For all of the hand-wringing and gawking that the world has engaged in since Best Actor winner Will Smith slapped Chris Rock across the face during the 2022 Oscars, most of the critique has been focused on the incident itself, rather than its cause: a degrading joke that Rock made about Smith’s wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith, and the fact that her head was shaved. “G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it,” he said, pointing at Pinkett Smith, before the broadcast cameras showed her rolling her eyes in disdain.
For many Black women watching the Oscars, Rock’s casual insult of Pinkett Smith was both painful and familiar. On Twitter, users wasted no time in calling out the broader implications of Rock making this particular joke at Pinkett Smith’s expense.
“Chris Rock’s one ‘joke’ was rooted in misogynoir, texturism, & ableism,” wrote artist Christina Brown in a tweet. “Degrading a Black woman, in a room full of her peers, on live TV. The fact ya’ll don’t see that as violent is beyond me.”
Misogynoir, the term for the misogyny directed at Black women, where race and gender both play roles in bias, has been in the lexicon since 2008, when it was coined by Moya Bailey, a professor of communications studies at Northwestern University.
“Black women are always singled out and targeted in ways that other women are not,” says Bailey. She also points out that this wasn’t the first highly publicized instance of misogynoir during the 2022 awards season. During director Jane Campion’s acceptance speech for the Best Director prize at the Critics’ Choice Awards, she addressed the Williams sisters, saying: “Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels. However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to.” It was considered by many to be a back-handed compliment that was dismissive of the Williams’ significant accomplishments. To Bailey, this is another element of misogynoir: “There’s another piece of this, which is that Black women are expected to just endure these flights in public without comment.”
Rock’s joke was loaded on multiple levels: Pinkett Smith has been candid about her struggle with the autoimmune disease alopecia, which can cause bald spots and hair loss. According to a 2018 study, Black and Latinx women are more likely than white women to develop alopecia.
Meanwhile, Black women’s hair has long been a racialized and politicized issue, so much so that the CROWN Act, which will ban discrimination based on hair style and hair texture in employment, housing programs, and public access accommodations, was passed this month in the House and will soon be making its way to the Senate. Twitter users were quick to point out an unfortunate irony in Rock’s apparent lack of sensitivity when it comes to Black women’s hair: in 2009, the comedian produced and appeared in a documentary, Good Hair, which he made after a conversation with his daughter about her own hair.
Following the Oscars ceremony, Sheila Bridges, one of subjects who appeared in Good Hair to talk about her experience with alopecia as a Black woman, took to her Instagram to call out Rock.
“Shame on you @chrisrock,” she wrote in the caption of a post. “Didn’t we sit down and talk at length about how painfully humiliating and difficult it is to navigate life as a bald woman in a society that is hair obsessed? As if life isn’t challenging enough out here as an unprotected black woman?”
Twitter users were also quick to point out that this isn’t the first time that Rock has targeted Pinkett Smith as the butt of the joke during an Oscars ceremony. In 2016, when Pinkett Smith said she would not attend the ceremony as an act of protest against the lack of diversity in the Academy, Rock, who was hosting the show, cracked a joke that she wasn’t invited. (“Jada’s gonna boycott the Oscars?” he started. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”)
Others on Twitter drew discomfiting parallels between the treatment that Pinkett Smith faced and what Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was subjected to at her confirmation hearings over the past week.
On Monday night, Smith issued a public apology to Rock on his Instagram. “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally,” he wrote in the post. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
But for Bailey, this incident and others like it serve as reminders of how misogynoir affects all Black women, especially those who aren’t in the spotlight—and the urgent need to correct it on a structural level.
“The stakes are even higher for Black women who don’t have the same celebrity or social capital as the women who have been in the spotlight in the last week or month,” she says. “The real root of misogynoir is how people perceive and treat Black women and understand them to be worthy of respect and care—that’s something that has to change at the structural level of our society, not just the individual behaviors.”
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