Home Egalitarianism Will Smith: The Slap; and the Scapegoat of Masculinity and Race

Will Smith: The Slap; and the Scapegoat of Masculinity and Race

by Catherine
will smith slapping chris rock

As you all know by now, at the 2022 Oscars, Will Smith walked on stage and slapped the host, Chris Rock, in the face.

In case you’re one of the few people left on Earth who aren’t aware of what I’m talking about; Chris Rock made a joke at the expense of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, at the Oscar’s. In his joke, Rock made a reference to GI Jane, regarding Jada’s current shaven head, which is due to a medical condition, called Alopecia.

This is a condition that can have several causes. It’s well recognized by medical professionals to cause the sufferer great distress. Jada Pinkett Smith has openly shared how her struggle with the condition has affected her mental health.

Upon hearing the joke aimed at his wife, Will Smith got up on stage and dispensed a swift slap in the face to Chris Rock. Afterwards, Will then shouted from his seat in the audience “Keep my wife’s name out of your f*#king mouth!”

Will Smith Lambasted for Chris Rock Slap

Since the incident, Will Smith has been lambasted right, left and center for his behavior. The media has largely been promoting stories and narratives shaming Will and labelling him as a “violent, aggressive, black man”. News outlets have been publishing stories citing Will’s violent father and troubled childhood as reasons for his “display of toxic masculinity”. With others claiming that his behavior was misogyny, misogynoir and toxic masculinity defined.

The internet is currently littered with articles bashing Will Smith and blaming toxic masculinity for “derailing the Oscars.”

For example:

Fortune.com published a piece called:

“Toxic masculinity’ derailed the Oscars from the achievements that really mattered” by Emma Hincgliffe & Paige McGlaufin.

While I must make it clear that I do not condone physical violence of any kind – no one, should – I can’t help but feel as if journalists and feminists are using this incident as more fuel for their fire to crucify men upon the proverbial cross of “toxic masculinity”.

Feminists have jumped on this like vultures circling, who finally saw their opportunity to swoop. And my God, have they swooped.

As this incident was so high profile, it has real implications for men and black men everywhere; so stay tuned, while I unpick this multi-layered topic and attempt to offer some balance to a seemingly already very, one-sided debate.

Will Smith: A Toxic Male?

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

                                               

I’ll repeat again, that I am definitely against physical violence. However, I do think that this matter needs to be considered; in context.  

Firstly, Will Smith has been on our screens and in the public eye now for several decades. You might remember when he first burst on the scene as The Fresh Prince of Belair, in 1990. Since then he has given us classics like Men in Black, I Am Legend and too many more to name.

Therefore, Will Smith has lived quite a public life and we have seen him on TV, in films, interviews and most recently on The Red Table Talk (RTT); a meaningful podcast conducted with his whole family, which looks at issues around mental health, spirituality, trauma and healing etc.

My point is, that given his long spanning, very public career, we have all had access to the character of Will Smith to some degree, for a long time. If Will Smith was some abusive, violent, aggressive, male; which the media are currently portraying him as, would we not have had a glimpse of this before now? I mean, across a thirty-year period of living life in the public eye, working at several studios with multiple crews, actors and colleagues; if Will Smith was the “toxic man” that some are currently claiming him to be, would we not have had some clues?

Will Smith Is NOT a “Toxic” Male

In fact, the reality of Will Smith is far from this negative, masculinity, and race bashing narrative, that is currently surrounding him. Will Smith is a family man, he has been married to the same woman for over twenty years. He has three beautiful children, who he has also worked with regularly in public.  Furthermore, as an avid follower of his family podcast The Red Table Talk (RTT) I, along with millions, have witnessed him tackle extremely personal, challenging topics, in the most open and authentic way.

If you are not familiar with the RTT, I sincerely suggest that you check it out, because, I , along with many other psychological professionals, recognize it as facilitating one of the most, modern, healthy spaces on the internet, for personal development and growth; which is especially inclusive of gender, age and race.

Furthermore, I have been humbled and severely impressed by the level of vulnerability that Will Smith has demonstrated on the RTT, long before this incident. On multiple occasions, he has signified what a great father, a great husband, son and son-in-law looks like on the show. On RTT, Will has highlighted the beauty of masculinity, in all of its strength, power and vulnerability.

So, are we now saying that this thirty year plus testimony of character has all evaporated into toxic masculinity over night?

And why are more people not questioning what would provoke such an otherwise calm, humorous, family man who publicly seeks balance and self-improvement; to lash out in such a way?

A Protective Partner Reacting in Defense?

Could it be that this was not the reaction of “an angry, toxic, black man” but, that this was the reaction of a loving, protective, partner?

Why is it that Will and Jada are expected to sit and face public humiliation, on what is a very personal, sensitive, health issue? Why is this not more of a discussion here?

Alopecia is a medical condition that is often related to mental health, both as a cause and a consequence. For anyone, a man or a woman, hair loss can be a very upsetting, difficult issue. And in this instance, we have a woman who is facing the issue, and not just any woman, but a woman who is very much in the public eye, where her appearance is scrutinized.

Furthermore, there are additionally, complex, deeper sensitivities relating to race and culture here, surrounding a black woman’s hair, which I personally do not feel qualified to comment on, but I feel that this point should be acknowledged, for context.

However, this cultural sensitivity around black women’s hair is something that Chris Rock would be aware of, especially as he has two daughters, one of which even inspired him to make a film about the subject, called Good Hair.

Will Smith has been supporting Jada with this issue for some time now and he has personal knowledge of her private struggle behind closed doors, of which we do not, and should not, be aware of. Therefore, he has witnessed her pain, her emotions and he was aware of the courage that it must have taken for his wife to step out at such a public fan-fair, that is the Oscar’s.

