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The misguided chivalry of Will Smith

Chris Rock made a bad joke about Jada Pinkett Smith. Unfortunately, her husband’s offense became the story.

Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith at the Oscars. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In the moment before Jada Pinkett Smith’s husband strode onstage to slap another man during Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony, the camera panned briefly to her face. Comedian Chris Rock had just made a joke at her expense, and she did not appear happy. She rolled her eyes. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. She sat ramrod straight, wearing a high-necked emerald gown — there was almost a genteel Victorian sensibility to her restrained displeasure.

Pinkett Smith’s reaction to the joke potentially contained multitudes: Embarrassment? Irritation? Self-consciousness? But instead of Oscar viewers focusing on how she felt in that moment, the narrative of Sunday’s ceremony became that Will Smith smacked Chris Rock on live television.

In case you missed the shocking and bizarre sequence of events: From the stage, Rock noted Pinkett Smith’s current lack of hair and joked that he would see her “in ‘G.I. Jane 2.’” From the audience, Will Smith first appeared to laugh, but the next frame showed him crossing the stage and slapping Rock squarely across the face. “Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth,” Smith called out, moments later. A dumbfounded Rock replied “Wow, dude! It was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke!” and a visibly angered Smith repeated himself.

A short while later Smith won the best-actor award for his role in “King Richard,” a film about the family of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, and used his acceptance speech to apologize to the academy, but not to Rock, for his behavior. “I look like the crazy father,” he said, likening himself to the protective tennis patriarch he portrayed on screen. “But love will make you do crazy things.”

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about Smith's wife's hair during the Oscars on March 27. Smith won best actor for "King Richard." (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters/The Washington Post)

Rock’s initial joke was generally lame and specifically offensive: Pinkett Smith has publicly discussed living with a medical condition that causes hair loss — something Rock may not have been aware of.

But one thing you might have noticed is that although Jada Pinkett Smith was the wronged party, she did not leap up from her seat to slap Chris Rock. She remained in her seat while her husband acted out his version of chivalry in a move so outlandish the audience at first seemed to react as if it might be a rehearsed bit.

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock after Jada Pinkett Smith joke at Oscars

Will Smith might have believed he was protecting his wife. But violence performed in the name of protecting wronged women only steals away the attention from where it belongs: on the wronged woman.

Smith did not, from his seat, bellow, “Jada has alopecia, you monster!” He did not name his wife or her feelings at all. Instead, he referred to “my wife’s name.” Whether Smith meant to or not, he implied that Rock’s error was insulting a person under Smith’s purview. His decision to slap Rock centered on his own sense of honor and offense, not hers.

Later using his acceptance speech to suggest that the slap was an act of spousal devotion only furthered a nasty trope of equating anger and affection. Though Smith did apologize to the academy and his fellow nominees, Smith’s speech also — purposefully or not — folded the slap into a larger narrative of appropriate masculine behavior. He focused on the concept of “protection.” He said, “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.” In the context of what had just happened, it almost sounded as though hitting Rock was in some way a righteous reaction, in tune with a higher calling.

Later at an after-party, he and his family hit the dance floor, "where he rapped along with ... three of his own hits,” according to The Post’s report.

Within a matter of hours, onstage battery had been transformed into a tidy redemptive narrative arc.

If Will Smith hadn’t slapped Chris Rock, then the attention the next morning might have been on Rock’s bad joke. We might have talked about whether it’s ever acceptable to mock someone for a physical condition beyond their control (no) and what Rock should do to make amends.

The fallout might have been whatever Jada Pinkett Smith wanted it to be: a chance to raise awareness about alopecia, or to publicly forgive Rock, or not publicly forgive him. She might have talked about how difficult it was to remain in her seat while jokes were made at her expense. And yet remain there she did, for she might have worried that reacting could result in viewers thinking of her as a killjoy who couldn’t take a joke — or, even more unfairly, as an angry Black woman.

Instead, Pinkett Smith’s voice has thus far been entirely absent from the conversation. As of this writing, she had not commented publicly on what happened. Her last tweet was posted before the Oscars ceremony: a photo of her, dressed and ready for the ceremony, asking her followers to “keep your fingers crossed.”

The memorable image from Sunday’s Oscars will be Will Smith hitting Chris Rock. The memorable image should be Jada Pinkett Smith in her emerald-colored gown, keeping her fingers crossed and her hands to herself.

Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather died Oct. 2. She made Oscars history by declining the best actor prize on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
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