OPINION: Men Will Never ‘Do Better’ With Role Models Like Will Smith

Bad Boy for life?

Will Smith, the global megastar with a glittering movie and music career could have tarnished his entire reputation as a result of a few seconds at the 94th Academy Awards, setting a poor example for young men in the process.

On the night, comedian Chris Rock made a joke about Will’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, that referenced her alopecia. Will took a distaste to this joke and decided to take matters into his own hands, walking up on stage and slapping Chris Rock around the face. He followed this up by demanding Rock “keep [my] wife’s name out your f***ing mouth.”

The altercation has become the most talked-about moment of the entire Awards ceremony, overshadowing the fact we saw the first deaf man win an Oscar in Troy Katsur, and Ariana DeBose, the first openly queer woman of colour, also take home an Oscar.

Will even won an award himself for Best Actor just 40-minutes later, for his portrayal of Richard Williams, father to highly successful tennis-playing sisters, Venus and Serena Williams. In the movie, Richard (Will) proves he will go to great lengths to do anything he can for his daughters in order for them to be successful and realise their dreams.

I have no doubt that Will’s own personality would have shone through in this role. He is a family man through and through and will do anything he can to help them succeed.

But, was Will Smith right to do what he did?

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the Oscars. Image Credit: The Scotsman

Comedians make jokes for a living. It’s what they’re paid to do. They also, more often than not, make jokes that make you question whether you should laugh at them or not. British comedian and actor Ricky Gervais has been the host of several awards ceremonies, and regularly took shots at Hollywood’s elite (and, as Mel Gibson knows all too well, enjoyed taking shots at some of the most embarrassing and shameful moments in their lives). Has he ever been assaulted on stage? No.

There are claims that Chris was unaware of Jada’s alopecia. If true, then it was an innocent mistake. If he did know, then it just comes down to poor taste. I certainly don’t agree that you should make fun of someone’s medical condition (whatever the case, it certainly wasn’t as funny as some of Gervais’ quips).

We all have things about our bodies we’d like to change, and things we’re embarrassed by. So for someone to bring it up on live global television will certainly make you feel like the smallest person in the world.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘slap seen around the world’ has already become a huge viral meme on social media accounts, and you now can’t scroll through your Instagram or Twitter feed without seeing some sort of reference.

It’s not the first time Will has been turned into a viral meme. In 2020, a picture of him crying went viral and found itself on the receiving end of jokes around the topic of men showing emotion. It effectively became a synonym for the word “pain” (or a dark alternative for sarcastically saying: “great”).

Just as some people back then defended Will, claiming it was a great moment to highlight the fact men can, and should, show emotion, they are once again coming to his defence over this more recent event.

These defenders say he was right to put down somebody who made an offensive joke. Others claim there is no way he should have been able to get away with physically assaulting someone at an occasion such as the Oscars, which would have been seen by millions upon millions of people around the world – initial viewership figures for the United States estimate just over 15 million watched it nationally.

Hollywood itself is divided, with The New York Times citing the Academy itself as saying it “condemns the actions of Mr. Smith”, and Star Wars star Mark Hamill claiming it to be the “ugliest Oscars moment.”

Tiffany Haddish, meanwhile, who is a close friend of the Smiths said Will’s slap was “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” and a regular receiver of criticism, British journalist Piers Morgan, said he feels he should “defend” Will’s actions.

Morgan pointed out the fact it was more a slap than a punch (“whilst I don’t condone violence, Will Smith didn’t punch him”) and also wrote: “Making fun of a woman who’s lost all her hair isn’t funny, it’s just unkind.”

It’s an interesting subject and one that should warrant conversation and debate. Ultimately, however, I am personally torn over which ‘side’ to take.

I do understand Will’s intentions behind what he did, and I do applaud that. If someone you love is on the receiving end of criticism and they don’t have the strength within themselves to make it known they didn’t like it, you should be able to stand up for them.

And that is exactly what he did. Will actually laughed at the joke initially, but when he turned his head and noticed Jada was anything but amused, that’s when he got up on stage.

However, the way in which he did it and the stage in which he was seen to have done it, was a poor choice in my opinion.

