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Why a single slap struck so many

Actor Will Smith slaps comedian Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars on March 27. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
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Almost 48 hours after Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, one moment from the broadcast has remained in the spotlight, fueling nonstop discourse and fierce debate: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock.

Some Hollywood figures, pundits and viewers have been supportive of Smith, or at least sympathetic, arguing that the actor was simply defending his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, after Rock made a crass joke about her shaved head. (Pinkett Smith has publicly spoken about her alopecia diagnosis, but it’s not clear whether Rock knew about her condition.)

Others have strongly criticized the outburst, raising concerns about the effect it might have on domestic abuse survivors, the message it might send about violence and whether the entire situation was a show of toxic masculinity.

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And these are only some of the intense reactions that have been expressed and the complicated issues that have been raised.

Psychologists and experts on violence aren’t surprised by the strong emotions generated by the incident, and their variety. “The complexity right now does center around the talks and discussions we’re having around race, gender and disability … and survivorship,” said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. “All of those things combined impacted the lens in which we saw this unfortunate event.”

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around what happened, you’re probably not alone, said La Keita Carter, a psychologist in Baltimore. “I am still processing it. It’s a lot to take in. There are an incredible amount of layers to that situation.”

Actor Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27. The awards show has a history of unpredictable moments. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

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First, there is the issue of the joke. Rock quipped about looking forward to seeing Pinkett Smith in “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference to a 1997 movie in which actress Demi Moore shaves her head that might have seemed benign, not to mention out of date, to some viewers. But it was perceived by many others as “attacking or body shaming,” Carter said. Underlying that, she added, is a long history of women, particularly Black women, being disrespected publicly — often about their appearances and hair. There’s a feeling among many Black people, she said, that “Somebody’s got to stop it.”

Then, in Smith’s reaction, there’s Smith’s personal history to consider. In his memoir, which came out in November, Smith detailed witnessing domestic violence as a child, including one instance where he watched his father punch his mother “in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed,” according to the Guardian. Smith expressed deep regret for not being able to do anything at the time, writing: “Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”

But while Rock’s joke may have “crossed a line,” Carter said, “what [Smith] did is a crime” that evoked its own strong and multifaceted reactions.

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For many viewers, watching live or following along on social media, the slap was initially met with “genuine shock,” Alexander said. They had watched in real time as in front of cameras and Oscars attendees, Smith strode onstage and forcefully slapped a person who was standing alone and had been laughing with his hands clasped behind his back. (Only later did those outside the theater see footage revealing that after returning to his seat, Smith yelled twice at Rock to “Keep my wife’s name out your … mouth!”)

“Oftentimes in our culture, violence is done behind doors,” Alexander said. “You don’t often see people, unless it’s like a bar fight or something like that, actually engage in that degree of hostility unless you have been a survivor yourself. So, I think for a lot of people that was very shocking to them, that this was such a public display on an international stage of aggression.” (More than 15 million people tuned in to watch the Oscars, according to Variety; uncounted more watched clips online.)

Amplifying the shock was confusion about whether the slap had been staged. Many people also couldn’t believe Smith, who is widely beloved and known for his “good guy” persona, would lose his composure that way, Alexander said.

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Less than an hour later, however, Smith addressed the incident during his rambling, tearful speech accepting the best-actor award for playing Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. He spoke about portraying Williams, who he described as “a fierce defender of his family,” protecting his co-stars, and wanting to be a “vessel for love.” He also said, “Love will make you do crazy things.”

At some point during the evening, Alexander said, people had to start thinking, “'How do I now interpret this now that I know it wasn’t a stunt?'”

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)

And the way people reacted to the slap and Smith’s speech was largely individual, said Beverly Kingston, a sociologist and director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Depending on your life experiences, it just can hit you very differently.”

Even among the people who agreed that Rock’s joke was ableist, Alexander said, the question about Smith’s response remained: “Should it be a violent act, or could Will have spoken to Chris instead of slapping him?” Some, for instance, have argued that “this is a situation in which a husband was defending their wife,” she said.

Meanwhile, Alexander said, others may have perceived the moment as “a demonstration of toxic masculinity or patriarchal systems,” believing Pinkett Smith didn’t need a man to defend her. And all of that was overlaid with the issue of violence. “Depending on a person’s experiences, a person’s exposure to violence, I think people were reacting in different ways,” Alexander said.

In particular, many survivors of domestic violence and intimate-partner violence were unsettled by the incident and the emphasis Smith placed on love during his speech.

“There is a group of people who were triggered by watching an adult walk up to another adult and slap him across the face in a way that was clearly aggressive and violent,” said Carter, who works with survivors. The fact that the slap was also sudden and unexpected “could be extremely triggering for domestic violence survivors because that’s their everyday life.”

But, Carter added, there may be certain people who saw the slap and said, “I would have given anything for somebody to walk through my door and done that to my perpetrator.”

Some survivors also took issue with the line in Smith’s speech that “love will make you do crazy things.”

“That is a typical abusive person’s excuse for causing abuse,” said Ruth Glenn, president and chief executive of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I by no means know or believe that Will Smith is an abusive person, but that choice of words solidifies culture about that, and it solidifies abusive person’s ideas that they can get away with this by blaming it on love.”

What happened at the Oscars, Glenn said, “sends the wrong message on two fronts,” particularly to younger men: “Love will make you do crazy things, and in order to protect somebody, you’ve got to act violently.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233

However people feel about the slap, the varied reactions being shared have fueled “rich conversations” that don’t always occur in public spaces, Alexander said.

Experts said they would like these conversations to continue. “You can see it as a one-time thing, but instead I see it as an opportunity for us to collectively say, what kind of behavior is okay or not okay?” Kingston said. “And how do we want to handle situations where our emotions and our hurt and pain overwhelm us?”