What we can learn from the Oscars slap
Caitlin Brannigan | Tuesday, April 5, 2022
To be honest, I had no idea the 94th annual Academy Awards took place last Sunday (embarrassingly enough, I fully believed that the Grammys were scheduled for that night). However, when I heard that actor Will Smith had slapped comedian Chris Rock on national television at the Oscars, I was baffled. Essentially, Chris Rock made a tasteless G.I. Jane joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s beautiful, shaved hair. The joke was inappropriate because Pinkett Smith struggles with a medical condition known as alopecia areata, which causes hair loss. Out of anger, Will Smith took to the stage to slap Rock in the middle of his act.
Let me be clear that I do not intend to declare that either Rock or Smith’s actions were justified. The purpose of this article is not to take a side. Rather, this is a discussion of alopecia and the harassment people with the condition have faced.
This autoimmune disorder is treatable, but incurable, and causes hair loss over time. Though there are many forms of alopecia, three of the most common are alopecia areata patchy, which causes people to lose small patches of hair on the scalp; alopecia totalis, which causes complete hair loss on the scalp; and alopecia universalis, which causes total hair loss on the face, body, and scalp.
The condition can be mentally and socially difficult. It is natural for people to take pride in their hair. Losing it can be hard to come to terms with. It is especially difficult for women, considering that shaved hair is unfortunately not as socially acceptable for women as it is for men. Many people struggling with alopecia face social criticism in their daily lives for a condition they cannot control, from strangers staring on the street to ridicule about their hair loss. According to the charity Alopecia UK, “dealing with unwelcome remarks and being the butt of jokes is sadly an all too real part of having alopecia.”
Of her own struggle with alopecia, in 2018, Pinkett Smith told fans: “Taking care of my hair has been a beautiful ritual and having the choice to have hair or not. And then one day to be like, ‘Oh my God, I might not have that choice anymore.”
Since then, Pinkett Smith has completely shaved her head, sporting a gorgeous bald look. Of her new look, she has said, “It was such a beautiful experience and such a freedom. I feel more connected to myself…in a very special way. I was just like, ‘I’m over it.’ It was that moment. I was just like, ‘I’m done. I’m just done with the worry. I’m done with the care. I’m just done.”
Many people with alopecia have stated that Pinkett Smith attending high-profile events like the Oscars has helped them feel empowered. Celebrities like Pinkett Smith have a massive influence on their fans. Additionally, they have a big impact on fashion trends. Because of this, Pinkett Smith owning her absolutely stunning new look at high-profile events discourages some people from harassing others with the same or similar look, thus fighting the stigma against shaved hair.
However, Rock’s tasteless joke at the Oscars, regardless of whether he was aware that Pinkett Smith has alopecia, goes to show that this stigma is still alive and well. It potentially could have set a dangerous precedent, normalizing offensive jokes towards people who rock the shaved look, had there not been so much controversy. That would have been a complete reversal of the positive effect Pinkett Smith’s choice to show off her beautiful look has on society.
The one good thing to come out of this is the pushback against Rock’s joke. It has helped to raise awareness of alopecia for the nearly 147 million people living with the condition worldwide. The outpouring of support for the alopecia community has been tremendous.
People have the freedom of expression to dress and style their hair the way they choose, so long as they are not hurting anyone in the process. Bullying or harassing people for looking different is never okay. This is not to say Chris Rock intended to harass Pinkett Smith in any way—it was simply a distasteful joke—but the fact of the matter is that people still are harassed for their looks. This must come to an end.
Caitlin Brannigan is a first-year from New Jersey studying psychology and pre-health studies. She will forever defend her favorite young adult novels and is overjoyed to have a platform to rant. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @CaitlinBrannig on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.