Current Events Culture

Why Will’s Slap Hit Different

Robert Callahan

By now, everyone has heard, and seen, the moment forever enshrined in television history as “The slap heard around the world”. Will Smith’s physical response to Chris Rock’s comedic attack on Jada Pinkett Smith was viewed in real-time by millions and rewatched and remixed countless more times. Presently, a version where Mr. Rock sheds gold rings emulating Sonic the Hedgehog has more than two thousand views. 

As jokes and critiques abound, there are an infinite number of layers to peel in the saga of Will Smith vs. Chris Rock: 

  • The import of Black women feeling valued and defended;
  • Whether the influence of patriarchy led Will to improperly assume Jada’s defense where it wasn’t clearly requested;
  • The problematic nature of disability-based humor;
  • The extent to which the Black community should concern itself with public perception in mixed company;
  • The psychological effects of the white gaze on the Black community;
  • The hypocrisy of societal justifications for, or aversion to, violence in certain circumstances;
  • The amount of attention that should be called to the encounter at all.

People are having these conversations, and for a good reason. However, I think there is another question that we should be asking: “What is the virtue of a proportional response to unprovoked and harmful public displays of disrespect?” 

Uneven Power Dynamics 

Those who believe that Will Smith’s response was inappropriate argue that violence is never the answer to conflict, especially when there are other outlets for conflict resolution. In short, those who disagree with Smith’s actions assert that he did not “play by the rules.” This is a valid point, yet it overlooks the power dynamics present in the situation. 

Insult comedy is such a normalized brand of entertainment that it is easy to overlook the imbalance of power at the Oscars. It is a hallowed tradition for celebrities to be publicly insulted  (and possibly humiliated) among their peers at the Academy Awards. The subjects of these jokes absorb embarrassment, though some will issue a statement after the ceremony (that few people will read) if a particular insult stepped on their toes. 

Chris Rock’s joke (whether he realized it at the time or not) poked fun at a person with a chronic illness and made a Black woman’s hair the punchline of a joke in mixed company. Furthermore, Jada Pinkett-Smith was at the Oscars as her husband’s guest and not as a nominee or entertainer. In other words, she was “minding her own business.” This presents an uneven power dynamic that makes the insulting joke even more troublesome. 

When power dynamics are at the heart of social conflict, meaningful, long-term change only happens if those fighting the status quo abandon the traditional rules of engagement. Smith did not play by the rules. At that fateful moment, he stood up for someone without power. It was the right decision. 

Traditions that consistently harm specific groups do not simultaneously create fair processes for those groups to challenge those practices. As a result, those in the position of power will almost always object that the recipients of harm are not “playing by the rules.”

Whatever else may come from #SlapGate, we know the following to be true: Comedians generally, and Chris Rock, in particular, will think twice before making jokes about audience members’ physical appearance.

Fighting Back

We have seen a lot of hand-wringing in response to Will’s decision not to play by the rules at the Oscars. Yet, I cannot help but think the strongest objections derive from the fact that, momentarily, Chris Rock stood as an avatar for those who typically occupy positions of power, accustomed to speaking and acting with impunity to the detriment of those without power. 

Perhaps, their true frustration is the realization that, no matter how tame we may seem, those without power can stand up and fight back without using pre-approved channels to do so. Justice usually only happens when we do not play by the rules.