In the furore over Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, the big question is why is it still OK to mock how a woman looks?

Chrissie Russell

I was on a flight and happily engrossed in the latest edition of Cosmo when a well-known local comedian appeared at the front of the cabin and decided to make me the focus of their impromptu stand-up routine. My hair — most specifically the state of my roots — my choice of reading material, my age. Ho, ho, ho how the other passengers were delighted with the free show while I buried my head in my magazine willing it to be over. Of course I tried to summon up a wan smile because sure isn’t it that what all women are supposed to do at all costs — laugh it off, sure it’s only a bit of banter.

The third row of a budget flight from Edinburgh is most certainly not Oscars night in LA, but when Chris Rock cracked his quip about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head I empathised strongly with the frozen look of pain on her face. How she must have been cringing at having her appearance — after speaking out so candidly about her emotional struggle with alopecia — served up as a bad joke in front of a room full of her peers and an audience of millions.

To then have to remain stoic as her husband compounds the situation by slapping Chris Rock and demanding he ‘keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth’ and later defending his outburst as a crazy thing love made him do. Never mind the Oscars — it’s Pinkett Smith who deserves an award.

And yet, in all the discussion of toxic masculinity and should he or shouldn’t he around The Slap, it feels like the woman at the centre of it has been overlooked. When really the biggest question isn’t around the reaction to The Joke but rather the joke itself.

How long is it going to be okay to laugh at how a woman looks? Chris Rock has form for this; let’s not forget his hilarious quip about Jennifer Lopez needing two limos at the MTV VMAs in 1999 — ‘one for her and one for her ass’. Although he also branded Fatboy Slim ‘retarded’ the same year so his ‘edgy’ humour isn’t confined to sexist observations.

But he’s far from the only one at it. Sheridan Smith has talked about how an awards event in 2016 ‘sent her off the deep end’. “Graham Norton was hosting and made a joke, basically at my expense, about be being a drunk,” she said. “I was so humiliated, you know, it’s a room full of your peers.” She describes the moment as ‘the final straw’ which seriously impacted on her mental wellbeing.

‘It’s only a bit of banter’, ‘I’m just having a laugh’, ‘Have a sense of humour’, these are phrases every woman has heard usually following some ‘harmless’ quip about their appearance, ability or sexuality. Well, do you know what, there’s a reason we’re not laughing — it’s because it’s not funny.

Watching back old episodes of Friends, it’s the jokes about fat Monica that are among the most difficult to watch. What does it say about us that the size of a woman’s waistband should evoke peals of laughter? I remember reading about Gail Porter’s experience of alopecia, how she wept throughout an entire trans-Atlantic flight, distraught that her bald head would frighten her little two-year-old daughter.

“It was terrifying when it first started,” Pinkett Smith told a 2018 episode of the Red Table Talk. “I was in the shower one day and had just handfuls of hair in my hands.” The 50-year-old shaved her head in a bid to regain control of the situation.

Chris Rock might have insisted it was ‘just a GI Jane joke’ but I’m sure to the woman on the receiving end that’s not entertainment.

The episode on the flight happened 20 years ago and I get nervy sitting at the front of flights. Do I wish I’d had an A-lister husband there to rush up and smack the comic in question? No, but I do wish I’d said something because cracking jokes at another woman’s expense wasn’t funny then, or now.

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