Will Smith’s slap should wake us all up

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I didn’t watch the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night for the same reason I never watch The Oscars ceremony: The parade of sanctimonious Hollywood millionaires wiping tears from the corner of their eyes while thanking their predatory producers and mercurial spouses and whatever god their PR-person told them to pay lip-service to doesn’t interest me in the slightest.

In fact, for the vast majority of us who had to wake up and work the next morning, the late-night investment isn’t worth it[1].

So when I woke up on Monday morning, my stepdaughter had sent me the video clip of the soon-to-be-named Best Actor Will Smith smacking comedian Chris Rock. My first thought was that it was staged.

These people, after all, make their livings inside fictional worlds.

But as the details started to unfold, I realized it wasn’t a hoax. Still, I shied away from the social media feeding frenzy, with the usual carnival barkers trying to make it into issues of race, sexism, mental health, etc.

And maybe there are cogent points to be made on all those fronts, but I still didn’t care enough to invest my interest.

Then it just so happened that I had planned to teach an essay this week with my senior Composition classes titled “The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE” by Reid Forgrave.

The essay[2] tells the tragic tale of young man named Zac Easter who suffered multiple concussions playing high school football then began to realize in his early-20s that he was exhibiting the symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the well-documented degenerative and fatal brain disease that has claimed the lives of many former-athletes in multiple contact sports.

Zac Easter

Zac –who had researched CTE and understood his own horrific fate—took his own life, shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be studied by researchers.

As I re-read the essay to discuss with my classes, in light of Will Smith’s “slap heard around the world,” which all my students were buzzing about, it occurred to me that—maybe—both stories were speaking to the same issue, something so ingrained in American males that it often goes unnoticed.

Myles Easter Sr., Zac’s father, is “man’s man.” He played and coached football and taught his three sons to “always be tough as nails” and “show no weakness[3].” Zac referred to this mindset as “The Easter Mentality.” And Myles Easter Sr. said in the interview that “he doesn’t cry for his son” because to cry would show weakness, and weakness…

Well, that’s not an option for a real man.

These skewed ideas of masculinity are so deeply embedded in the paradigm of the American male that it’s taboo to call them out in certain circles. For many men, to oppose the idea that real men need to be strong and aggressive, that real men don’t cry or demonstrate any sign of vulnerability[4] makes you a pussy by proxy.

Women can also be complicit in this. If her man isn’t the gallant knight defending her honor with his fists then she needs to find a stronger, tougher man, an Alpha male to protect her – an inane concept that completely undermines the woman’s strength.

Many men are groomed in the image of the classic Western cowboy: stoic, impassive, silent, strong and, of course, armed with a gun.

When Will Smith impetuously stormed the stage at the Oscars after Chris Rock’s failed joke clearly offended his wife, he did what many males have been conditioned to do when another man slights “his” woman or hurts “his” pride: He responded with violence.

Because everyone in the world needed to know that Will Smith was tough as nails and couldn’t show any sign of weakness, the same mentality that kept Zac Easter in games after being concussed[5].

Maybe there’s some hope in calling out Will Smith and “The Easter Mentality” and trying to evolve into more thoughtful, compassionate and empathetic men.

Or maybe I’m a pussy for mentioning it.

___________

[1] Of course, staying up for Sunday Night Football when I have a little juice on the game is a completely different story.

[2] It was originally published in GQ then included in “Best American Sports Writing 2018.”

[3] These are Zac’s words exactly from a journal he kept to document his own demise.

[4] These, of course, are all characteristics of toxic masculinity, which is term that’s been bandied around so often that it’s lost any impact.

[5] Of course, the coach, the athletic trainers and Zac’s parents—particularly his old man—share some accountability.


 

About this Author

nathan-graziano

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Fly Like The Seagull was published by Luchador Press in 2020. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: http://www.nathangraziano.com