At the 2003 Academy Awards ceremony, host Steve Martin, a white comic, made a not-so-funny gag aimed at Jennifer Lopez, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents.
Lopez was sitting with her beau of the time, Ben Affleck, a white Californian built like a light-heavyweight boxer (she may be back with him now). You’ll understand shortly why I’m being specific about their particulars.
You Can Take the Man Out of the Ghetto…
Watching the past weekend’s Oscars altercation, I immediately wondered: What if Chris Rock, an African American comedian, had cracked a gag at the expense of JLo and not Jada Pinkett Smith? After Martin’s joke, Lopez grinned politely, while Affleck, seated next to her, was clearly unimpressed but forced a transparently false smile.
The Year the Oscars Went Black
But what if he had taken offense, like Will Smith, a black actor with a similar build to Affleck, did? If Affleck marched onto the stage and smacked Rock across the face, the situation would have taken on a completely different dynamic. The headlines would have read: White Actor Strikes Diminutive Black Host. Rock is 5 foot 7 inches and, in boxing terms, looks about a featherweight.
The media would have reacted differently, though how differently we’ll never know. One thing is for sure: The episode would have taken on a racial character.
Even as it was, Smith’s assault on Rock is loaded with racial implications, the most obvious one being that he supplied white racists with sustenance. There is an adage that “You can take the man out of the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of the man.” Racists subscribe to this and often cite the examples of O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson, both African Americans who became conspicuously successful and had more money than they could count. Both, in their different ways, imploded.
Smith hasn’t committed an offense comparable with rape or any other kind of violent crime. And the LAPD has declared it will not seek prosecution. So, Smith’s contretemps is likely to remain that: an embarrassment rather than a crime.
But let’s face it: Had it occurred in a different context, the likelihood is that the perpetrator of the offense would be arrested and charged. There would be no trouble finding witnesses, either. Smith behaved like a perfect racial stereotype: hot-tempered, bull-headed, thuggish and, most importantly, incapable of controlling his emotions even in an environment where decorum prevailed. Even after Smith returned to his seat, he screamed obscenities at Rock, who lacked the wit to turn the episode into something worthy of laughter. His was an unedifying exhibition of uncontrolled aggression.
Surprisingly, Smith was not ejected and, indeed, later picked up an award for best actor.
But pandering to stock racist types was not Smith’s only offense. His action was borderline misogynistic, perhaps even enhancing the racial stereotype he’d brought to life. Consider if it was a case of Will being taken over by his emotion, seeing the look on his wife’s face, probably under family stress with her condition and snapping. Or a black man animating an anachronistic form of masculinity, historically associated, though not exclusively, with black men. After all, the amusing line was aimed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia, a condition that manifests in the partial or complete absence of hair from areas of the body where it normally grows; baldness, in other words.
Couldn’t she have responded to the insult herself? She may have felt a more dignified silence was the best policy. But she might also have answered back with an equally acerbic remark. Or, if she had been moved to act, Pinkett Smith could have administered the slap in the face herself. She’s about the same size as Rock, so it wouldn’t have been the mismatch that actually did take place. Since when do women need their husbands, partners or male friends to take care of their business? Jada looked slightly disgusted by Rock’s remark, but, so far, her views on her husband’s violent behavior aren’t known. Had she objected to it, we would have surely found out by now.
Since #MeToo gained momentum in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein case, the flagrant manipulation and abuse of women by men — especially powerful ones — has become visible through the testimonies of countless women. We probably suspected for years that men get away with mistreating women in more ways than one. But #MeToo has effectively put the brake on this egregious historical practice.
What about men’s abuse of other men? I know readers will think I am stretching this too far, but surely men have the right not to be coerced, harassed or intimidated too. Rock was only doing his job — the tradition at Oscar ceremonies is to “roast,” as Americans call it. That is, to subject guests to good-natured criticism. For many, he may have overstepped the mark by making fun of what is, after all, a medical condition. But the informal rules about what constitutes good or bad taste change year by year. Rock is at least entitled to expect the people he insults will be familiar enough with the custom that they take the ridicule in the spirit he intends.
Victims of Domestic Abuse
The LAPD’s intention not to pursue the case raises a final issue. Should it be necessary for a complainant to press charges when an obvious assault has been committed? Rock is clearly embarrassed by the affair, and his failure to file a complaint presumably reflects his desire to have the incident quickly forgotten. Countless women and men, who have been victims of domestic abuse, do not press charges. But their motivations are usually very, very different. Often, they are pressured by their abuser or threatened with more violence should they pursue charges.
The LAPD’s approach to this seems head-in-the-sand. It will probably have no consequences for Chris Rock and leave no damage, professionally or physically (at least he didn’t seem too badly hurt). But victims of domestic abuse are never so fortunate: their circumstances dictate that they often imperil their own safety by giving evidence. The LAPD’s decision will not inspire them.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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