by Zoe Stratos | opinions editor
March 31, 2022
Immediately after Sunday’s Academy Awards, one moment took the spotlight from the winners of the night fueling a multi-faceted controversial debate: the Will Smith slap heard around the world.
The moment started as Chris Rock taking the stage to present the award for best documentary, but he took a detour — as many comedians do — to make a joke. Rock latched onto Jada Pinkett Smith, joking that he was looking forward to seeing her in “G. I. Jane 2,” — a reference to a hypothetical sequel to the 1997 movie in which Demi Moore shaved her head.
The reason for the immediate outrage is Pinkett Smith’s diagnosis of alopecia. She has been transparent about her diagnosis on Red Table Talk in 2018, yet was unamused at the gag. It’s no surprise the comedian made the low-blow joke, many over the past few years have been “canceled” for their insensitivity — it’s a fine line they have to tread in the profession.
However, there are many takeaways from the moment: Rock shouldn’t have made the joke, Smith shouldn’t have slapped him and Pinkett Smith deserved better behavior from both men.
This isn’t the first time Rock has made a joke at the Oscars at the Smiths’ expense, commenting on their boycott from the event in 2016, and voicing that they weren’t even invited in the first place.
But the real insensitivity came at this year’s Academy Awards, when he personally violated Pinkett Smith over her hair loss on live TV. Black hairstyles, throughout the course of history, have been the butt of public jokes and negative public discourse. They’ve often been painted as “unprofessional” in the workplace or “inappropriate” in schools.
With that said, hair is a main contributor to Black cultural identity. Being that Pinkett Smith has alopecia, she immediately lost access to that form of self expression. Why would Rock, a Black man himself, make a joke about a Black woman’s hair?
The joke becomes even harder to understand knowing that Rock was involved with a 2009 documentary called Good Hair, which discussed the ways in which Black hairstyles are stigmatized in western society.
He explained the reasoning for why he wanted to make the documentary was when his daughter asked him: “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” The vulnerable moment with his daughter sparked the idea, and he spent time visiting hair salons and stylist competitions, and speaking to multiple Black women and experts during the production of the documentary.
The joke was a regression for Rock’s support, Pinkett Smith’s progress in normalizing alopecia and the entire Black community’s attempts to bring positive attention to their culture.
Unfortunately, Will Smith’s reaction to the situation wasn’t warranted either. What seemed on the surface like an attempt to defend his wife and the culture, turned into a poor display of toxic masculinity — and minor violence, of course.
Now, there’s no denying that people should stand up for Black women, especially those with a disease, but the display of “manhood” in the form of violence on a woman’s behalf is retrogressive, and may not have been what Pinkett Smith wanted or needed at that moment.
Smith’s act only brought greater attention to the unmemorable joke, which probably would’ve gone by the wayside after a comment or two from Pinkett Smith to the press. Unfortunately, if Pinkett Smith acted out like her husband, she most likely would have been plagued with the “angry Black woman” trope.
To make matters even worse, the Academy Awards cameramen caught Smith laughing at the joke, until he saw the look on Pinkett Smith’s face.
On top of that, Smith revealed in his memoir that he witnessed domestic violence as a child, including when he witnessed his father punch his mother. The display was both shocking, and seemingly uncharacteristic of Smith. Like Rock, his sour taste for [domestic] violence in prior conversations has all been reversed in this moment.
The situation also made for an uncomfortable acceptance speech for Questlove, the winner of the award, and another Black man.
Although the moment itself was preventable, and in all honesty shouldn’t have happened, it also opened up conversations once again in so many ways. Whether it be insensitivity, Black culture or violence, there’s a lot of progress to be made in our society.