One of the funniest memes in the aftermath of the Will Smith-Chris Rock incident at the Oscars was an image of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holding a phone to his ear captioned with the text: “Will Smith, do you know what Vladimir Putin said about your wife?”
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For those who missed the goss, the comedian Chris Rock hosted the Oscars last month and, with characteristic irreverence, made a hair joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s better half. As the audience laughed at Rock’s snarky reference to Jada’s alopecia, a medical condition that causes hair loss and baldness, cameras panned to the celebrity couple, who appeared unamused. Within seconds, Smith rose from his seat, strode onto the stage, and smacked Rock resoundingly in the face in full view of the august assembly, before returning to his seat and yelling a cuss word at the show host with a warning to keep his wife out of his jokes. Later that evening, despite his hotly debated onstage performance, Smith picked up his first Oscar. He also apologised to Rock on Instagram.
Assertion may be his first name, but Will Smith’s slap set off a ripple of repercussions. What it did for Chris Rock’s cheekiness, only time will tell. For one, his show, ironically titled ‘Ego Death’, sold more tickets that evening than it had in the past month.
The internet erupted with memes and opinionated chatter. While some thought Smith had done the right thing by being the “alpha male” and standing up in his wife’s defence at the right time, many others felt that the actor had crossed the line by resorting to violence. There were also darker racist overtones to the social commentary, with dog-whistling white supremacists calling for LAPD, the city police department which has a sinister history of violence against black people, to arrest Smith.
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Egregious. Overreactive. Hypersensitive. Dehumanising. Ugly. Out Of Control. Toxic masculinity. These were some of the pickings from the word cloud du jour.
Should the man have sat back and stomached a public insult to his wife? Would not reacting have made him look like a sissy? Did using violence make him a caveman?
Look, Will Smith wasn’t being the bad guy here. In all fairness, maybe he was trying to be the good guy, the better man. Except, in doing so, he rolled back human evolution by a few million years.
Or maybe not, if you consider the facts. Toxic masculinity may not be as prehistoric as we think.
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While we don’t have reliable archaeological evidence to confirm whether cavemen of yore didn’t take kindly to their wives being insulted, we do know that early human societies weren’t as male-led as we’d like to imagine. Male anthropologists of the 1960’s were content to perpetuate the bias that in hunter-gatherer societies, men did the hunting and women did the gathering. Remains of female warriors and hunters recovered in recent times have put those premeditated role stereotypes to bed, revealing that prehistoric women participated equally, if not more assertively, in what have come to be regarded as male chores.
Why is this relevant? Because a man’s urge to protect his wife, his wealth, and his clan, drives his male ego. It’s a primitive and atavistic response to threat. Its unfiltered and raw expression, in the context of modern society, is the root of toxic masculinity. Moral policing, marital rape, honour killings, love jihads — all of these present-day social evils trace back to this notion that women and their wombs, like livestock, define a society’s wealth.
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With a few exceptions, most modern societies continue to raise men marinated in these assumptions, expectations and beliefs. From a young age, boys and girls are treated differently. The burden of expectations deepens the stereotypes — boys must play rough contact sports, enjoy bawdy humour, drink and smoke, commit adultery, and watch porn. While it is frowned upon for girls to do any of the above, they are instead saddled with a whole other set of conservative role expectations.
Typecasting men as heroes, when they are emotionally not ready to handle the responsibilities of heroism, creates pressure. Pressure to perform. Pressure to stand up. Pressure to speak up. Pressure to impress and prove your loyalty. Pressure to assert your manliness.
Not everyone can handle this pressure. The inability to express and reconcile with complex emotions gets to a man who has not been socially trained for navigating nuance. Being a nice guy equates to weakness. The mob wants a prizefighter, a gladiator, a bully… and the man conveniently acquiesces.
On that gala night, Will Smith squandered an opportunity to be man enough. By adhering to the textbook definition of a man, he wasted a chance to overturn role stereotypes. Had he wrested the podium during his award acceptance speech and expressed his displeasure in well-considered words, not mindless deeds, he would have won every beating heart not just in that room, but across the internet.
Chris Rock, far from being the nice guy, kept his nerve and didn’t strike back. Despite running his mouth, he won the day simply because he turned the other cheek. For that, he deserves another slap — on the back.
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