- Tessa Overvoorde
The Slap That Shooketh Hollyweird
It’s been exactly a week since we all woke up on this side of the Atlantic to The Slap. Yet it seems as though this one incident has divided many on the basis of some crucial concerns: “Is physical violence ever justifiable? Did Will Smith go too far? It was “just” a joke after all, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t we be able to take jokes? It’s like we can’t say anything anymore these days, people have become too sensitive”. Etc.. the usual arguments, you know.
But I wonder - are these really the kind of questions that we should be asking ourselves?
Instead, I’d want to ask - what is it that we even consider to be violence?
In the first few days after the Oscars, I simply wondered if the whole thing was not just another bit of Hollywood drama that got more attention than it deserved. Yet I now see that it is the people that live under constant public scrutiny whose lives, behaviours and actions get dissected and judged, making the slap, for instance, a matter for society as a whole to reflect on. Such decisive moments can shape our progress on certain topics - aka violence, sexism, racism, and ableism.
What I care about now is, why do we more easily accept certain forms of violence?
I am first and foremost not particularly upset about the slap in itself (not saying it was the right thing to do), but I myself cannot say that I condone violence altogether. I must always think of this moment when Angela Davis, then member of the Black Panthers, is asked whether she approves of violence, and her response being: “when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible because of what it means is that the person asking the question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through and experienced in this country (…)”. And I would add that such violence does not always manifest itself in the most obvious ways to some, yet can be just as detrimental as any form of direct physical violence.
What I am upset about however in regards to the act in itself, is the kind of stereotypes Will Smith falls into about Black men being violent and unable to control themselves. Because it then makes it easier to focus on the act rather than anything else, as it so often happens in renderings of such situations.
Don’t you also feel like you’ve seen this before…? Maybe in the way that protesters get documented about? It’s always easier for the general public or certain media outlets to see the acts of violence, loitering, and burnt cars, as opposed to what messages are being transmitted through such acts of frustration. I’ve even seen people saying that Smith should’ve been escorted out by the police after the incident:
Like, really, you want the police to be involved?! Gives me shivers. Again, I’m not saying the slap was the thing to do, but in a weird way, it got a lot of people talking about something which would have otherwise been simply laughed about, all the while upholding harmful stereotypes about Black women. The academy would’ve laughed, Black women would have been yet again disrespected in public, and Jada would’ve been expected to be unbothered by the comment. The stereotype being: Black women are strong and not to be protected.
What we have to understand is that first of all, we can’t laugh about everything. That’s a myth. I couldn’t have said it better than the novelist Saladin Ahmed:
“In a field dominated by privileged voices, it's not enough to say "Mock everyone!" In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what pre-existing injuries we are adding our insults to.”(Ahmed, 2015)
In an already unjust world, a joke is never just a joke. And Chris Rock’s “joke” is ableist and feeds directly into
misogynoir. A joke can be pure violence, so why are we surprised when violence is answered with violence?
His joke further contributes to framing disabilities as abnormalities that deserve to be shamed and made fun of. And seeing as this disease, alopecia, is more prone in Black women, it also makes his joke simultaneously racist and sexist (misogynoir).
Out of all people, it was an even further disappointment to hear such a comment from Rock, as I remember watching his documentary “Good Hair” as a kid when it came out. As a man with two daughters, he made this documentary as an endeavour to ask about what is defined as “good hair” by mostly, Black women. I remember feeling seen in these stories, seeing my mother and sisters, aunties and cousins in it. And with his comment at the Oscars, he failed all of us. A Black woman who has alopecia was interviewed in his documentary, Sheila Bridges. She wrote in a post as a response to the event at the Oscars: "Shame on you @chrisrock. Didn’t we sit down and talk at length about how painfully humiliating and difficult it is to navigate life as a bald woman in a society that is hair obsessed? As if life isn’t challenging enough out here as an unprotected black woman?” (Find the video of her interview here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cbpkco4DFlY/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=b3496749-56fe-4cc3-a22d-55c2d6ee47d9)
This proves to me that Rock’s comment is not to be dismissed for what it is: violent and reinforcing dangerous stereotypes. And just as we choose to hold Smith accountable for his actions, it is ALSO if not MORE important that Rock is to be held accountable for his words.
I do find it somewhat hypocritical the ways in which we choose to hold some people accountable and not others. I’ve read many claiming that Smith should return his Oscar when never in time has there been such uprisings for other horrible figures (we all know who they are), tainted by sexual assaults accusations who still get to happily go home with their Oscars.
This is also violence!!!
Because some will more easily be forgotten and others will be damned with shame for their actions. To be so selective about who and how we choose to punish and exclude some from our spaces says a great deal about the kind of violence we deem to be acceptable or not. I do believe that it is easier to showcase a Black man as violent and call him out for it than it is to finally hold all of the well-established predators that lurk around Hollywood since the dawn of time, accountable.
On another note, I’ve seen a lot of people saying, such as “comedian” Rick Gervais, that Smith should be more upset about the fact that his wife has had other partners than the comment that Rock made. That to me is also a way to reinforce certain stereotypes, here that monogamy and heteronormativity are the norm.
Which isn’t the case.
Yet it makes people insecure to know that some couples can live happy lives without falling into the preexisting mould that is so easily presented by society. I simply can’t cope with the idea that some would deem it justifiable to use violence then but not for someone mocking his wife's health condition. Now that’s what I’d consider to be real toxicity.
The kind of violence that I’ve seen being perpetuated and that I wish we’d focus on a bit more are the following: the one that reinforces stereotypes about Black women & men. The ableist, sexist and racist violence - the violence that is selective about exclusion and accountability, the one that claims we can laugh about everything and last but not least, the one that says heteronormativity is the norm. Remember non-physical violence can hurt a lot more than physical ones.