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Commentary: Will Smith reaction exposes Hollywood biases

Photo by Max Morse | Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

I have been trying to wrap my head around exactly why the criticism of Will Smith bothers me so much. From the source of the critique to the things being said the only thing I come back to is that y’all aren’t actually mad about violence.

We as consumers love violence. We watch videos of fights, we love true crime and we are consistently and always going to superhero movies or playing new video games. Violence isn’t an issue, in fact, if it was more than just Will Smith would have been gone from the Oscars but there is a reason we don’t like Will Smith being violent.

Will Smith is a Black man who we have always seen as friendly and non-threatening, and Jada is the kind of Black woman we are told to think shouldn’t need protection.

There are plenty of examples of violent acts at the Oscars that have not been treated with this kind of response. Roman Polanski, Casey Affleck and Harvey Weinstein have public and traceable histories of violence, and they have never been banned from the Oscars. It’s never even been a thought.

John Wayne had to be physically restrained from harming Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American woman who accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf in an act of protest over the treatment of Native Americans.

These people have never had their careers impacted by their history of violence, in fact, they made their violence the industry standard.

And yes, none of them actually hit someone in the middle of the Oscars, but that isn’t what matters. What matters is the conversation we have about these incidents. Will Smith walked up and slapped a man his own age, who he had known for years, for talking about his wife. Will Smith did something portrayed in RomComs and Sitcoms alike as romantic and noble, and I have no doubt in my mind if a George Clooney, an Andrew Garfield or a Tom Hiddleston had felt so moved to protect the woman he loved at that moment, to send a message home with enough finality that he could, for a moment, know his wife felt that her insecurities mattered to him, they would be praised as romantic and protective. These men, these white sex symbols, would not be villainized for their acts, but praised for them. The fan edits and fanfics would pour in. The late-night show appearances and leading man roles where he channeled this brutish and passionate love into box office success would surely follow.

Smith isn’t a white sex symbol, though, and Jada Pinkett-Smith isn’t the lily-white damsel in distress we feel deserves this kind of protection. Black women are martyrs, or at least that is how they are portrayed in the media. In the early days of the pandemic, there were countless articles written about the way Black women experience burnout from taking on the emotional and physical labors of others while having to avoid showing the toll that burden takes. Pinkett-Smith strives to ensure we know that she is human, that this does take a toll on her. Red Table Talk is a sometimes shockingly honest look into her life and her world, and, as a couple, the two offer transparency we don’t necessarily earn. This allows us to know of her “entanglements,” of the moments things are hard for them, of the times they struggle expressing and enforcing boundaries.

As a couple, we know they are like any other couple married for 25 years: in all their love, they find flaws that they work through together. They are by no means perfect, and we know that because they tell us that and make the work they do public so people know they aren’t alone and it is possible. This incident, however, spoke to something we have only barely heard about: Jada’s journey with alopecia. Hair is never just hair. It is a source of power and liberation; it contributes to our sexuality and helps us present in a space. It is personal and political and never just hair. In sharing her diagnosis and the choice to shave her head to the public, she attempted to take back her power in a painfully powerless situation. Will Smith has never missed a beat in supporting her in public because he gets her in private too. In the moments before she reclaimed what it meant to be bald, in the moments when the weight of hair being more than hair crashed down into Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will Smith experienced that.

I won’t express my opinion on if I think the slap was justified or appropriate because I don’t know where I stand, but I do know that this was not Smith’s response to one singular transgression. This was a man who so loved his wife he wanted her to feel supported in being unstoppable.

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