Violence should never be the answer for anything. Some people may say “but he only slapped him, he didn’t punch him.” It’s irrelevant. It’s still violence and it still should not be condoned.

As the above Instagram post from @maxi.radcliffe perfectly explains, there is a right way and a wrong way to react to something that offends you or a loved one.

Hitting them just undoes all the tireless work that attempts to change the image of men. Hitting them just once again proves that men aren’t able to talk things out and feel their only medium to show the fact they’re offended, is to resort to violence.

At the time of the original publishing of this piece, Will hadn’t apologised to Chris for slapping him around the face, and I think Chris has shown remarkable courage and resilience to have shrugged it off, continue hosting and not press any charges following the event.

Since publishing, however, Will Smith has taken to Instagram to issue an apology.

For the most part, people’s reactions have been relatively narrow-minded. “How dare Chris make such an inoffensive joke about a woman’s medical condition, of course, Will should have stood up for her, he loves her.”

Scale this out, though, and suddenly you can start to see how Will’s actions could influence a younger generation and the negative effects it will have. If a young man sees his idol physically hit someone in the name of love and honor, does that now mean he can one day also hit someone, defending someone he holds close, without consequence?

Another argument raised by some people on social media is that it’s elitist (or simply, sheltered and overly-sensitive) to be quite so disgusted by violence. A bit of rough and tumble never hurt anyone, they seem to imply (see, for instance, satirical outlet Betoota Advocate’s recent headline: ‘Will Smith Reminds Hollywood That He’s West Philadelphia Born And Raised’).

Piers Morgan, for his part, while qualifying he doesn’t condone violence, wrote: “In previous eras, he’d have been saluted for defending his girl, not savaged by an overly sensitive snowflake society.”

Many subscribers to this school of thought argue that men – and the boys who look up to them – can distinguish between ‘honourable’ types of violence (like, in their view, what Smith did to Rock) and ‘bad’ types of violence (domestic abuse, a sucker punch to a random outside a pub, Putin’s war machine).

Except: this school of thought doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Why? Violence hurts people. This wasn’t a boxing match. It was a sucker slap. And violence typically only results in more violence, creating a vicious cycle which benefits no-one.

And all violent acts ultimately contribute to a culture in which things like domestic abuse, sucker punches and… wars occur – all still at horrifying rates. If people are able to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence, why do we live in such a messed up culture?

If we want to start doing better as a society we need to draw a harder line on violence – all of it.

Will highlights this fact in his apology, claiming “violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive…there is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”

He goes on to admit he is a “work in progress.”

One of the insights gained from DMARGE’s own Men’s Matters study found men and women unanimously agreeing on the fact young men need better role models, and only a small percentage of men and women surveyed (23%) felt that a man is weak if he doesn’t fight back.

Subsequently, more men and women (33%) disagreed with the statement, “A guy who doesn’t fight back is weak; guys should act strong even if they are scared.”

The importance of role models and the influence those in the public eye can have over young men and women can often be forgotten about, I feel. I’m willing to admit this opinion could be based on the fact I personally don’t feel I do look up to anyone in particular.

But for those who do have their heroes, they are going to watch and imitate things they do. And Will’s meteroic rise from the loveable young jokester in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to one of Hollywood’s leading men is a perfect example of how perseverance, commitment and to not let hate bring you down (not all of his movies have been box office successes, but he hasn’t let the negativity affect him) can bring you success.

It’s this dedication to the cause and his charming, laidback aura that have earned him legions of fans around the world. But what he did to Chris Rock should have these fans questioning whether Will is, in fact, perfect.

Trent Knox, one user on social media who released an uncensored version of the clip of Will slapping Chris, said himself in his video that “Role models are not perfect.” This could not be more true.

We all make mistakes. We can all react impulsively, only to rethink our actions at a later time. I feel in this particular instance, Will would have done better to have done better to have kept the rage he felt inside him at the time, and speak to Chris after the event.

But love can make us do crazy things.

While Will has since owned up to his actions and apologised, it doesn’t mean the event itself never happened. Of course, an apology and an admission of doing wrong are good, but it could still encourage the idea that we can still use violence against someone if we feel it’s justified.

Just as long as we say sorry afterwards.

Be a better role model Will. We know you can be. You know you can be.

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