It was the slap that launched a thousand hot takes. Here’s what Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the Oscars tells us about the actor’s early childhood. Here’s what Smith’s violent outburst can teach us about the war in Ukraine. Here’s why the whole thing felt staged. Here’s the history of public slapping in 10 gifs. Here’s why the Academy is hypocritical for saying it doesn’t condone violence, when Michael Moore got booed during the 2003 Oscars for criticizing the Iraq war – and you don’t get any more violent than war, do you?
Look, you’ve probably had enough of people talking smackgate by now. I’m sure you’re over this whole thing. I get it. The sensible little voice in my head is telling me: “Arwa, don’t get involved. You don’t need to wade into this sordid story and turn a celebrity crash into a lesson about life, the universe, and everything.” Alas, like Will Smith, I’m afraid I just can’t control myself. Just as he couldn’t repress his urge to slap, I can’t repress my urge to pundit. So I’d like to take a minute; just sit right there, and I’ll tell you why Chris Rock should never have made that stupid joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s, hair.
First things first, though: let me get the Violence Is Very Bad and Never the Answer disclaimer out of the way. I’m not trying to blame victim here; it doesn’t matter what Rock said, he obviously didn’t deserve to be assaulted. Smith was very much in the wrong. But we can recognize that, while also acknowledging how cruel Rock’s comments were. Pinkett Smith revealed a few years ago that she has alopecia; laughing about how she looks like GI Jane was in extremely bad taste. I’m firmly of the opinion that you should be able to joke about anything – but if you’re going to wade into sensitive territory, then you’d better be clever about it. “Ha ha, she’s bald and looks like GI Jane, ha ha ha,” is the sort of comment a toddler makes. It’s not funny, it’s just mean.
If you’ve never lost your hair, it might be hard to wrap your head around how traumatizing the experience can be. It might be hard to understand how a throwaway gag like Rock’s can cut you to the core. I’ve never experienced alopecia but, when I was 14, my hair started falling out because of my anorexia; I’d pull big chunks of it out in the shower. Considering all the other ways starvation was hurting my body, losing a bit of ornamental dead matter from my scalp shouldn’t really have been so distressing. But hair isn’t just ornamental, is it? Like it or not, hair is tangled up in deeply rooted ideas about gender, identity and self-worth. Involuntarily losing your hair feels like losing part of yourself. And you don’t just feel lacking on the inside; the outside world treats you differently. Hair is a hell of a lot more than dead matter; it has a massive impact on your self-confidence. And Black women’s hair, of course, is even more loaded with cultural meaning. It’s not like Rock doesn’t know any of this: he’s the guy, after all, who made a documentary in 2009 called Good Hair, which examined Black women’s relationship with their hair, after his three-year-old daughter asked him why she didn’t have “good hair”. That was the most frustrating thing about his gag: he knows better; he knows a lot better.
Anyway, now that I’ve got my take in, and Smith has issued an official apology, I think we can all consider the matter closed and move on. Here’s hoping next year’s Oscars will be violence-free.