What we missed in the Will Smith, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith incident that needs to go beyond 'hot takes'

·9 min read

It was the slap seen around the world, when Will Smith got up on stage at the Oscars and hit Chris Rock, resulting in a media frenzy that outshone not only the other events and awards of the evening, but every other news story for days.

“It was sickening, I physically felt ill and I’m still a little traumatized by it,” 2022 Oscars co-host Wanda Sykes said on The Ellen Show with Ellen Degeneres on Wednesday. “And for [the Academy] to let [Will Smith] stay in that room and enjoy the rest of the show, and accept his award, I was like, how gross is this.”

You assault somebody, you get escorted out the building and that’s it.Wanda Sykes, comedian and host of 2022 Oscars

While several people would fully support Sykes’ comments, others have expressed more support for Smith, particularly related to Rock’s GI Jane joke that preceded the slap, referencing Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, which is due to her alopecia.

As arguments continue to get volleyed back and forth, culture, media and celebrity experts stress the complexity of this incident.

“Folks are talking about, well…he's a role model and he let them down or he let children down,” Dr. Sherri Williams, assistant professor in race, media and communication at American University’s School of Communication told Yahoo Canada.

I've seen people say, for once we have this image of this Black man who publicly defended his wife, and then there are other people who are saying that this is not the way that men should be defending women, and this is an example of toxic masculinity.Dr. Sherri Williams, Assistant Professor in race, media and communication at American University’s School of Communication

“I've seen African Americans say that this is something that they were embarrassed by because it was two prominent and well-known Black men who got involved in this incident at a major Hollywood event,…and arguments about respectability politics and this whole incident playing into ideas of racial stereotypes of Black men being violent and uncontrollable.”

Ultimately, Williams stressed that this situation does require analysis due to how “layered” the situation is, instead of these “hot takes” depicting this “binary of right or wrong.”

"This is an opportunity to say hey, there's a lot going on, how do I address this in a way that's...not feeding into being reactive, drawing lines in the sand, compounding everything into one, flattening everything to a place where it seems like an easy solution," Dr. Tamar Salibian, a member of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies told Yahoo Canada.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 30: Graffiti depicting a meme showing actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock, criticizes idealized self-portrayals of social media users' lives, on a former section of the Berlin Wall on March 30, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face on stage during the 94th Academy Awards ceremony, when the comic made a joke about the actor's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, after which actor Smith picked up the first Oscar of his career for his role playing the father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams in the film
BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 30: Graffiti depicting a meme showing actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock, criticizes idealized self-portrayals of social media users' lives, on a former section of the Berlin Wall on March 30, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face on stage during the 94th Academy Awards ceremony, when the comic made a joke about the actor's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, after which actor Smith picked up the first Oscar of his career for his role playing the father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams in the film "King Richard." Smith later apologized for the incident. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

'We look back and we see just how vicious, unfair and insidious that mainstream media has been'

As the news cycle continues, with stories being written about every celebrity providing their take on what happened between Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Chris Rock, experts are calling on the media to be mindful about how this narrative is being shaped and documented.

“I think that reporters, editors, producers, content creators really do need to be mindful of how they are covering this because they are the first record of history, because now when we look back on how major celebrity incidents and major celebrities have been covered, we look back and we see just how vicious, unfair and insidious that mainstream media has been to certain celebrities,” Williams said.

Williams cited recent criticism around media coverage of Britney Spears, particularly in the 2000s, the unfairness in media coverage around the Janet Jackson “nipplegate” story with Justin Timberlake, and Gerrick Kennedy’s book “Didn't We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston,” which covers how media coverage of Whitney Houston was “laced with a lot of misogyny and anti-Blackness and unnecessary ridicule.”

I think we do need to be more mindful of how the coverage may or may not play into stereotypes, and unfairness in how some celebrities are granted grace and how some aren't.Dr. Sherri Williams, Assistant Professor in race, media and communication at American University’s School of Communication

The fact that it was Smith that hit Rock is also a core aspect of why this story completely took off, and continues to consume traditional and social media.

