MOSF 17.4: Will, Jada, Chris and Trauma: Oscars So Dissociated

Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 17.4: Will, Jada, Chris and Trauma: Oscars So Dissociated

by Ravi Chandra
March 29, 2022

Will Smith apologized via Instagram on Monday for what he called his “unacceptable and inexcusable behavior” at Oscars 2022. The Academy is still conducting a formal review. I hope this post adds to some healing as well, and that we can move to repair instead of perpetuating judgment, outrage and shock. Also, this article uses the word “trauma” as a colloquial term, not as a clinical diagnosis, just as authors such as psychiatrist Mark Epstein have used it – essentially a relational disconnection. As I’ve repeated in my writing many times, “disconnection is at the root of suffering. The opposite of suffering is belonging.” 

Adobe stock image by ISTANBUL2009, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Sunday night, at Oscars 2022, Chris Rock made a “G.I. Jane” joke referencing Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head. What he may not have known at the time was that she had shaved her head to contend with alopecia, which disproportionately affects Black women. Rock had also conceived, produced and narrated the 2009 documentary, Good Hair, honoring Black women’s hair styles and how hair relates to self-esteem. Will Smith initially laughed, then noted his wife’s reaction of disgust. He then walked on stage, appeared to slap Rock, and loudly shouted twice “keep my wife’s name out of your f#$king mouth!” as he again took his seat. A chill went through the gathered audience and throughout the viewing public. Social media and news sites are still buzzing over “the slap heard round the world.” Rock was previously tagged by me at Psychology Today for insulting Asians at the Oscars in 2016 (see references), and I’ve been hearing on social media that he has a complicated history with both Will and Jada, and Black women more generally.

This was a traumatic moment of shock and disconnection for many of those gathered and viewing. These were two highly accomplished and loved Black artists, on Hollywood’s biggest night. In the background were issues of race, gender, “appropriate  vs. inappropriate” comedy, and the dignity of black women and women with medical conditions, not to mention issues of mental health. In the background were the histories of these three parties, and their histories of interactions over the years. Human dignity – and masculine dignity in the case of Will Smith – seemed to be at stake in a microsecond, and thus the possibility of being shamed on the global stage. Dignity, pride, shame and dishonor are a powerful brew.

What would we have felt? What would we have done, if we were in Will Smith’s shoes?

I’m not here to judge who was right and wrong – but violence should be unacceptable. Words do hurt though, and I don’t know if it’s ever ok to poke fun at someone with a medical condition on the global stage, even if some might see it as “gently ribbing someone in community.”

There were a lot of um, questionable tweets, mostly from a handful of White people – some immediately called for Smith’s arrest. Judd Apatow initially opined that Smith “could have killed” Rock before deleting his tweet. Others played out scenarios where Betty White was the comedian, or a baby had been slapped, and one (Fred Guttenberg) used the moment to talk about out-of-pocket emotions and gun safety. This tweet summarizes that discourse 🙂

What I did notice, in the speeches afterwards and in the just-getting-started discourse was dissociation. Dissociation is a common feature of trauma – the “freeze” in the survival brain’s “fight-flight-freeze” response. It’s what the brain does when it is overwhelmed by stimuli. Emotions are numbed, and sense of self, time, connection to others, and reality are confused and fragmented. We can go into a haze until something brings us back from the experience of danger. Communities and societies can become dissociated, fragmented and overwhelmed as well. Indeed, this seems to describe our world to a T right now.

As author and therapist Resma Menakem has written,

“Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma decontextualized in a people looks like culture.”

I would add that decontextualization can take the form of dissociation. So much of what we call culture is dissociated and decontextualized trauma. Our survival depends on recontextualization and re-association with each other to restore lost bonds of communal affection and safety. Part of our collective trauma is retraumatizing by blaming and scapegoating individuals, ethnicities, and other groups marginalized by the dominant culture instead of working towards reconciliation and repair.

Public tweet used by permission of the author

Everyone affected by violence went “someplace” in the moments after the Rock-Smith exchange. Reportedly, the theater remained tense the rest of the evening. A bartender reported people stopped ordering drinks. The brilliant Questlove, honored for Best Documentary for Summer of Soul, acknowledged he felt overwhelmed by his win – did the preceding incident play some role in that? – and he couldn’t find the words to name or thank all his teammates. Kevin Costner sounded frozen in the headlights. Anthony Hopkins was nonplussed, and ended up trying to compliment Will Smith. Was it me or did people look like they thought Will or someone else was going to come after them next? And Will Smith himself?

