I’ve seen this concern expressed elsewhere and my suspicion is that the answer is no. The unmistakable lesson of Smith slapping Chris Rock and then getting a standing ovation 20 minutes later when he was named Best Actor is that celebrity has its privileges. In addition to its traditional perks, like money and sex, being a celebrity in modern America can get you elected president or it can grant you impunity from being convicted of a crime.
Or both, in certain select cases.
Most viewers surely understood that slapping someone without consequence is reserved for the mega-rich and mega-famous. Still, Rogan’s point is well taken: There are a few smooth-brains in every audience who’ll draw the wrong lesson from bad behavior they’ve observed. Will Smith probably did make life marginally more dangerous for the average stand-up comic. And much more lucrative for one particular stand-up comic.
Will Smith slapping Chris Rock "sets a terrible precedent for comedy clubs. Like, are people going to decide that they're going to go on stage and smack a comedian now?" asked @joerogan. https://t.co/DkM6aATXdA pic.twitter.com/jAtUWOG7Rj
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) March 29, 2022
His fear is overblown. Although after seeing the results of this poll, I’m less confident of that than I was 48 hours ago.
Another well-known comic who was in the building at the time also thinks there should have been immediate consequences:
Oscars host Wanda Sykes says it was "gross" for The Academy to allow Will Smith to stay after slapping Chris Rock:
"For them to let him stay in that room and enjoy the rest of that show … I was like, 'How gross is this?' This is just the wrong message." pic.twitter.com/cEbPj6SWMk
— The Recount Alt (@therecountalt) March 30, 2022
Yesterday I did a little armchair psychoanalysis of Smith, wondering if his wife’s preference for an “unconventional” marriage had made him hypersensitive about his manhood when another man demeaned her in front of him. If we’re going to dig deep on Smith’s motives, though, I should include this anecdote too — which probably better explains his reaction, frankly:
Smith’s story starts in Wynnefield, the middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia where his parents moved the family when he was two years old. “For a young Black family in the 1970s, this was as ‘American Dream’ as you could get,” he writes of the tightly clustered brick row houses. In the book, he discusses what he describes as one of the defining experiences of his life: at the age of nine, watching as his father punched his mother in the side of the head. It was not the only violence Smith saw his father inflict while growing up, but this particular incident, he writes, “has defined who I am today.” His brother jumped up, trying to intervene. His sister fled, hiding in her bedroom. Smith remembers freezing, too scared to do anything…
For decades, Smith has seen himself as a coward. His desire to please people, to entertain the crowd, and to make us all laugh, he explains, is rooted, at least in part, in the belief that if he kept everyone—his father, his classmates, his fans—smiling, they wouldn’t lash out with violence at him or the people he loved. If he could keep making his mother proud through his accomplishments, he reasoned, perhaps she would forgive his childhood inaction.
If it haunts him that he failed to protect one woman he loves as a kid, go figure that he might overreact to seeing another woman he loves in pain as an adult. That’s not an excuse, mind you. Just an observation.
Meanwhile, the true victim in the incident will be stuck playing it for laughs no matter how much it bothers him privately lest he have his own manhood questioned. Oscar host Amy Schumer can get away with saying she was “triggered and traumatized” from watching Smith slap Rock (“traumatized,” really?) but Rock’s going to have to roll with it or else the slap will consume even more of his public image. Imagine spending 30 years as a famous comedian and film actor only to be turned in an instant into “the guy who got smacked at the Oscars.” Rock may have to shrug it off but his family doesn’t:
Chris Rock may be keeping quiet after Will Smith slapped him at the Oscars but his brother has been anything but.
In a lengthy Twitter Q&A Tuesday, Tony Rock responded “no” when asked if he approves of Smith’s public apology, although it’s unclear if he’s speaking for his brother as well.
He also said Sean “Diddy” Combs was lying when he said Rock and Smith had made up.
Smith had an opportunity to apologize sincerely to Rock when he took the stage to accept his Oscar. Instead he apologized only to the Academy. The statement he released a day later wasn’t an apology from him, it was an apology from the publicist who wrote it. Hopefully it’s a consolation to Rock that the slap will forever be part of Smith’s public image too, and not in a flattering way.
I’ll leave you with this surreal take from a guy who knows better than anyone alive how useful celebrity privilege is when you lose your cool over a woman.
He was wrong but I understand the sentiment. pic.twitter.com/aURe1pyubg
— O.J. Simpson (@TheRealOJ32) March 29, 2022