Op-Ed: Will Smith’s attack on Chris Rock shows toxic masculinity boiling over
It was the slap felt ’round the world.
Will Smith, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, walked onstage and slapped comedian Chris Rock during the 94th Academy Awards. In front of a live, mostly white audience. During a live telecast watched by millions across the globe. It was so outrageous that many people initially thought it was a joke, part of the script. But then Smith returned to his seat and yelled to Rock, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f— mouth.”
Those of us who saw it live were shocked. Toxic masculinity can indeed abruptly show up in shocking, at times violent ways.
As a scholar of men’s studies, I teach that “toxic masculinity” is demonstrations of boyhood and manhood that are harmful to oneself and others. In many ways it is a cocktail of the worst behaviors and attitudes a dude can have.
It causes him to act without self-control and to perform macho stereotypes. In many instances, it is fueled by presumptions about how men are supposed to act. It is this last feature that was on full display at the Oscars.
Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, starring in a sequel to the movie “G.I. Jane.” It was a joke about her appearance. There is a chance that most people interpreted the comment as just that, but I understood it differently.
Over this last year, I have watched social media videos of Jada Pinkett Smith talking about struggling with and ultimately coming to terms with her hair loss. Her husband first laughed at the comedian’s joke. Jada Pinkett Smith, on the other hand, was visibly annoyed. It could be that in a split second, her husband recognized that she felt publicly humiliated by a joke about something that has been so personally painful to her.
Here enters the toxic masculinity. Will Smith storms onstage and slaps the man who insulted his wife.
I have a spouse whom I deeply love. Honestly, if someone did to him what Rock did to Smith’s wife, especially about something I knew was an emotional pain point for him, I would have felt compelled to slap that person, too. I would not have actually done it, though. Undeniably, a better path would have been for Smith to walk onstage, say to Rock, “You just hurt my wife,” and ask him to please apologize. The ideal first step would have been for Smith to ask his wife what she wanted — which maybe he did.
Toxic masculinity compels a guy to go immediately into bar fight mode when someone says or does something disrespectful to someone he loves. But what if slapping or fighting someone isn’t what the disrespected person wants or needs? Or even if it is, and the person says so, why not take a moment to pursue a range of alternatives to violence? Movies, television shows, video games, other forms of media and messages we have received all our lives have conditioned us men to act in ways that can be violent or otherwise toxic in moments like these.
In his acceptance speech for actor in a leading role just a few minutes later, Smith said that he is feeling “called” to be a protector at this time in his life. I suppose that the act of violence was his way of protecting his wife. The “real men are protectors” expectation is firmly entrenched in toxic masculinity. Again, as a married man, I get it. I just know that protection doesn’t have to be violent.
Then there is the aftermath with Rock. It’s where toxic masculinity is addressed through restorative justice, another concept that social scientists like me often teach and write about. The most important act of restorative justice in this violent confrontation between two Black men is to ask Rock what would make this situation right for him, then having Smith authentically issue an apology and do all he can to meet Rock’s expectations for harm repair. On Monday afternoon, Smith did apologize to Rock on Instagram.
Recovering from a lifetime of toxic masculinity requires us men to step back and be incredibly mindful of the myriad ways we have been socialized to handle anger in our interactions with other men, women and genderqueer persons. Thinking honestly about what it is we have been told “real men” do, and often then doing the opposite.
Will Smith is 53 years old, which confirms that toxic masculinity is not about immaturity. It is not a thing that men naturally grow out of. Some of us embody aspects of it our entire lives. Understanding what it is and how it shows up in our attitudes and behaviors might just save us from inflicting harm on ourselves and others.
It could have saved Smith from tarnishing one of the most rewarding nights of his career, as he won an Oscar for the first time. Now an unfortunate and avoidable cloud will forever shadow that moment.
Shaun Harper is a professor at the University of Southern California and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. He is the editor of “College Men and Masculinities.” @DrShaunHarper
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