Well now, nobody saw that coming. Even when Will Smith got out of his seat at the Oscars and made his way across the stage to Chris Rock, Rock was laughing and said “uh-oh.” It all felt jovial — staged, even.
But then Smith walloped Rock with an open-handed slap and Rock was visibly shaken. “Wow, dude,” he exclaimed. “It was a G.I. Jane joke.” Smith twice yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fuckin’ mouth.” It was weird, awkward, uncomfortable, and honestly very silly.
The joke in question, told by Rock, was crap. Jada Pinkett Smith, Smith’s wife, has been suffering with alopecia, an autoimmune disease leading to hair loss. She’s been very public on social media about the issue, in order to help raise awareness. As a result, she has shaved her hair down to the scalp. In addition, she wore a green outfit at the Oscars. So when Rock yelled at her, “GI Jane 2 – can’t wait to see it,” it was in poor taste but it also simply wasn’t funny. It was low-hanging fruit and, in making fun of a medical condition, he was punching down.
Many people have pointed to Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes stints, when he was making fun of everyone in the room. But as far as I recall, he only ever punched up. He was making fun of rich people for being rich, for their acting chops, and in certain cases for crimes they commited. Gervais knows the difference. Rock apparently doesn’t.
That said, in attacking Rock on stage and changing the tone of the event to something dark for the other people who won awards, Smith can’t be excused. Violence should never be the answer (although in American culture, that rings hollow). At the time of writing, Pinkett Smith hasn’t said anything publicly and I could be wrong here, but I doubt that she sees Smith’s act as something chivalrous. She was clearly hurt by the joke, probably furthered by the fact that Rock has gone after her for years. But it’s unlikely she condones the violence.
Rock does have the right to make fun of the celebrities in the room. It’s one of the prices they pay for the public spotlight. But the minute Rock aimed his tongue at a medical condition, it went from “joke” to “bullying.” There are no sacred cows in comedy, but comedians are not above repercussions either. Just not violent ones. What Smith did was toxic, and it was assault. It was a crime, and he’s very fortunate that, at the moment at least, it appears that Rock isn’t going to pressing charges. It could have been (and potentially could still be) very expensive for Smith.
Smith can’t be excused. But damn, the explosion of pearl-clutching on the internet has been laughable. We saw a multi-millionaire slap — not punch, mind you, but open-hand slap — another multi-millionaire in a room full of multi-millionaires and the world has reacted with something approaching hysteria (and no small amount of racism). The normally level-headed Judd Apatow said that Smith “could have killed” Rock with the slap which, while strictly speaking true if there was a pre-existing condition or something, is very unlikely.
What Smith did was very wrong but some perspective is necessary. He was defending his wife, however misguided. If Pinkett Smith had cancer and Rock made the same joke, would the reaction on the internet be any different?
Also, some have pointed to the Smiths’ past marital issues, potential infidelities, and reports that they have an “open marriage” as proof that Will Smith only got defensive “for the camera.” I would argue that one thing has nothing to do with the other.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, an NYC Neuropsychologist, released a statement about the incident:
“Will Smith, on edge because of his Oscar buzz and the understandable anxiety, certainly behaved out of character. However, it wasn’t impulsive. He is not an impulsive man. He had copped a lot of ridicule by other men online over his wife’s affair which may have made him feel emasculated or embarrassed. But he didn’t slap any of those guys.The slap, apart from an unfortunate incident between two of Hollywood’s respected (not to mention, black) royalty, may have been a culmination of winning back his masculinity, or a show of strength in his marriage. Will Smith, is a personal icon to me, for so many reasons, not the least, his decent behavior in the spotlight for decades. Slapping another great the way he did, undid so much of that, and I am still reeling for my fallen hero.”
Smith may be better known as an actor nowadays, but at one point he was as well known for his music and so he should know better (of course, as the producer of the documentary Good Hair, Rock should have known better too). Pantera fans don’t need reminding that guitarist Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed on stage during a show. Comedian Kathy Griffin took to social media to express fears for comics in the wake of this latest incident — waiting for the “next Will Smith.” And of course she’s right.
“Let me tell you something, it’s a very bad practice to walk up on stage and physically assault a Comedian. Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters,” she said.
Let me tell you something, it’s a very bad practice to walk up on stage and physically assault a Comedian.— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) March 28, 2022
Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.
At the end of the day, it’s very simple. As the husband of a disabled woman, I know how hard it would be to keep my fists by my side should somebody joke about her MS from a stage. But I also know that I have to, that violence is never the answer. We can be human but stern. If Smith wanted to make his feelings known publicly, he could have booed Rock, he could even have yelled what he yelled (I’m done with the pearl-clutching about — gasp — swearing at the Oscars). Then afterwards, he could have spoken to Rock privately and mentioned the indignity thrust on his wife during his speech, or in a statement afterwards. He was right to be angry. Just not to slap. Will Smith had a weak moment and he should have known better. The court of public opinion will have its say. And then he’ll probably go back to polishing his Oscar.