Two days ago, I woke up to a meme of a prominent actor/comedian walking up to the stage to attack another. At first, I assumed it was just another skit — a desperate attempt at salvaging the Oscars after a record low last year.
The internet is currently torn between two Hollywood A-listers who had an altercation on stage. After years of poor viewership, the Oscars blew up overnight; it was not because of Ariana DeBose, the first coloured queer woman to win an Oscar for the best-supporting actress; it wasn’t about Troy Kotsur, the second deaf actor to ever win an Oscar for his performance in CODA.
When Chris Rock, a renowned comedian and the host of Oscars 2022, joked about actress Jada Pinkett Smith. Her actor husband Will Smith marched up to the stage and took a shot at the former – physically. Will Smith, who seemed to laugh along at first, noticed Jada’s annoyance.
Jada has been open about her struggles with Alopecia, a medical disorder resulting in female pattern baldness. However, at the time, it was unknown whether or not Rock was aware of her condition but had failed to include that joke in his rehearsal. When Rock called her G.I. Jane II, referring to a fictional character who shaves her head in the movie franchise, Jada rolled her eyes.
After a video circulated on the Internet, netizens speculated that the ordeal was a publicity stunt; regardless, more people tuned in to watch the Oscars than last year. The whole incident boils down to a veteran comedian of colour attacking another veteran comedian of colour whose career is founded on his comedy. How can a person who knows the business attack another person just like him? Is comedy acceptable only until it gets personal?
The show cut its audio because of Smith yelling profanities after asking Rock to keep his wife’s name out of his mouth. It was broadcast with a time delay of a few seconds in the United States but Smith was audible in some broadcasts in Japan and Australia.
The Academy’s standards of conduct state that they can take disciplinary actions including revoking awards. Less drastic measures include private or public reprimand and temporary or permanent loss of eligibility for future Oscars. Unfortunately, they’re yet to abide by these standards. The Academy didn’t condemn Adrien Brody’s actions when he kissed Halle Berry on stage without her consent. The Academy didn’t condemn Roman Polanski, after he was arrested for drugging, raping a young girl, pleading guilt, and fleeing the country. The Acamedy still awarded his Best Director in 2003.
A few minutes later, however, Smith received his Oscar for playing Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams in the movie ‘King Richard’. In his tearful acceptance speech, he said “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. Art imitates life – I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
Quoting what fellow nominee Denzel Washington said to him moments earlier, he said, “At your highest moment, be careful that’s when the devil comes for you.”
Smith concluded his speech with an “I hope the Academy invites me back.” He did not allude to the incident or apologize to Rock right away. Instead, he apologized a day later via a tagged Instagram post all the while condemning the violence.
What the Internet failed to do is attach any consequences to the joke made at the expense of a woman’s appearance — a black female actor whose appearance accounts for a good part of her casting roles in an industry obsessed with beauty standards. Despite Pinkett Smith being open about her Alopecia, a joke made in public that too while addressing a gathering of other glamorous A-listers might inevitably affect her self-esteem.
Then again, what justifies attacking a comedian whose career relies on making people laugh — and people did laugh at the joke. Were the other invitees just as complicit in the insensitivity of the joke? Was the Academy indirectly promoting violence by letting Smith attend the rest of the event while a wounded comedian sits backstage as he contemplates pressing charges for assault?
Did Will face no consequence because he’s an A-lister or because he’s an A-lister of colour? Rock even addressed the ‘Oscars so white’ debacle back in 2016, tying it back to this year’s Oscar which was seemingly more diverse with its nominations. However, if that was the case, what does that say about domestic violence in the POC community — men getting away with no accountability?
In a country like India, where comedy made at the expense of others — even celebrities — can cost you your career, should we still side with Will, who even admitted that Chris was just doing his job? If Comedy, in general, is meant to be provocative and offensive, where does one draw the line? Does crossing this subjective line warrant assault?
Had it been the other way round — a less popular, non-Oscar nominee Rock taking a swing at a more popular, Oscar-nominee Smith, would the Academy have resisted and kicked the former out? Or is the Academy simply playing into the theatrics by glamorizing violence for an increased viewership?
The Internet expectedly capitalized on the celebrity drama, instantly making memes and even action figures. Some applauded Will for doing the right thing by defending his partner, while others discouraged his blatant display of ‘toxic masculinity’. Some even referenced memes about Jada’s “entanglement” with rapper August, shaming Will for ‘defending his cheater wife regardless of them having announced publicly their open marriage. At the end of the day, no conclusions were drawn, save for some valid arguments on Twitter.
Celebrity culture has remained a spectacle, but more so now than ever. Fame, for most, is at palpable heights but is just as volatile today, with very little scope for privacy. People aren’t relevant unless they’re relevant online, but that has its price. Take, for example, all the meme-ified real-life people who lost their jobs. Take into account all the celebrities who were ridiculed on the Internet — and I say ridiculed because memes, just like performative comedy, are made at someone’s expense. In a way, a comparison can be drawn between Rock’s joke at a public gathering and a viral meme about the joke on the Internet, except there’s no accountability for the latter. The internet criticizes Chris Rock, a comedian, for his insensitive joke while sharing chaotic memes about the same incident.
Memes about Britney Spears’ public breakdown after facing harassment by the paparazzi are funny until you’re just another person with poor mental health, waking up to memes humiliating a person who shares your illness for five seconds of validation. Memes about Lindsay Lohan’s struggle with addiction and Taylor Swift’s eating disorder are hilarious until you’re at home, wondering where you went wrong for the internet to be so apathetic about your situation.
As juvenile as they seem, memes condense news into coherent bits of information. For people who refuse to get “political”, memes can be a means of remaining educated while also remaining apolitical and retaining their sense of humour. Like most trends, memes encourage mass participation, thereby prompting discussions around the topic. But how trustworthy are these discussions, considering the context of the information is some text above pop culture characters?
Disinformation in the guise of “dark” humour is especially easy to swallow, resulting in subconscious ideas and ultimately, prejudices. Take, for example, the evolution of 8chan. What was meant to be a platform to accommodate memes became a breeding ground for neo-nazism, male chauvinism and school shooters.
Amidst all the important discussions surrounding race, power dynamics, “offensive comedy”, toxic masculinity, and medical conditions affecting people’s self-esteem, the Internet has, once again, failed to address anything seriously. Instead, it has resorted to the memefication of yet another incident with neither side in the right.