The Slap Heard Round the World
Will Smith's violent, public retaliation against comedian Chris Rock was wrong, but it highlights the fact that standup comedy's nastiness isn't a joke
Today we take a break from politics and ponder the significance of one celebrity belting another on national television. Know a friend who would like to join our conversation? Please:
You all know the story: during the Oscars broadcast on Monday night, comedian Chris Rock made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith’s extremely short haircut. “Jada, I love you, ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” Rock joked, referring to the movie in which Demi Moore shaves her head to fully commit to becoming a member of an elite armed forces unit.
Initially, actor Will Smith, the actress’s husband, seemed to be laughing—even though the butt of the joke—who believed that Rock was mocking her for the alopecia that caused her to shave her head in the first place—was not smiling. What happened next took over the broadcast: in a display of male bravado, Smith mounted the stage, slapped Rock across the face, and returned to his seat. Smith shouted at Rock a few seconds later: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f*cking mouth!”
This incident has become the most significant controversy since Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2003 Super Bowl. Later, while collecting his Oscar for the Williams family biopic King Richard, although Smith apologized to many people, he did not mention the man he hit. At the Washington Post, Sally Jenkins chided him for ruining the evening for the Willams family, as if they don’t have enough to be happy about. One of the evening’s hosts, Wanda Sykes, later characterized Smith’s violence as “sickening;” she and Ellen DeGeneres agreed that Rock is a “sweet guy.”
Smith’s apology to Rock came a day later, in an Instagram post. On the same platform, Pinkett Smith announced: “This is a season for healing, and I’m here for it.” The Academy has announced an investigation; Chris Rock claims he did not know that Pinkett Smith suffered from hair loss.
So that we can get it out of the way: this isn’t the first time Smith has struck someone in public. In 2012, while at a Moscow event for Men in Black 3, a Ukrainian reporter embraced and then kissed Smith on both cheeks in the European fashion. The actor drew back and slapped the journalist in the face with the back of his hand and snapped: “What’s your problem, buddy?” Asked about the incident on the David Letterman Show afterward, Smith responded: “It’s just awkward, Dave!” Which seems like a not so veiled way of saying, “It was so gay!”
But maybe that wasn’t what Smith meant: perhaps slapping the reporter was a (granted, inappropriate) response to the constant invasions of privacy and personal space that celebrities endure as the price of success. And in both cases, Smith seems to have calculated the blow to do little harm. First, he hit the Ukrainian reporter with the back of his hand, a blow that delivers little force. Similarly, as you can see in the picture above when Smith hit Rock, he was on his back foot, which meant that his body weight was not moving forward into the slap.
It seems like the answer to the question “Is it ever ok to resolve a conflict by hitting someone” should always be no. However, as in all things, America is split about whether Smith should have defended his wife in this way. Depending on what poll you are looking at, somewhere between two-fifths and half of those surveyed think Will Smith’s slap was justified.
But I would go further: Americans love watching people get hit on television and in films, attacks that are rarely followed by soul-searching and pious agony about violence. Perhaps this is because assaults that would, in real life, put people in the hospital seem not to harm fictional characters at all. But Americans also love real-life violence. Physical altercations that would be crimes on the street occur regularly in professional sports like basketball, baseball, and football. In ice hockey, brutal exchanges of punches are seen as part of the game.
So I can’t take people seriously when they say violence is obviously always wrong. It isn’t, and hardly anyone believes that. But violence is unrespectable in most venues, such as kindergartens, faculty meetings, and live awards broadcasts. So then, let’s narrow the question: why did Smith publicly assault Rock on national television instead of just yelling at him from his seat?
Probably because no camera would have picked it up, and he wanted to make a point.
