The Oscars’ Slapgate – The smack that whacked the world
Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at The Oscars, and the world went mad.
If there’s one thing we can all surely agree on in these fractured times, it’s that the volume and tone of the frenzied international debate that erupted when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at The Oscars has been laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Personally, I’m in a weak position to criticise others. I freely admit that I have followed Slapgate events with the kind of intense focus I stopped giving the unfolding crisis in Ukraine weeks ago.
I can no longer tell you anything about what’s happening with the siege of Mariupol, but I could draw you a detailed timeline from memory of various historical facts relevant to the Rock-Smith beef. I try not to think of Ukrainians huddled in a Kyiv bunker, watching their TV with open-mouthed shock as CNN panel discussions on The Slap displace footage of Russian military strikes on civilians. Perhaps they wonder if Putin might have a point about the spiritual erosion of the West. Then again, Putin took time out of his busy schedule of plotting Ukrainian deaths the other day to talk about Harry Potter author JK Rowling, so he’s on quite shaky ground himself.
It’s all spiralled wildly out of control. But after two years of pandemic-induced fear and sadness, the horrifying events in Ukraine and a myriad other catastrophes closer to home, who can blame some of us for diving headfirst into the diverting spectacle of two overpaid entertainers descending into fisticuffs at a black-tie event? Of course, what happened at The Oscars matters not one whit in the broader sweep of things, and anyone claiming differently deserves an open-palmed to the face themselves.
Let’s pause here to grudgingly acknowledge one of the most tedious responses to Slapgate: that violence is bad. DUH, and also Zzzzzzzz. Obviously it would have been “preferable”, in the moral sense of things, if Will Smith had not responded to Chris Rock’s joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith with an act of public assault. But what would have been even better, in the vengeance sense of things, would have been if it was Jada Pinkett Smith rather than her husband who had marched up to Rock and decked him live on international TV.
Of all the absurd reactions to Smith’s smack, though, the gold medal has to go to the people on social media dolefully predicting that Smith’s act would have immeasurably harmful consequences for the “normalisation of violence”. Pardon? Have any of those folk turned on the news lately? We live in a world where a gunman live-streamed his Auckland mosque massacre on Facebook, where the former president of the United States bragged about sexually assaulting women and where explicit footage of cops murdering unarmed civilians now barely raises an eyebrow. It’s hard to see how violence could be any more normalised.
I myself have been on something of a roller coaster journey as regards my response to Slapgate. My initial sympathies were entirely with Smith, because it struck me as delightfully novel for a man to take visible offence to a sexist insult rather than laughing along with his bro in public and then agreeing with his wife behind closed doors that the remark was out of line. What altered my views was watching the acceptance speech Smith delivered at the same event a few minutes later after winning the Best Actor Oscar.
Smith gave the impression of being slightly unhinged in his speech, describing himself as being tasked by God with fulfilling the role of being a “vessel of love” during his time on Earth. It takes some balls to call yourself a “vessel of love” mere moments after hitting a man in the face, and if I were God, I’d be questioning Smith’s progress in that particular divine mission. But what really induced a no-no feeling was Smith’s assertion that, on the set of his latest film King Richard, he had “protected” his female co-workers in the same manner as he had just “protected” his wife.
Whether these women needed or wanted Smith’s “protection” is unknown. But the general effect was to make Smith suddenly seem less like a feminist warrior and more like an old-school paternalist – in addition to someone who might be in urgent need of some kind of psychological treatment. When I watched the entire Oscars show, however, I ended up back on Team Smith for a separate reason. In the flurry of thinkpieces on Slapgate, I have yet to read mention of the reality that Rock’s jab at Pinkett Smith was actually his second sexist joke within two minutes. Rock also drew attention to the fact that married actor couple Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz were both nominated for Oscars, and then cracked that if Cruz lost out in her category, Bardem “can’t win”.
Rock meant that if Bardem won an Oscar on the same night that his wife failed, Cruz would be so consumed by bitterness and resentment that Bardem’s life would be made miserable regardless. The camera panned to Bardem and Cruz for their reactions. Cruz looked exhausted and irritated. Bardem howled with laughter, clapping and nodding. One wonders if Cruz, thinking back on events later, hadn’t wished her husband had beaten Smith to the punch. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.