You’d think we’d moved past Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards by now. Somehow, though, we’re talking about it again, thanks largely to Jada Pinkett Smith’s new memoir Worthy, which appears to have been published in its entirety as the media tries to squeeze as many bombshells out of its pages as possible. The book has exhumed the discourse surrounding The Slap – yes, we’re capitalizing on it – from its deceptively superficial grave, and unsurprisingly it ignores the most important context of the moment.
In case you were lucky enough to avoid that extensive The coverage The Slap received at the time goes something like this. Chris Rock appeared at the 2022 Oscars to present the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, making a remark directed at Jada Pinkett Smith: “Jada, I love you.” GI Jane 2, I can’t wait, you to see you again.”
The “joke,” if you can even call it that, involved Pinkett Smith’s shaved head and alopecia, an autoimmune skin disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy hair follicles and causes hair loss – from which Pinkett Smith suffers publicly announced that she was having difficulties.
At first, Smith appeared to laugh at the “joke,” went on stage, punched Rock in the face, and left the hall in stunned silence. When he won his first Oscar later that evening King RichardSmith took a moment during his speech to apologize — seemingly to everyone but Rock — but the discourse had already begun.
There were calls for Smith to be subjected to harsh sanctions – that the Academy should strip him of his award, fire him immediately, and impose a series of other reprimands that were both realistic and, frankly, less realistic. The noise was enough for the Academy to ban Smith from attending Academy events, including the Academy Awards, for ten years. The story is over, right? Well, apparently people still have that a lot to say about The Slap.
It seems we are destined to argue forever about the morality of The Slap, judging by how much it rebounded 18 months after the fact. But what was lost in the coverage then and goes unmentioned today is that when Smith slapped Chris Rock for the first time in my memory, anti-disability sentiment had an immediate, public and tangible consequence.
Regardless of how you view the situation, Rock made a blatantly ableist joke about Pinkett Smith, and people kept joking until Smith silenced them. I’m not here to say that makes it right.
However, as a disabled person who has seen stories like mine, designed solely to inspire non-disabled people, I have seen my community disenfranchised, driven into poverty, and sacrificed to the collective apathy of a disabled population (most recently in the US). ongoing Pandemic and the associated illusion of normality) – as someone who has been the target of similarly cruel jokes from all sides, including family, simply because of his disability – and observes the same disabilityism that causes me and people like me so much suffering inflicted and the pain poured out of someone’s mouth…well, it was pretty satisfying.
This ableist context, important as it is, has yet to return to the discussion. However, if we reframe “The Slap” appropriately, a strange picture emerges. Smith is banned from the Oscars for ten years for slapping Rock; Still, Rock and his disability jokes would apparently be welcome to return. In fact, he told a stand-up audience that the academy asked him to return as host the following year.
Looking at Rock’s career since then, it’s hard to believe that this joke was anything but celebrated and rewarded. While his career was once limited to appearances in Adam Sandler comedies, Rock is now on the rise, releasing a Netflix comedy special in 2023 in which he feuds with The Slap in an attempt to gain influence. There’s even a Rock-directed Martin Luther King biopic in the pipeline. It turns out—and this will come as no surprise to readers with disabilities—that ableism pays off.
This would not be unusual, for example, in the rush to restore Louis CK or JK Rowling’s enduring fame. However, “Rock” was never canceled. He made fun of disability so no one – except Will Smith – cared.
It would be deeply frustrating if it didn’t happen so often. When we talk about prejudice, equality, equity, and ultimately justice, disabled people are always left out. When we talk about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, we’re talking about sexism, toxic masculinity, and violence; We see a cheering crowd desperate to see Smith bring down a stake, but we’re not talking about disability or anti-disability.
If you’re physically fit, that’s okay, because you can only see what Will Smith did as violent and you can forget the foundation of violence that rock laid before. But as a disabled person watching this discourse resurface without its most important context being removed, it’s both frustrating and utterly to expect Rock to be practically rewarded for the ability thinking that set this all in motion.
And as nice as it would be if we could pick up The Slap almost two years later, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe us should Keep talking about it, because it’s clear that the likelihood of disability hostility being addressed in such a targeted manner again – in the moment, publicly, and with such immediate impact – is vanishingly small, because the disability context surrounding it remains excluded from the conversation.
In a 2023 where we see that disabled population decimated by COVID, Our stories are still intended for non-disabled peopleand politics condemns us to poverty, perhaps we should appreciate The Slap.