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By now you’ve heard about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock in the face after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife’s hair loss during the Oscars.

CW violence, language

There is a social media uproar over what was going to be a fairly bland Oscars ceremony. After two years, a coronavirus-fatigued industry has not had its best year of creative output. I would not be surprised to learn that most people heard about the Will Smith slap through Twitter rather than by watching the ceremony themselves. This event will overshadow CODA, which won Best Picture with a primarily deaf cast, and Ariana DeBose, the first openly queer woman of color, for winning Best Supporting Actress. Like the streaker running across the stage at the 1974 Oscars, this will be the only thing we talk about, not for better, but for worse.

Perhaps a personal issue that has brewed between the two actors will come to light. It’s possible that at an event known for its heavy drinking, a group of people gathering in a large crowd without masks for the first time in a long time may have been prone to more friction than usual. But as it stands, this was a choice made by Will Smith, and is, in part, of his own making.

The joke that instigated this was, “Love you Jada. Can’t wait to see you in GI Jane 2″—a reference to Jada going bald due to alopecia. The joke itself isn’t very good: It references a 25-year-old film where Demi Moore shaves her head during Navy SEAL training. It’s also in poor taste because baldness for an actor can ruin their career, doubly so for an actress. It’s expected for men to lose their hair at some point. For women, it’s an entirely different, more painful matter.

But that’s all it was. A poorly-made joke told in poor taste. The best reaction is to be upset by such a joke, not to assault the teller. Words hurt. But if Will Smith had kept his seat and looked upset, this would have been a meme for a week and then forgotten. Now this will be one of the five things people talk about when they discuss Will Smith’s career. Jada Pinkett Smith will be asked about her husband’s behavior in every interview she does for years to come. If he wanted to protect his wife from public humiliation, he’s now done the exact opposite.

What’s more upsetting: I believe, deep down, that many people saw this coming.

To make a joke to a broad audience, there has to be a larger cultural reference point. The reason everyone understood that the joke was in poor taste, before the camera even cut to Jada Pinkett Smith, is because her hair loss has been news. Weeks ago, she discussed her alopecia publicly. I do not consider myself to be a cultural maven, and still I knew that. It’s a brave thing to confront, and she should be applauded for that.

But that’s not the only thing I know about the Smith family. I know the ups and downs of Will and Jada’s marriage. I know their relationship with their kids. I know that Jada has cheated on Will. Do I know this because of the constant media scrum surrounding them? No.

It is because the Smith family are the second most self-publicized family in America, bested only by the Kardashians. Jada has a series called RedTable Talk in which she talks candidly with people she admires. She and her husband have used this platform to talk about their marriage in ways that are open, uncomfortable, and potentially not fit for public consumption. They have happily promoted their children’s performing lives (as any parent would do). Will Smith, despite being one of the most bankable stars to have ever lived, even has his own YouTube channel dedicated to his personal life.

To scroll through Twitter on any given day is to glean a piece of Will Smith’s family life. So when Chris Rock made a joke about Will Smith’s wife, the American cultural consciousness had a deep understanding of the background and situation already built-in.

I have no idea what it is like to have my personal space invaded as maliciously as celebrities have their lives invaded. In 99.9% of cases of personal privacy, I side with the person whose privacy is being invaded.

There are two exceptions that prove this rule: The Kardashians and the Smiths.

Like walking onto a stage and defiantly, dramatically slapping a comedian for telling a joke, Will Smith has made a choice to open up his life to even further public scrutiny. It blurs the lines between what is up for public discussion, and what is not. Life as a celebrity is living in a fishbowl. Will Smith regularly invites us inside to get an even closer look.

And now he has done it again.

Will Smith is a superstar. The story of film cannot be told without his story. His Oscar win for Best Actor was thoroughly deserved. He was brilliant and inspiring in King Richard.

Now none of that will matter.

He made a choice to put his honor and his wife’s center stage. He made a choice to do something dramatic, to slap a presenter and then scream at him from the audience. He made a choice to hijack one of the most televised events of the year to satisfy a personal slight. And he must deal with the repercussions.

Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...