“I think that the fact that it was Will Smith did help to elevate the story, not just because he is such a big star, but he is known as someone who has always been like the boy next door, the man next door,” Williams said. “We've never really seen Will Smith be agitated or angry and when we do, it is in such a public way, it is on the Hollywood stage.”

"I think there needs to be a lot more reflective consideration and also a lot of questioning, including of ourselves," Dr. Tamar Salibian said. "Am I responding because I like Will Smith and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or am I responding because I can take the celebrity and my sort of worship of him out of it, and think about an incident, and its many components, in a way that's rooted in reflection, that's rooted in deep consideration."

US actress Jada Pinkett Smith attends the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
US actress Jada Pinkett Smith attends the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

The part of the story we've been missing

Dr. Sherri Williams highlighted that one aspect of this story that she feels has not gotten enough coverage is related to the joke made at Jada Pinkett Smith’s expense.

I do feel like there is not enough coverage of the root of it all, which is the joke itself, and really how Black women, in particular, end up being fodder for everyone's jokes, and how that is something that has remained unchanged for a very long time in this country.Dr. Sherri Williams, Assistant Professor in race, media and communication at American University’s School of Communication

“I think one story that we can really start to think about and I would like to see people write about is, how do we reckon as a nation with the vulnerabilities that Black women face, both systemically and socially, and how do we start to address some of these things.”

Dr. Tamar Salibian highlighted that this is an opportunity to examine how violence is involved in the film industry as a whole.

"The Academy, they tweeted something that night saying we don't condone violence,...don't you realize the film industry is built on violence, violence is embedded within film itself in so many ways, most of them very, very problematic, and most of them are upholding hierarchies," she said, adding that this includes the people we villainize on screen and the structure of who has the most power in the industry.

TOPSHOT - Oscar statues are seen near the red carpet area ahead of the Oscars Award show at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on March 25, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. - The 94th Academy Awards will take place on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Oscar statues are seen near the red carpet area ahead of the Oscars Award show at the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on March 25, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. - The 94th Academy Awards will take place on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Holding the Academy accountable

In a letter obtained by Variety, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences leadership indicated to its members that they are “upset and outraged” by the incident and are working to determine what the consequences of Will Smith’s actions will be.

“We are upset and outraged that those moments were overshadowed by the unacceptable and harmful behaviour on stage by a nominee,” the letter reads. “To be clear, we condemn Mr. Smith’s actions that transpired Sunday night.”

“The Academy’s Board of Governors will now make a determination on appropriate action for Mr. Smith. As governed by California law regarding members of nonprofit organizations like the Academy, and set forth in our Standards of Conduct, this must follow an official process that will take a few weeks.”

With rumours swirling online about what those consequences may be, including discussions about whether Smith should be forced to give back his Oscar, or face suspension from the Academy, many continue to point out that the industry group hasn’t been held accountable itself, including #OscarsSoWhite moments, and individuals like Roman Polanski winning an Oscar in 2003, even when he couldn't attend because there was a warrant out for his arrest after pleading guilty to statutory rape of a 13-year-old and fleeing to France.

“We've been having a lot of social reckonings here in this country in recent years,...sexual harassment, sexual misconduct against women, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and a racial reckoning, so we are at a point in our society where we are attempting to hold people responsible for their actions. But at the same time, the institutions that are charged with holding people responsible for their actions, they haven't even really been responsible,…they haven't really faced proper consequences or really atoned for the wrongs that they have done.”Dr. Sherri Williams, Assistant Professor in race, media and communication at American University’s School of Communication

“It leaves a lot to think about, to have the Academy punish him when the Academy itself has not exactly been held responsible for what it has and hasn't done over time.”

Dr. Tamar Salibian stressed that this is certainly not something that can be resolved with the Academy taking a "PR approach" to "smooth over" everything that transpired on Sunday.

"This is something that will stay, I think, with the Academy and in the film world for years to come," she said. "It's an opportunity for the Academy, if they were to choose to do so, to really take a minute and pause and reflect, and sort of consider their words and their actions moving forward."

"It's not a moment for PR, it's a moment for deep consideration, which I don't know if the folks with that much power in the Academy will do."

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