So, can you imagine, for one second, how Will must have felt to sit there and see everyone laughing at her expense?

Honestly, I don’t think that this was a demonstration of toxic masculinity at all, nor was it the actions of an “angry black man”. It was the actions of a protective, loving partner – gender and race are not relevant here.

I can honestly say that if I was sitting in that audience and the host began mocking my husband’s struggle with hair loss and mental health; I’d be inclined to do the same.

But somehow, as a white, female, slapping a male on stage, I doubt that I would have received an inch of the backlash that Will Smith has. In fact, I would probably have been congratulated.

The Double Scapegoat or Race and Masculinity

Photo by Oluwakemi Solaja on Unsplash

However, not only has Will had to face a backlash for his gender and apparent, “toxic masculinity”; he also appears to be getting punished for his race.

Journalists and activists across America have added an additional layer of blame onto Will Smith, because not only was he a man who reacted aggressively to a provocation; no, he was a black man who reacted aggressively to a provocation. It’s almost as if the media and society can’t decide between themselves which is worse!?

Some have even accused Will Smith of letting down the black community as a whole, claiming that he has given racists more ammunition to say look, “even their icon’s” are “angry black men”. However, somehow, it seems so wrong to lay the weight of the reputation of an entire race of people, upon one man’s head. Furthermore, to place that weight upon one 20 second slap; which seems to have eclipsed a thirty year career; certainly doesn’t seem fair or balanced.    

An Unequal Society: Both for Men and Black Men

In my opinion, both of these views highlight deep inequalities within our society; both towards men, and also towards black men. The fact is that men these days are constantly being put down, judged and shamed for being; men. Once upon a time, Will Smith would have been praised for his actions and hailed as a gentleman.

But the rise of critical feminist attitudes towards men has now turned all of that on its head, and instead, men are now criticized for attempting to hold a door open for a woman, and accused of Benevolent Sexism; never mind trying to protect her dignity.

It seems as if men can’t do right by women these days, they’re “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”. I can assure you that if Will Smith had have done absolutely nothing; that he still would have faced criticism from women and society for that too.

And as for the inclusion of the “angry, black, man” stereotype in discussions around this incident; this has just further revealed hidden racism, as it has shown how quickly society is to blame someone’s behavior on their race. The fact is that black people today are forced to live in such a way where they must be constantly careful to placate themselves, in order to not appear as “angry or threatening” to their white counterparts.

It’s even been scientifically proven that American’s tend to perceive black men of the same size and stature, as comparable white men; to be more aggressive and threatening

It makes you wonder; who really has the issue here?

Keeping Things in Perspective

Furthermore, I think it’s important to note, that for all of the talk about the use of “violence and physical aggression”, that Will Smith “slapped” Chris Rock in the face, once, with the flat of his hand, and walked away. While, of course we should not be placing our hands on anyone; it’s not as if Will Smith wrestled Chris Rock to the floor or repeatedly punched him; no punching was involved. Even, in law, the use of the flat of the hand in assault cases is noted as a lesser aggressive act.

Yes, it was still physical violence, which is wrong, but was what Chris Rock said not a form of verbal violence?

Can many of us really say, that if we were in the exact same position, that we would not have felt similar feelings to Will Smith? Regardless of gender or race..

Chris Rock held all the power in that moment, everyone knew that the world was watching, and up there upon the biggest stage on earth, he chose to single out and mock someone struggling with a genuine health condition.

And yet, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith were expected to “take it” to sit there quietly and smile, pretending it was ok.

The Real Culprit: The Toxic Culture of Hollywood

I actually found it quite sad to read Will Smith’s statement, in which he apologized for his behavior, and in which he also stated that he knew “it was part of the job” to face jokes at his own expense. But, should it really be part of anyone’s job to have to sit and watch the person that they love be humiliated in front of the world? Really.

Having worked in the film industry myself, sadly, I can concur that actors are expected to accept this skewed mind-set, that because they are in the public eye, they must also accept being mocked and belittled for the entertainment of the masses; no matter how private or personal the issue.

Somehow, in 2022 this doesn’t seem right. Thankfully though, this is one of the several issues that this incident has shone a light on.

In my opinion, the incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars has created an opportunity. An opportunity to highlight the skewed, unfair and unequal perspectives, of the media and society towards masculinity and race.  

Masculinity and race are being used as scapegoats in this instance; when the real culprit here is an unhealthy, toxic culture that exists within the film industry itself.

If anything, this has highlighted the lack of respect and boundaries around mental and physical health within the industry. Respect for such issues should be standard practice, no matter what your job is or how famous you are.

In fact, it’s even part of employment law, that employees should be treated with dignity and respect at work, regarding their physical and mental health.

The World Health Organisation also states:

“All of us have the right to decent and productive work; in conditions of freedom, equality, security and human dignity”

And as Jada Pinkett Smith is an actress, technically, the Oscars is a work event for her. So she should not have to be subjected to degrading remarks relating to her health or appearance, in front of her colleagues.

Therefore, regarding looking at what’s really toxic within society today, maybe it’s time that the media started focusing on the toxic culture that has been claimed to exist within Hollywood. From the conviction of Harvey Weinstein, to the #MeToo movement and other numerous suspects, Hollywood has faced a lot of controversy regarding how it operates recently.

Unfortunately, several elements of the film industry have been found to be abusive, discriminatory and exploitative on multiple levels.

This Incident Can’t and Shouldn’t be Blamed on Gender or Race

This incident can’t, and shouldn’t be blamed on gender, or race. It appears that the fault may actually lie at the feet of the Oscars and the well-documented, toxic culture within the film industry itself.

Maybe if there was more professionalism and healthier boundaries within Hollywood, that made its employees feel supported and respected, instead of humiliated; then these incidents wouldn’t occur in the first place.

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