Brendan O’Neill

Chris Rock, not Will Smith, is the hero men need

Chris Rock, not Will Smith, is the hero men need
Will Smith attacks Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars (Getty images)
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There was an explosion of masculinity on the stage at the Oscars last night. Male behaviour was on display for all to see. No, not from Will Smith, who behaved like a big, dumb baby, but from Chris Rock. It was Rock’s calmness and stoicism, his mastery of his emotions, that was truly manly. If you want to know what a real man is, look not to Smith and his impulsive swearing and slapping, but to Rock and his Herculean suppression of his shock and fury.

I am in awe of Chris Rock this morning. I get distracted if someone in the audience so much as coughs when I’m giving a talk. I bat back every point of information in university debates for fear I’ll lose my train of thought. And yet there was Mr Rock, violently assaulted in front of millions, sworn at and humiliated before his peers, and what does he do? He falters for mere milliseconds, then puts his hands behind his back and carries on with the show. This was more than professionalism – it was heroic.

Everyone with access to the internet or TV will know the story by now. Rock seemed to make fun, or at least make light, of Jada Pinkett Smith, Will’s wife, and her alopecia. ‘Jada, I can’t wait for GI Jane 2’, he said, a reference to the original 1987 GI Jane movie starring Demi Moore with a shaved head. Will initially laughed, but Jada looked upset, and so Will stormed the stage, smacked Rock, and then returned to his seat from which he yelled – twice – ‘Keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth’.

Inevitably, the entire unsavoury affair is being folded into the Culture Wars. People are already taking sides. Brace yourselves, folks – we’re about to be besieged by a tsunami of thinkpieces. One of the claims being made is that Smith’s behaviour highlights the ‘toxicity’ of masculinity. Smith’s belting of Rock exposes ‘all that’s wrong with masculinity today’, says one professor quick out of the blocks. Another writer says Smith’s slap was ‘one of the most disgusting public displays of toxic masculinity’ we’ve seen in a long time. Apparently, the idea that women need men to protect their honour – with violence, if necessary – is proof of the dangers of masculinity, of telling blokes they must always be big and strong.

I see it differently. Smith’s behaviour was not an example of masculinity – it was a failure of masculinity. Sure, we all understand the instinct to defend loved ones from insult or injury. But just as important is the ability to govern one’s emotions, to be the ruler of one’s instincts, and to know you must modify your behaviour in certain situations. If Rock and Smith had been in a bar when Rock decided to make fun of Jada’s hair, a slap, or at least a strongly worded rebuke, would have been understandable.

But this was the Oscars. The pinnacle event of the industry Smith works in. He was surrounded by his peers. And Rock was only doing what he always does – landing well aimed mick-takes. In this circumstance, Smith’s violent behaviour was completely unacceptable. He failed as a man by allowing his rage to take the reins. By lashing out in a way that is unbecoming not only of gentlemen but of all men who ought to know that strength lies not only in fighting back when necessary – and sometimes it is necessary – but also in exercising command over your feelings.

Bashing masculinity is all the rage these days. Blokes are pressured to be more ‘feminine’, more open, less stiff upper-lipped, less stoic. These tracts against masculinity are clearly written by people who are unaware that their lives are safe and comfortable thanks precisely to masculine virtues – to all the brave, risk-taking behaviour engaged in by individuals (including women, of course) who fight crime, fight fires, fight wars, protect borders, fix roads, secure buildings. Anti-masculinity is the luxury ideology of people so pampered and cossetted that they don’t even know that there are swarms of blokes out there taking risks on their behalf every single day.

What’s more, the anti-masculinity lobby is just wrong. Yes, being a man sometimes means standing up for yourself and your family. But it also means self-governance, self-dominion, judging carefully when physical intervention is required, and when it definitely is not. Those masculine virtues were abundantly displayed by Chris Rock last night. His fortitude in the face of public humiliation, his composure in the face of assault and abuse, reminds us that true men are both strong and self-disciplined. Rock is the role model boys need.