Updated: Apr 7
What is arguably an outdated monolith of media was recently re-invigorated when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. “The slap heard around the world” as some have dubiously dubbed it, made news Sunday when comedian Chris Rock (someone who’s made his name telling offensive jokes) made a GI Jane joke about Jada Pinket-Smith, who after years of struggling with alopecia decided to start fully shaving her head.
For those who have spent time on YouTube from 2016 to 2018, “Instant Karma” is a particularly familiar phrase. What happened to Chris Rock beautifully falls into that phenomenon. However, whether or not you believe this action was justified, there has been an overwhelming community outcry over the incident.
What kind of responses have been prevalent though? Well, the first have been those critical of Will Smith, which has led to some… let’s just say interesting responses. By interesting, I mostly mean (inadvertently) racist. Additionally, for some, relating a black man to Tarzan—who was raised by apes and grew up in the “jungle of Africa”—was a good idea to these Twitter users.
This should go without saying, but comparing a black man who did something minorly violent to Tarzan is completely insane. If you were going to compare Smith to a Disney character that exhibits toxic masculinity, any other character would’ve been a fine choice. Why not choose Gaston, Anger, maybe even Hulk if you feel the common sense leaving your body. But instead Tarzan was the character of choice, presumably only really because of Smith’s race.
Others, however, point to toxic masculinity as being the culprit, and that Will Smith was continuing the cycle of toxicity and violence that comes with it. The way they express this sentiment, however, often either plays into the “Aggressive Black Male” stereotype that some have effectively accused him of playing into, or just ignores the fact that Will Smith is human, and that someone who he loves was being mocked in front of millions of people worldwide for something she has no control over and isn’t comfortable having people make jokes about. To clarify, I’m not excusing what Smith did, but if someone you love had a personal insecurity turned into a joke in front of millions of people, your temper would flare too.
The event has also made its way into politics. One writer for “Tortoise Media,” Mathew d’Ancona, wrote about how “The Will Smith Doctrine has no place in Ukraine,” likening Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock to Putin invading Ukraine. D’Ancona then goes on to try and connect the recent peace negotiations and possibility of lightened sanctions with the slap. In reality, the two situations are completely unrelated. Additionally, some news outlets are likening the event in headlines to “the shot heard ‘round the world”, which while being catchy could also lead some to quickly connecting the already very intertwined media and politics; something I believe life would be much better without. There also have been connections drawn by both those on the Right and the Left of American politics to their own issues, both of whom are trying to use the popular conscious to their advantage.
Additionally, there has been a startling trend of comparing Will Smith to dictators. Many Twitter users have decided that Will Smith’s slap was “like what Putin is doing to Ukraine”, showing in one fell swoop that they have no idea the context behind what is happening in Ukraine and that critical thinking isn’t a strong suit of theirs. Others have decided to skip past the dictators of today, however, and instead follow Godwin’s law, comparing Will Smith to Hitler. If I am being honest, it was only a matter of time before this slap was compared to the genocide of 6 million people, which is entirely inappropriate. While I would’ve liked it to have taken longer before I lost my remaining faith in humanity’s collective ability to think critically, I am very much unsurprised by the amount of dramatization and overreaction occurring.
What is the take away from all this however? The reaction to the slap has and will continue to permeate our cultural zeitgeist for better and worse. We see that this singular event can shape both our perceptions of the past, and future. We will likely look back at this event and try to draw connections to future current events without a pinch of reasoning as to why.