I would say fight, flight, freeze and fawn are four common survival reactions. Humor and nurture also help us find safety in a dangerous moment.

Smith tried to talk himself through an on-the-spot defense-cum-apology (apology to all but Rock) during his acceptance speech for Best Actor for his role in King Richard. You can’t make this stuff up. His speech will no doubt be discussed in internal family systems therapy circles for some time to come. All members of his internal committee seemed to find a speaking role.

Denzel Washington seemed to have it the most together. As Smith said, “Denzel said to me, ‘At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the Devil comes for you.’” Diddy (Sean Combs) also kept an even keel, suggesting that this would all be settled with love and family “at the Gold party.” And it should be noted that Rock moved forward with the planned program after turning to reassure Smith that he would not be joking about Jada in the future.

Does the Devil come for us at such moments? Well, at least that pesky amygdala/survival brain bedevils and beguiles us. What pains, traumas, and self-concepts whispered to Will Smith in that moment? I learned later that Smith witnessed his father beating his mother when he was young. Also that he’s had ups and downs in his relationship with Jada, and Chris had publicly made Jada the butt of his joke before.

We’ll be talking for a long, long time about the nuances of this evening. Was it toxic masculinity? Was it a justifiable defense of a wife with a medical condition? Was Rock’s joke punching down? What is each of their histories? What does it mean that they were both Black men who have known each other for 25+ years? Will there be consequences? What did it feel like to be a member of the Williams’ family? Is something in the air about the defense of women and Black women especially, given what’s happening in our world, from #metoo to Senator Cory Booker’s affirmation and defense of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, to defenseless people around the world facing violence not of their making? Are men now looking to be the “good guys’ and “protect” someone, or at least make a show of “protecting” the vulnerable, from GOP Senators sounding off about child porn to Vladimir Putin falsely claiming the defense of Russian-speakers? How do we defend the vulnerable? How thick-skinned can celebrities be?

Feeling that Will Smith acceptance speech. Congrats?!?

In the timeless tradition of the theater, we have a moment that brings human nature to our full attention. Let’s take a breath and give us all space to find ourselves.

What we should all recognize is that trauma is central to our journeys of identity, belonging and wellness. Interpersonal trauma always involves abuse of power. Survivors of trauma look for allies, betrayers and bystanders. Where did we all find ourselves in the moments after the Rock-Smith incident? And where will we move now? I think true allyship can find compassion for all involved, while vigorously opposing harmful behavior.

Survival depends on our bonds. As those who have studied the Holocaust have said, survival depended on being part of a “stable pair.” As I’ve written “The unit of change is we. The unit of resistance is also we. Survival depends on we.”

Now, more than ever, we have to find ways to build community and allyship against hatred and violence.

I think we have it in us.

(3/30/22: Updated with details about alopecia, and possible past traumas and relational difficulties.)

References:

Photo by Bob Hsiang

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer and compassion educator in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts here. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure, though one has permanently shuttered during COVID. His debut documentary was named Best Film (Festival Director’s Award) at the 2021 Cannes Independent Film Festival. The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice is available on-demand. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. You can find him on Psychology Today,  Twitter,  Facebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

5 Comments

  1. Eddie Wong on March 29, 2022 at 9:52 am

    Thank you, Ravi, for putting a big picture lens on this unusual and unsettling moment that was thrust upon us. Your words give us a better understanding of the trauma that we carry and which exerts itself unexpectedly and often without reflection. There’s much to unpack in this incident and in the chain of events one must ask what motivated Chris Rock to make such a cruel remark and what motivated Will Smith to resort to a violent act. What can we learn from all this while thousands of miles away people are huddled in fear as Russian missiles and artillery shells rain down upon them.

