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Examining Will Smith's Reaction at the Oscars

"Love will make you do crazy things."

Key points

  • What happened at the Oscars ceremony deserves fuller examination to understand dynamics of abuse and control.
  • Excuses for violent behaviors are at least as tolerated as the violence itself and need to be addressed.
  • Men's violence toward other men usually relates to the disregard of women.

Like most of us, my newsfeed has been saturated with commentary on the Oscars 2022 debacle. Working for many years as a counselor in abuser intervention programs and surviving violence myself gives me perspective on this that I want to share. There is a great deal to unpack in those brief moments that unfolded on screen, and it is through the prism of expertise on violence that I will outline key elements worth examining more deeply.

Unsplash/Anika Mikkelson
Source: Unsplash/Anika Mikkelson

While presenting the award for a documentary feature, Chris Rock made a jab at Jada Pinkett-Smith, but it wasn’t just any funny jab. Regardless of his intentions, to many, the remark had the effect of making a mockery out of Pinkett-Smith’s issues with hair loss. Men making fun of women’s appearances and women’s bodies on a national stage: never a good look. And then, Pinkett-Smith’s husband, Will Smith, took to the stage, slapped Rock, and went back to sit down screaming at him to “Keep my wife’s name out your ******* mouth!” Assaulting and then swearing at a colleague on a national stage: never a good look. The situation might remind us of what we learned in kindergarten, that two wrongs don’t make a right. But, here, I am going to focus on Will Smith’s actions for the ways they help us to better understand dynamics of violence.

“Love will make you do crazy things.”

This is what Smith said in his acceptance speech for the award of Best Actor. I heard comments like this from clients for years, things like “I couldn’t help myself; I was just jealous” or “I don’t know how else to explain it; something just came over me" and “I just love her so much that I had to do that to show her.” And the list goes on. A comment like Smith's is code for minimization, rationalization, and justification of assault.

The problem is that the cultural narrative of love and the cultural narrative of violence are so inextricably linked as to seem indistinguishable. Phrases like “It was a crime of passion” or “Madly in love” or “Love made me do it” further highlight this problem. Smith’s comment, “Love will make you do crazy things,” is something he could say and be fairly confident that viewers would identify with it and find it relatable, and that he could count on it to evoke some empathy and forgiveness. In doing this, he actively capitalized on the excuse-making that is so prevalent in society and then manipulated it to serve his needs and to justify his own behavior. We tolerate excuses for violence as much if not more than violence itself.

Furthermore, when Smith attempted to apologize during his acceptance speech, the fact that he was crying did not surprise me. I have worked with and interviewed violent men who did the same thing when engaging in a quick fix to absolve their behavior: They often cried, but when questioned about it further, admitted that they weren’t crying about what they did or who they hurt, but, instead, they were crying for themselves. It was a profound sense of powerlessness that led them to want to exert a tremendous sense of power and control.

“Keep my wife’s name out your f*cking mouth!”

I might have more compassion for him had he said her name. But the fact that Pinkett-Smith was identified by him solely on the basis of being his wife just doesn’t sit right. His attitude seems more about a man regarding his wife as property that he owns and must defend from being disgraced. Simultaneously, it denies her sense of agency and voice. And I might have had more compassion for Smith had he not visibly engaged in the laughter at this joke before then going up to slap Rock. Viewers are left to wonder if Pinkett-Smith and Smith made eye contact in such a way that signaled to him that she was angry or hurt (or both) by the “joke.”

The joke about Pinkett-Smith resembling G.I. Jane, and Smith himself laughing at it, underscores the ways in which many men have trouble taking women—especially strong, determined ones—seriously. The easiest way to manage that discomfort is to joke about it, create a mockery around it, and then Smith’s reaction would be an attempt to assert a sense of moral authority in the situation. Except that he didn’t. Not by any means. And this is because of the next issue, which is so commonplace in violent masculinity.

The deeper implications of men’s violence against other men

Smith’s violence seemed highly performative, a way to dramatize the ways he believes men need to be in control. Smith used the resources he had at that particular moment—the ability and sense of entitlement to saunter onto the stage, to use his fist, and to then assault Rock—all to accomplish what for him was seizing masculinity. The problem is that boys and men have been socialized to regard a slight against the woman they are with as a slight against their own obviously fragile masculinity.

In male-to-male violence, a woman (or women) is often central, and she often represents what is being fought over or she is what is being fought over; she is part of an exchange or transaction between the men involved in the violence. For example, violent men with whom I worked often described their desire to dominate other men, particularly when they discovered another man’s involvement with their ex-partner. Such violence carries with it the very loud and clear message to women survivors: “If I can’t have you, no one will.”

The insidious aspect of male violence against other men, when women represent what is being fought over, is that the crime against women remains relatively invisible. The outright expression of violence is toward the other man, and the overt claim to dominate is also toward the other man. What is obscured from our vision, then, is the abuse toward the woman in question and the belief in the right to control and dominate her and her life choices. The situation of male violence against men conveys the impression that the woman is implicated in the situation when, in actuality, male violence against men typically has much to do with male violence against women more generally. What happened at the Oscars is the ultimate example of the colonization of women’s bodies, especially for Black women, and reveals the extent to which women’s bodies are contested terrain.

I am reminded of a fantastic movie about domestic violence that I use in class titled "Once Were Warriors," in which a man in a bar goes to put a new song on a jukebox to drown out a woman singing, and then the abuser in the story steps in to defend her and repeatedly punches the other man. It’s early in the movie, and it is meant to strike viewers as chivalrous, yet we are then faced with the paradox of the abuser going home and violently beating and raping his wife.

Intergenerational transmission of violence

I was not surprised at all to learn that Smith witnessed and experienced domestic violence in his childhood. According to The Guardian, Smith said in his autobiography that, at age nine, he witnessed his father beat his mother to a pulp, that he regrets not standing up to his father to defend his mother, and he is traumatized “for being a coward.” Oscars 2022 gave Smith an opportunity, however misguided, to make good on his wish to defend a woman he loves.

As I detail in my book about healing from domestic violence, there are many ways to emerge from the legacy of an abusive family. In putting violence on repeat, Smith’s way is painfully common. The harder way—yet the way that is far more emotionally fulfilling in the long run—is to work to change the narrative in one’s own relationships and interactions, which, in turn, has ripple effects on the cultural narrative. The trouble is that what Smith did leaves him looking like a bully—which is really the ultimate coward. Across the country, boys and girls like nine-year-old Smith were—and still are—watching as the celebrities they most revere and regard as role models make the decisions they do. And in an age when various sectors are at least trying to sanction abuse, I am left wondering: Should the Academy revoke the award? Should children grow up to believe that people can assault others and go on to win big? We owe it to young people everywhere to rewrite this old, tired script of masculinity.

More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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