By George A Pratt, Staff Writer
At the 94th Academy Awards, a global audience of millions witnessed Will Smith assault Chris Rock, dubbed by the media “the Oscar’s slap heard around the world.” The battery was motivated by a joke Rock made directed toward Jada Smith regarding her hair, likening her appearance to that of the main protagonist in the action-drama G.I. Jane. Social media erupted in an uproar of commentary, with varying opinions being offered about the multiple ethical dimensions presented in the incident.
In response to the event, Morehouse alumnus and notable pastor, Otis Moss III, wrote: “two Black men on stage…performed for the nation an old song composed by confederate ghosts and antebellum musicians.”
This “old song” Moss describes is comparable to that of the “devil” Denzel Washington warned Smith about that “comes at [one’s] highest moment.” Perhaps, this devil veered its ugly head in song, personified as “hegemonic masculinity,” manifesting itself in comedy and (misplaced) chivalry.
Hegemonic masculinity is understood as the normative or popular form of masculinity associated with toughness, dominance, and straightness. While this culturally relevant example presents an examination of a moral dilemma, it offers onlookers an opportunity to analyze how masculinity becomes racialized and performed in the public square. In this vein, Chris Rock’s joke deserves attention for its hurtful repercussions.
While a joke is delivered in jest, it can have triggering effects. In this instance, Jada Smith was subjected to reliving trauma surrounding her struggle with Alopecia, one she has been vulnerable enough to share with the public. Some may view Rock’s humorous adlib as harmless given the setting, but one must ask—was it necessary?
Having produced a documentary about the significance of hair in Black culture, Rock presumably knows all too well how hair can become a site of sensitivity for Black women. He may or may not have been aware of her hair loss and she may have fallen into his comedic line of fire simply because she was in sight, but the question must be raised—is objectifying women necessary for comedic relief?
In this context, this adlib opens the lens of the normative male gaze in exampling how Black women often unnecessarily become the brunt of men’s teasing and bullying. Here, one must question, why was Chris Rock inclined to comment about Jada Smith’s hair when he did not have to? Could it be that his male privilege, which assumes the subordination of women, unconsciously enables him to poke fun at women’s appearances without question of how it may impact them? This is the same privilege that allows men to erupt in violent outbursts without being held accountable—a freedom that Black women do not have.
Whether or not Rock’s joke was intentionally insensitive, Will Smith’s response was disruptive, revealing how hegemonic masculinity in its fragility can quickly become dangerous. After viewing his wife’s displeased reaction, Smith somehow felt justified in violently attacking Rock and yelling obscenities from his seat. The Academy later announced that the actor even refused to leave after being asked to do so. While Smith received a standing ovation for his first Oscar win, he also garnered rousing applause on social media for protecting Black women, seemingly echoed in Tiffany Haddish’s sentiment that it was a “beautiful thing” to witness him slap Rock on behalf of his wife.
When witnessing Will Smith’s initial laughter at the joke, one must question how Jada’s response possibly sprung Will into action. Given the embarrassment he has faced due to the public’s front-row seat to his marriage’s “entanglements,” he may have felt that his masculinity was being subordinated. This spurred him to subvert Rock’s masculinity to subordination by publicly humiliating him and challenging his physical faculties. Smith’s memoir reveals that he grew to perceive himself as passive because of his friendly and funny disposition alongside being unable to protect his mother from his abusive father; this shows how socialization and trauma shape how Black men perform masculinity.
The most damaging effect of the assault was the erasure of the Black excellence displayed that night. In addition to African Americans who received awards—such as Samuel L. Jackson ’72—FAMU alumnus Will Packer made history by employing an all-Black production team. Unfortunately, the rich moment of a Black man, Questlove, receiving an Oscar for Best Documentary was largely overshadowed by the imagery of one Black man slapping another.
Perhaps, the devil’s song composed by antebellum ghosts was one of division, performed for the whole world to see.