looked on. When Summer of Soul was announced as the winner moments later, Questlove and his fellow nominees were robbed of a joyful victory celebration.
Around thirty minutes later, Smith was back onstage to accept his award for Best Actor and tearfully apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but not Chris Rock. That apology would have to wait until today. As of now, Chris Rock has not issued either a statement or an apology.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Rock verbally assaulting Jada, bullying her from the stage for a disfiguring medical condition. Smith slapping Rock live on television, distracting from the award winners. Both men involved, celebrities to whom a different set of rules seem to apply.
I’ve spent the day reading takes on these events and only a few of the analyses seem to have struck a balance condemning both Smith and Rock equally for their behavior. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who can reliably be called upon to offer cogent insight on social issues, gave short-shrift to Rock’s verbal abuse of Jada while singing his praises. By contrast, the essay by Jemele Hill, a Black woman, was about as spot-on as anyone could get.
Interestingly, I seem to align more with Ms. Hill’s description of the Black community’s response to the slap than with the disproportionate outrage expressed by the white community. As a white woman who has suffered abuse, perhaps I simply identify more with a marginalized group than with the privileged elites. While I’m not condoning the slap, I believe the calls for Smith to be arrested and the hyperbole about violent assault are virtue signaling and a form of cancel culture wrapped in self-righteous indignation.
If the Los Angeles Police Department arrested everyone who got slapped on Sunday night, the jails would be overflowing. I’ve been the victim of battery (the legal term for what occurred between Smith and Rock) and here’s how it went down. A woman who is slightly larger than me, and of a different race, grabbed me by the arms multiple times, shoved me down a flight of stairs and into a fence, leaving visible bruises on my body. She stole my $1,000 iPhone and hurled racial epithets at me (which would constitute verbal assault). The police arrested her, put her in handcuffs and took her to jail. She posted bail and was home the same night. Then, without contacting me, the District Attorney dropped the charges. My abuser suffered absolutely no consequences for either the physical attack or the theft of my property. So when the LAPD makes a show of Chris Rock pressing charges, this is only because of the celebrity status of both men. If this were two guys in a bar, and one guy slapped the other guy for talking shit about his wife, no one would give a fuck. (So far, no police report has been filed.)
Even within the Black community, there were polar opposite opinions as well as those trying to walk the thin line between praise and condemnation. Sunny Holston, a lawyer and co-host of The View, called the slap a “show of toxic masculinity,” while actor Tiffany Haddish praised Smith for “standing up for his wife.” In a since deleted tweet, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who also suffers from alopecia, thanked Smith and gave a shout out to “all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.” She then tweeted, “My life’s work has always been about trauma & healing. I’m a survivor — I don’t endorse violence in any form.”
What has gotten lost in the controversy is… the woman at the center of it all. Jada Pinkett Smith. After the slap heard round the world, celebrities ran to comfort him. Yes, a few came by to offer support to Jada, but most of the focus was on Will. His tears. His pain. It really puts into perspective Amy Schumer’s joke from the opening monologue, “The Williams sisters are being honored… by a movie about their Dad.”
Personally, I’ve had enough of Black women being disrespected. First, the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and now the public humiliation of Jada Pinkett Smith. It seems to be a sleaze-fest whenever men feel empowered to bully women.
Recently, Trevor Noah took up the case of Kim Kardashian being harassed by Kanye West and made a powerful case against misogyny and sexism. He set the standard all men should follow and Smith should have done the same for Jada. Instead, he sunk to Rock’s level, lost the high ground and made himself look like a thug. Even with Smith’s past trauma and regrets about not defending his mother against abuse, nobody was listening.
The Academy announced a formal investigation into the matter and issued a statement condemning violence. However, they remained silent on bullying, even though Academy bylaws forbid “any form of abuse.” In its formal review, and any other investigations into the incident, I hope the findings will be that both men are at fault. That both need to apologize. And that this sad experience can be used as a teaching moment for everyone.