The Bully and the Bullied
The Long Aftermath of "The Slap"
A long time ago—or twelve days, take your pick—I had planned to write about the seemingly forgotten fact that until 1999 the Oscars were held on Mondays, not Sundays. This was not a trivial difference. Before 1999 the Oscars were an unofficial holiday, at least in Los Angeles. Those who worked in the film industry worked a half day or not at all, and those who didn’t knocked off early for a festive viewing party with friends. I would pick my son up from school, rush home and cook a special dinner for the occasion. One year, a guest paused in the middle of my multi-course Chinese meal and asked, “Where do you get food like this?” There was no such Chinese food in my neighborhood, but somehow take-out had never occurred to me.
That ritual ended with the move to Sunday night. Instead of a fun Monday night party, the Academy Awards became an exhausting three-hour coda to a busy weekend. Also less amusing were the contests between nominated films. With each passing year the suspense faded, and the Best Picture winner was usually the one most voters hated least, not the one that many loved most. The fact that the Best Director and Best Picture awards increasingly went to different films proved the voters’ penchant for safely splitting things down the middle.
This year’s Best Picture Award was especially predictable, given the Academy’s lingering homophobia and its desire to annoit the least controversial and most accessible film, rather than the most admired. I set my DVR and watched with middling interest. Then came the shocking event that I missed because I had wandered away, as I often do during the Oscars. It wasn’t until after I watched Will Smith’s weird, lachrymose Best Actor acceptance speech that I rewound and found the cause of his tears. By then a tidal wave of ink about “The Slap” had flooded the news. It wouldn’t stop for a week.
As bizarre and disturbing as Will Smith’s assault was, the aftermath was arguably worse. Everyone with a media platform weighed in, the majority in support of Smith or making copious excuses for his behavior. He’s a rapper! He’s Black! He’s defending his wife! Rock’s joke was in poor taste! Alopecia is a disability! For Chris Rock, who behaved with superhuman poise and restraint, there was far less sympathy and scant empathy. He should have known not to insult Jada! He had it coming! He wasn’t even hurt!
But what if Chris Rock had been hurt? Smith is 6’2; Rock is 5’10. Rock was caught off guard. If the slap had knocked him down, would these people be as sanguine? Would Smith have been removed from the Dolby Theater? Would he have been arrested? We’ll never know, but we do know this: people cared far more about Smith’s injuries—to his reputation, his brand, his future film prospects—than the fact that Rock was physically and verbally attacked while doing his job in front of a world-wide audience. And for a tame joke that Smith laughed uproariously at before he decided to come out swinging.
Chris Rock has talked often about being bullied as a child. In fact, it’s a theme of his autobiographical TV sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris”. I’d hazard a guess that Will Smith wasn’t bullied as a child, and moreover that he bullied others. It’s no coincidence that the scene at the Academy Awards played out like a violent encounter between a schoolyard bully and his prey, complete with the fact that Rock didn’t see it coming.
I’ve known quite a few bullies, and like Chris Rock I was slow to anticipate their abuse. Girls usually bully with words rather than slaps and punches, so for me the element of surprise was even greater. I was always able to outsmart bullies as a child in Tokyo, having plenty of friends, a large vocabulary and three languages in which to hurl insults. It wasn’t until my family moved to America that I was truly bullied, and it involved no physical element at all. In fact, it was bullying by proxy, since the Mean Girl in my 8th grade class didn’t even deign to speak to me. Instead, she sent a minion to deliver her ultimatum: I was not allowed to talk about Japan, where I had spent the previous twelve of my thirteen years, ever again.
This took place in a small Midwestern city that was everything Tokyo wasn’t: dull, provincial and hostile to outsiders. I was an American who was born overseas and had never lived in America; Japan was all I knew. “But why?, “ I asked, bewildered. “Because [Mean Girl] says we don’t want to hear about places we haven’t been.” A blackness clouded my vision, as if I’d been struck blind. It only lasted a few moments, but when I could see again I no longer spoke Japanese. The language I’d used daily since toddlerhood was utterly gone.
It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I relearned Japanese, this time through formal instruction. But even as I recovered the spoken language, I lagged in reading and writing. It was a deficit I was never able to overcome, and later it caused me to withdraw from graduate studies in Japanese history and choose another career.
Because I switched schools at the end of 8th grade, I saw Mean Girl only once afterwards, when we were both nineteen. By then I was at a triumphant point in life and she was at a low one, and our encounter was cordial and awkward. A decade later, Mean Girl was becoming a famous actress, winning awards and garnering good reviews. As time went on her fame grew, and ultimately I had to pass a huge billboard of her face every time I drove to Burbank. Though I did my best to ignore her movies and television shows, I couldn’t escape her gigantic, smirking visage.
My mother remarked that after all these years Mean Girl must have changed, or at least felt sorry for her behavior toward me. I had my doubts. A few years ago, after I mused in a Facebook post about her omnipresence, an acquaintance messaged me to say that Mean Girl had bullied a friend of hers too. In acting school. When both were adults. This confirmed two things:
My mother was wrong.
Once a bully, always a bully
Over the years I’ve noticed that bullies invariably portray themselves as victims, both of bullying and life’s tragedies. Mean Girl never gives an interview that doesn’t include a story about an accident she had or the casting agents who told her she’d never make it in show business. Will Smith exemplified this poor me behavior when he cried and claimed he was a protector of women in his Oscar speech. Apparently his only fault was chivalry, and his media defenders largely concurred.
Last Friday Smith announced his resignation from the Academy, saying he was “heartbroken” over “The Slap”. This was a clever and calulating move, and I have no doubt the next decade will be productive for Smith and his family, even without all those Academy events. By resigning preemptively, he not only got ahead of the expected suspension (he’ll get ten years, the Academy announced today) but began paving the way for his inevitable comeback. Robbing Chris Rock of his right to be heartbroken over “The Slap” was ancillary to Smith’s big plan, but it was a bully’s classic move: a bruise upon a blow.