Roxane Gay had one compelling take in her New York Times column: the emphasis on the violence itself distracts us from what is at stake in such an encounter: “being human and enforcing one’s limits.” Jada Pinkett Smith, she argues, had a right to be hurt, and her husband had a right to be angry about Rock’s snide remarks about her appearance. “It should go without saying that comedians are free to say what they please,” Gay writes:
Long live creative license and free speech. But it should be obvious that the targets of jokes and insults have every right to react and respond. There is a strange idea that there is nobility in tolerating or, better yet, enjoying humor that attacks who you are, what you do or how you look — that with free speech comes the obligation to turn the other cheek, rise above, laugh it all off. We often see this when comedians want to joke about race, sexual assault, gender violence or other issues that people experiencing them don’t find terribly funny. If you can’t laugh along, you are humorless. You’re thin-skinned. You’re a problem.
As Gay also points out, this incident occurred during a week in which Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson endured one of the most brutal and humiliating beat-downs in the history of publicly broadcast Supreme Court hearings and was expected to endure it. In that context, Gay says, even though Smith should not have struck Rock, “it was also a rare moment when a Black woman was publicly defended.”
I agree. And I would have to say that as a lifetime feminist and lesbian, while I never seek to be protected by men and certainly don’t expect them to hit each other on my behalf, it shores up my belief in humanity when men do recognize injustice or cruelty and stand up for me. Why? Because I would do the same for them.
An extension of Gay’s position is my speculation that women may be making more significant strides towards social equality in the acting and music space than in comedy, which is still very male. The most successful and controversial players in stand-up are men. Furthermore, the biggest prize for a stand-up comedian—hosting a late-night talk show—has almost wholly excluded women ( Joan Rivers had a brief tenure as a late-night host on Fox in 1986, and the show bombed.)
This lack of parity may be why, although a male routine is aggressive and often belittling of women, racial minorities, and gays, female standups tend to humor based on self-deprecation. You can go as far back as Minnie Pearl, who wore tacky hats with the price tag hanging off them. Phyllis Diller’s routines centered on being a terrible wife and mother and relaying her husband’s criticisms of her as ugly and unkempt. Ellen Degeneres made an art of self-deprecation, social insecurity, and fear, and I once stumbled into a live Amy Schumer routine (she was the warm-up for a Madonna concert) in which the topic of the day was how horrible her vagina is.
In other words, the whole comedy space is still, in many ways, structured around male cruelty to those perceived as weaker and of lower status. And while I have no basis for saying whether Chris Rock is a “sweet guy” or not, the business he is in is aggressively not sweet—particularly towards women, gays, and other members of society that are seen as adequately subordinate to men.
And perhaps that is what we should talk about.
The Associated Press reported this morning that Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who President Biden and the Democratic leadership have been love-bombing, will vote to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Unless Democrats defect, Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote will not be needed. With confirmation assured, expect Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to join her. Keep your eye on John N. Kennedy (R-LA), who behaved relatively normally compared to other Republicans on the committee. Why? Louisiana is a state whose general election candidates are determined by the unfortunately named “jungle primary.” All candidates, regardless of party, appear on a single ballot, and voters can vote for anyone they please. It seems significant in that context that 31% of registered voters in Louisiana are Black and 55% women, numbers that could easily throw a primary away from an incumbent. Kennedy is up for re-election this year. (March 30, 2022)
At Public Seminar, Miko Yoshida interviews Patrick K. Lin about his new book, Machine See, Machine Do: How Technology Mirrors Bias in Our Criminal Justice System (New Degree Press, 2021.) As Lin argues, artificial intelligence takes on essential tasks but tends to mirror bias and does not improve human judgment. “When we created and developed autopilot for commercial flights,” he writes, “we didn’t suddenly start sending passengers into the sky with no one in the cockpit.” Asking AI to make decisions about incarcerated human beings is even more unsafe. (March 23, 2022)
“Among the questions prompted by [University of Michigan president Mark] Schlissel’s termination is whether higher education has, on the whole, become a hotbed of craven snitches,” Laura Kipnis writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “From everything I’ve heard and experienced, the answer is yes.” And not every truth-teller, she argues, deserves the status of a whistleblower, and “certain institutional contexts” may incentivize snitching behavior. (March 17, 2022)
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