Will Smith’s attack on Chris Rock shows toxic masculinity boiling over | Blogs


It was the slap felt ’round the world.

Will Smith, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, took to the stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards. In front of a live, predominantly white audience. On a live television broadcast watched by millions around the world. It was so outrageous that many people at first thought it was a joke, part of the script. But then Smith returned to his seat and yelled at Rock, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

Those of us who saw it live were shocked. Toxic masculinity can indeed appear suddenly in shocking, sometimes violent ways.

As a scholar of men’s studies, I teach that “toxic masculinity” is manifestations of childhood and manhood that are harmful to self and others. In many ways, it’s a cocktail of the worst behaviors and attitudes a guy can have.

This pushes him to act without self-control and carry out macho stereotypes. In many cases, it is fueled by assumptions about how men are supposed to act. It was this last feature that was honored at the Oscars.

Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, starring in a ‘GI Jane’ movie sequel. It was a joke about her appearance. It’s possible that most people interpreted the comment like that, but I understood it differently.

Over the past year, I’ve watched videos on social media of Jada Pinkett Smith talking about battling her hair loss and finally coming to terms with it. Her husband first laughed at the comedian’s joke. Jada Pinkett Smith, meanwhile, was visibly annoyed. It could be that in a split second, her husband would recognize that she felt publicly humiliated by a joke about something that was so personally painful to her.

Here enters toxic masculinity. Will Smith bursts onto the stage and slaps the man who insulted his wife.

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I have a spouse whom I love deeply. Honestly, if someone had done to him what Rock did to Smith’s wife, especially about something that I knew was an emotional pain point for him, I would have felt compelled to slap that person too. I wouldn’t have, though. Undeniably, a better route would have been for Smith to take the stage, tell Rock, “You just hurt my wife,” and ask him to apologize. The ideal first step would have been for Smith to ask his wife what she wanted — which he may have done.

Toxic masculinity forces a guy to go into fight mode immediately 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 research a range of alternatives to violence? Movies, TV shows, video games, other forms of media, and the messages we have received all of our lives have conditioned us to act in ways that can be violent or otherwise toxic at times like these- this.

In his acceptance speech for the actor in a lead role minutes later, Smith said he felt “called” to be a protector at this point in his life. I guess the act of violence was his way of protecting his wife. The “real men are protectors” expectation is firmly rooted in toxic masculinity. Again, as a married man, I understand. I just know that protection doesn’t have to be violent.

Then there is the sequel with Rock. This is 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 fix this situation for him, then to ask Smith to genuinely apologize and do whatever he can to meet Rock’s expectations in terms of compensation for damages. On Monday afternoon, Smith apologized to Rock on Instagram.

Recovering from a lifetime of toxic masculinity requires us men to take a step back and be incredibly aware of the myriad ways we have been socialized to manage anger in our interactions with other men, women and genderqueer people. Honestly thinking about what “real men” have told us to do, and often doing the opposite.

Will Smith is 53, confirming that toxic masculinity isn’t about immaturity. It’s not something that men develop naturally. Some of us embody aspects of it all our lives. Understanding what it is and how it manifests in our attitudes and behaviors could save us from harming 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 darkens this moment forever.

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”.


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