More Than A Joke: Why THAT Oscar Moment Transcended The Stage

Ed Farley

The Oscars is known by all as the celebrity and industry circus; long revered for its optics and glamour it never fails to make headlines. It is, after all, Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. Yet, in a turn of events more suited to a soap opera than the big screen, a stupid joke ensured it would become the biggest night for twitter timelines and news publications as well. Ed Farley tells us more.

Presenting ‘Best Documentary’, Chris Rock warmed up the guests with his characteristic ‘comedic’ delivery. He took subtle jabs at the audience, but the biggest hit of all fell when he turned his gaze to a select Hollywood couple: Best Actor winner Will Smith, and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith.

It was Rock’s responsibility to make both audiences at home and in the theatre comfortable, and he failed on both counts

As mentioned before, I’m sure the internet has you more than aware of what came next. In the fanfare, however, the focus fell on Chris Rock’s swinging jaw and Will Smith’s swinging hand, not on Jada Pinkett-Smith. Still seated, she not only became the target of a cruel joke, but was used as internet cannon-fodder, outshone by the optics produced by the two men on stage. I won’t be delving into whether Smith’s response was justified, but I will be talking about how a seasoned professional still doesn’t understand the craft he’s been employed in for the past 20 years.  

‘Jada, I love ya, GI Jane 2, I can’t wait to see it!’, was bellowed through the speakers.  

This was a reference to Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head, reminiscent of the style donned by Demi Moore in Ridley Scott’s panned 1997 film. Rock focused on the visual image of one character in one film, and reduced a woman to it, in an all-too-familiar tale of women’s worth in spaces attributed to their looks, above anything else. It was Rock’s responsibility to make both audiences at home and in the theatre comfortable, and he failed on both counts. 

Instead of mentioning Smith who was soon to win an Oscar, Rock decided to attack his wife who was just there in support. It’s not surprising that a joke on a show made for millions to see was lacking in nuance. It needed to be palatable, but the reduction of what that style meant to Pinkett-Smith and millions of other people in the world was a blow lower than Smith’s, because it tapped into a conversation that was much too wide and deep for a quick jab delivered to 15 million people watching at home.

A woman minding her own business has, yet again, become an inevitable target because of her appearance

Pinkett-Smith has been vocal about her hairstyle- a response to her alopecia, an auto-immune condition where the immune system attacks hair follicles resulting in hair loss. To reclaim what she lost, Pinkett-Smith proudly proclaimed her change of style, responding to a condition which, like many, had a detrimental effect on her self-esteem.  

It’s in this light where one must ask: in what way would a joke of this nature be appropriate for a show which is emblematic of sophistication and acknowledgement of the arts? 

Chris Rock did a few things that night in order to get a cheap laugh: 

  1. Bully a woman minding her own business. 
  2. Bully a community of people who are affected by the same medical condition. 
  3. Utilise his genre to do so.  

It’s tiresome at this point, that in an environment meant to support the arts, a woman minding her own business has, yet again, become an inevitable target because of her appearance. Rock saw Pinkett-Smith only for her appearance, ignoring the pain and history of loss that amalgamated to what has for many become a statement of power. Amongst the flurry of social media posts focusing on the infamous slap, Twitter users also took time to voice their own experiences of alopecia and how the hair style ran deeper than aesthetics. 

Comments like Rock’s shouldn’t be taken lightly; they impact a wider community of people with their own journeys and struggles. Users also mentioned that the statement of power wasn’t only reclaiming a condition but also a reclamation of hair in general, which, for black women, is continually weaponised to cause embarrassment, violence and upset to the wearer, leaving long-term and systematic ramifications. In most environments, regardless of style, black hair and black women will always be at risk. 

The joke itself was an off-the-cuff remark that wasn’t featured in Oscar rehearsals

Aside from the most important topics at hand, Rock’s weaponisation of comedy also missed the mark. The genre of comedy has been notably snubbed by the academy for a multitude of years, and this display doesn’t help aid the calls for the Oscars to recognise more works of the genre.

A genre meant to bring joy added another layer of bitterness to an already tasteless joke. People’s pain should be off limits. The joke itself, was an off-the-cuff remark that wasn’t featured in Oscar rehearsals, as stated by an insider. The blasé comment added another level of un-refinement which directly contrasted the ideals of the academy and aided the rejection of a genre that doesn’t have the attention it deserves. The idea that his instinctive reaction was to attack a woman for her looks, is furthermore infuriating because it says more about him, than it does the style in which it was said. It wasn’t a joke because it wasn’t funny. 

There is a home for comedy at the Oscars, there are multiple examples of it being done well, but that is because it has been done sensitively. This is more of a lesson that platforms cannot and should not be abused in the name of comedy. Comedians should pick their fights depending on context, otherwise they might have one coming to them instead. This is a prime example of the need to honour rehearsals and treat audiences and individuals with respect. Sometimes, it’s best to keep the joke on file, and not on the airwaves in front of millions to see.  

Ed Farley

Featured Image courtesy of @WaltDisneyTelevision via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image

In-article image 1 courtesy of @theacademy via @instagram.com. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article image 2 courtesy of @willsmith via @instagram.com. No changes were made to this image

For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.

EntertainmentFilm & TV

Leave a Reply