  2. Ravi Chandra on March 29, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    A couple more articles –
    Apparently Questlove was meditating during The Slap – so what I perceived as him being overwhelmed was likely just due to the momentous win, but possibly also the eerie disconnect with a really silent audience.
    Questlove missed Will Smith’s slap because he was meditating – https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/29/entertainment/questlove-will-smith-slap-chris-rock-oscars-cec/index.html

    Sager R. Hijacked by his ego, Will Smith missed his opportunity to address bullying, respect for Black women. The Daily Kos, March 28, 2022 https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2022/3/28/2088621/-Will-Smith-missed-his-opportunity-to-address-bullying-respect-for-Black-women-hijacked-by-his-ego

    Ciandella C. UNDER A ROCK Chris Rock ‘has NOT spoken to’ Will Smith & ‘didn’t know’ actor’s wife Jada suffers from alopecia before joke at Oscars. The U.S. Sun, March 28, 2022 https://www.the-sun.com/entertainment/4996463/chris-rock-not-spoken-will-smith-jada-oscars/

  3. Ravi Chandra on March 30, 2022 at 10:23 am

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes: https://www.facebook.com/buzz.harris/posts/10159016023319007

    “When Will Smith stormed onto the Oscar stage to strike Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife’s short hair, he did a lot more damage than just to Rock’s face. With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community. That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with the facts: Rock made a reference to Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, as looking like Demi Moore in ‘G.I. Jane,’ in which Moore had shaved her head. Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss. Ok, I can see where the Smiths might not have found that joke funny. But Hollywood awards shows are traditionally a venue where much worse things have been said about celebrities as a means of downplaying the fact that it’s basically a gathering of multimillionaires giving each other awards to boost business so they can make even more money. The Smiths could have reacted by politely laughing along with the joke or by glowering angrily at Rock. Instead, Smith felt the need to get up in front of his industry peers and millions of people around the world, hit another man, then return to his seat to bellow: ‘Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.’ Twice. Some have romanticized Smith’s actions as that of a loving husband defending his wife. Comedian Tiffany Haddish, who starred in the movie ‘Girls Trip’ with Pinkett Smith, praised Smith’s actions: ‘[F]or me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.’ Actually, it was the opposite. Smith’s slap was also a slap to women. If Rock had physically attacked Pinkett Smith, Smith’s intervention would have been welcome. Or if he’d remained in his seat and yelled his post-slap threat, that would have been unnecessary, but understandable. But by hitting Rock, he announced that his wife was incapable of defending herself—against words. From everything I’d seen of Pinkett Smith over the years, she’s a very capable, tough, smart woman who can single-handedly take on a lame joke at the Academy Awards show. This patronizing, paternal attitude infantilizes women and reduces them to helpless damsels needing a Big Strong Man to defend their honor least they swoon from the vapors. If he was really doing it for his wife, and not his own need to prove himself, he might have thought about the negative attention this brought on them, much harsher than the benign joke. That would have been truly defending and respecting her. This ‘women need men to defend them’ is the same justification currently being proclaimed by conservatives passing laws to restrict abortion and the LGBTQ+ community. Worse than the slap was Smith’s tearful, self-serving acceptance speech in which he rambled on about all the women in the movie ‘King Richard’ that he’s protected. Those who protect don’t brag about it in front of 15 million people. They just do it and shut up. You don’t do it as a movie promotion claiming how you’re like the character you just won an award portraying. But, of course, the speech was about justifying his violence. Apparently, so many people need Smith’s protection that occasionally it gets too much and someone needs to be smacked. What is the legacy of Smith’s violence? He’s brought back the Toxic Bro ideal of embracing Kobra Kai teachings of ‘might makes right’ and ‘talk is for losers.’ Let’s not forget that this macho John Wayne philosophy was expressed in two movies in which Wayne spanked grown women to teach them a lesson. Young boys—especially Black boys—watching their movie idol not just hit another man over a joke, but then justify it as him being a superhero-like protector, are now much more prone to follow in his childish footsteps. Perhaps the saddest confirmation of this is the tweet from Smith’s child Jaden: ‘And That’s How We Do It.’ The Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith. One of the main talking points from those supporting the systemic racism in America is characterizing Blacks as more prone to violence and less able to control their emotions. Smith just gave comfort to the enemy by providing them with the perfect optics they were dreaming of. Many will be reinvigorated to continue their campaign to marginalize African Americans and others through voter suppression campaign. As for the damage to show business, Smith’s violence is an implied threat to all comedians who now have to worry that an edgy or insulting joke might be met with violence. Good thing Don Rickles, Bill Burr, or Ricky Gervais weren’t there. As comedian Kathy Griffin tweeted: ‘Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.’ The one bright note is that Chris Rock, clearly stunned, managed to handle the moment with grace and maturity. If only Smith’s acceptance speech had shown similar grace and maturity—and included, instead of self-aggrandizing excuses, a heartfelt apology to Rock.”

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