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28 March 2022

Will Smith vs Chris Rock shows toxic masculinity always has the last word

It’s possible to defend a woman without resorting to an attention-seeking “protection” narrative.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

It’s always about the men. The day after the 94th Academy Awards, we are not talking about Jane Campion, the third woman to win the Oscar for Best Director; nor the performances of Jessica Chastain or Ariana DeBose. We’re talking about a man who hit another man because he said something about his wife. Even when it’s about a woman, it’s always about the men.

A bare outline of the facts surrounding the Jada Pinkett Smith fracas will surely be familiar. A woman gets dressed up to go to a party — she probably doesn’t want to go, but it’s being held to celebrate her husband (in this case, Will Smith). She puts on her best smile and best jewellery and sucks it up. It’s all going OK until the kind of smartarse who always turns up to these kinds of events (Chris Rock) decides to make a wisecrack about her appearance. “Hey, what’s with the unfeminine haircut? You don’t look so hot anymore! When did you lose your magic?” I paraphrase, but not much. What Rock actually said was: “Jada, I love you! GI Jane 2! Can’t wait to see it!” This was a reference to her shaved head. Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, which is more common among black women, and has spoken about how “terrifying” he sudden hair loss was.

She responded with a scathing, thin-lipped smile. But soon her husband had picked up on the insult and taken the injury to her as an injury to him. It’s a classic pub fight scenario, only it took place in Los Angeles in 2022 between one man wearing a three-piece satin suit and another in thousands of dollars worth of velvet. Just when Hollywood was congratulating itself on the strides it had made in the representation of women.

Smith claims that it was “God and love” that made him act in this way, as if he was a medieval figure abiding by a higher moral code — the sort that compels you to hit someone in the face and shout: “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth.” In the acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar that he won soon afterwards for King Richard, Smith talked about “protecting” the young actresses in the film, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton. He defends abuse in the name of protecting women and then gets a standing ovation. If you’re powerful enough, you are untouchable.

We could have a whole discussion about why insulting people — and I don’t mean satire, I mean mocking people’s pain — is considered such an important component of Hollywood award shows. Presumably because the three-plus hour ceremony is such a smug slog. But let’s focus on Rock’s joke, which wasn’t just tasteless, but mind-bogglingly regressive. Its subject was a woman supposedly losing her charm and femininity.

When you watch the initial footage, Smith laughs inanely at the joke while Pinkett Smith gives a withering look and rolls her eyes. Smith appears to only get up to play the Big Man when he realises that other people don’t find it funny. It’s perfectly possible to defend and amplify a woman without resorting to a tediously attention-seeking “protection” narrative. But then again it’s also possible to make films this way and Hollywood has generally avoided doing so. And we all know this is not really about Rock disrespecting Smith’s wife, it’s about Smith feeling disrespected.

It’s even more tragic because of Smith’s candour in reflecting on his own family history. In his autobiography, which was published last winter, Smith, 53, reveals the harrowing violence he saw his father, Willard, inflict on his mother, Caroline. “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed,” he wrote. “I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”

Now Smith has also chosen violence. By hitting Rock he elevated the comedian’s miserable excuse for a joke to the status of international news. And he almost certainly left his wife dealing with the emotional and professional consequences of both Rock’s humiliating slight and Smith’s unhinged attack.

Let’s imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t lashed out. Perhaps everybody would be talking about the pettiness of the joke. Or how a black man had just won the Best Actor award — only the fifth in 100 years of the Academy Awards. Or better still, since Smith can generate more than enough hubris, how a gay woman of colour just won Best Supporting Actress. Or a deaf man won Best Supporting Actor. But instead what this year’s Oscars will be remembered for is toxic masculinity. Even when it’s about a woman, it’s always about the men.

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