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The slap: a different story of the Oscars

Alice Peck


‘What are your thoughts on the Will Smith/Chris Rock debacle?’

The question poured in days and weeks after this year’s Oscars and the immediately viral footage of Will Smith striding up to host Chris Rock, after the comedian joked about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shorn appearance, caused by alopecia. Smith slapped Rock on the cheek, before saying, ‘keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth’.

When I answered, I agreed with popular opinion that the slap was stupid, but I denounced the joke which provoked it as lazy, ignorant, and not funny. I suggested Will Smith’s motives were more complex than explained by masculinity or the defence of Jada Pinkett Smith’s honour; alopecia is difficult – and its impact reaches beyond the individual affected. It inserts itself into relationships, families, life.

Almost a year on from the slap, what remains when it has been chewed, digested, and spat out is the other form of violence I think prompted Will Smith to act so forcefully. Often mentioned several paragraphs into the coverage, sometimes not at all, was Jada Pinkett Smith’s condition of alopecia: the butt of Chris Rock’s ‘joke’. 

I was asked about Will Smith’s slap because I have alopecia. Four years ago, just after my 28th birthday, I went bald. It started as alopecia areata (patches on the scalp), passed through alopecia totalis (complete loss of head hair) to reach alopecia universalis: no head hair, body hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows. I am bald all over.

My experience of alopecia is different from that of Jada Pinkett Smith’s. I am not a famous actress, I am not in the public eye, and I write as a white woman. The politicisation of black women’s hair, the structures of racism and class that underpin our societies do not affect me in the way they do Jada. Yet what she and I face together are the social forces that determine the importance of women’s hair, the normative expectations of femininity, and the value of women’s appearance as a marker of their value.


‘Alopecia is when your hair falls out.’

Commenting on the Oscars, Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time show, said, ‘If you are so lucky in life as to have that be your medical problem, just say thank God… It’s not leukaemia, okay? Alopecia is when your hair falls out. There are worse things.’

Seven words which attempt to define alopecia. Consider instead these seven paragraphs.

At first there is shedding. More hair in the brush, in the plughole, in your hands as you massage shampoo onto your head. Shedding is normal you think, shedding is the normal cycle of hair growth. All mammals shed. 

The first patch is something of curiosity. Coin sized, skin so smooth, never exposed, a glade in a forest of hair. How bizarre you think, your finger going to it, stroking it, finding it the way a child fiddles a wobbly tooth. At the second patch, on the other side of your scalp, your hair increasingly is left behind on your pillowcase, your clothes – gossamer-like, a thread without a needle. You begin to feel concern. You go to a doctor or turn to Doctor Google. You see everything you need; a gallery of patchy scalps and bald heads, bald faces, devoid of eyebrows, devoid of definition. You see your future in a shiny, exposed scalp, your eyes blink at you behind flaps of lashless eyelids.

Your finger, once an inquisitive explorer of your scalp, becomes obsessive, hunting for new patches and when you find them, you seek to extend them, self-sabotage, your fingers tug at surrounding hair, test its tenacity, its will to live. You restyle and re-part and rearrange hair to cover the bald. This is not a combover to cover a receding hairline, this is the routine act of styling to disguise the freakish patches of scalp that lie beneath.

Freakish is how you feel. Ashamed of the ever-growing sea of baldness on the map that is your head, a map that can no longer be rolled away but is framed and hung for all to see. Freakish is how you feel perceived; the glances – in the street, the office, on the train – are stares of ridicule. Every whispering kid tells a gloating, giggling joke and you are the butt of it.

At this stage, you know there is no cure, only treatments with minimal success rates. ‘Try not to stress,’ doctors say, handing you leaflets for support groups. ‘Stress inflames the immune system.’ But stressed is how you begin each day, waking to count the hairs on your pillow, measuring the clumps of hair in the shower. Is it less than yesterday? Will it be even more tomorrow?

To tell people what you’re experiencing is to try to put to words the powerlessness, shame, and fear that arises from something so simple as the physical removal of hair. And when you manage it, people respond differently. Most throw solutions at you: steroids, exclusion diets, meditation, acupuncture. Others tell you they know someone who had it and hers grew back in a few months. Mainly they shower you in pity and you never feel clean.

As a society, we are good at problem solving. Tell someone you are struggling and they want to help, want to offer a solution. Tell someone you are afraid of showering lest more hair comes out in your hands. That you’re paranoid when walking down the street, convinced that everyone is leering at your exposed scalp. That you’re avoiding intimacy lest your partner run their hands through your hair and come away with most of it. Tell someone you are grieving, that you do not recognise the person who greets you in the mirror, that your identity is shifting without your consent. Tell them this and see your hopelessness and fear reflected on their face.


In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner writes, ‘the language of the self would be stripped of one of its richest resources without hair: and like language, or the faculty of laughter, or the use of tools, the dressing of hair in itself constitutes a mark of the human.’ And yet Bill Maher is right, ‘there are worse things’ than alopecia. Yes, it is just hair. Compared to other autoimmune diseases – Lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, MS – there are no debilitating physical difficulties. There is discomfort without eyelashes (grit in eyes), or eyebrows (sweat pouring down face), or nose hair (lots of sneezing), but alopecia is not life- threatening.

To evaluate alopecia’s degree of severity entirely on its physiological impact is to act in a vacuum removed from the societal value placed on hair, a woman’s appearance, or the emotional and social symptoms of disease, which are profound and life changing. 

Jada Pinkett Smith’s experience is not just one of hair loss; it is a forced erasure of the person she has presented to the world all her life. An erasure and a remaking of image into something stigmatised, demonised, and ridiculed. Think of Roald Dahl’s witches, think of the ‘femme tondue’ in newly liberated France, think of the humiliation, control, and punishment of women by shaving their heads in the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War. Removing a woman’s hair exerts control over her, removes her power, her allure in society.

Chris Rock’s joke that she could be ‘GI Jane 2’ could be worse. It is misleading (Demi Moore shaved her head for the role of GI Jane, alopecia prompted Jada Pinkett Smith to shave hers) but compared to the daily stares, assumptions of chemotherapy, laughter, bullying, unsolicited comments, pity, ‘GI Jane 2’ is innocuous. But it takes courage to go out bald or buzzed, to challenge the negative voices of how you will be perceived, to defy what is normal, what is written as beautiful and feminine.


‘Me and this alopecia are going to be friends. Period.’ 

  • Jada Pinkett Smith


After I’d shaved the final straggles of hair from my head, I stuck Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Love after Love’ to the mirror in the bathroom. It was the only mirror I looked at. Each day I’d reread the words ‘you will love again the stranger who was yourself’ hoping I might manifest this self-compassion. 

Like Jada Pinkett Smith, I chose to wear my alopecia. I did not cover up in wigs. I decided to embrace it, to own it. I put on a brave face and I walk through this world bald and proud. This was, and is, a performance, and I am an expert at acting. Yet beneath this exterior, the sorrow and shame remain. This is where alopecia is more than what you see – it lodges deeper into a cruel narrative of the self – hidden but always there; it rears its bald head in ugly, painful ways; it is an uninvited guest, interfering in relationships, outstaying its welcome. My experience: newly bald, navigating an image I did not choose, a partner’s love did not fit the new narrative I told of what I deserved, what I was worth. They could not understand why I pushed them away and mute, I could not explain. An intellectual knowing that love transcends physical appearance loses in the match against the emotional power of shame. 

I do not know the relationship of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, nor do I know how Jada truly feels beneath her bald, beautiful look and decision to befriend her alopecia. She has a public life. She chooses the emotion she shares, she writes the narrative she wants others to read. But I do know that even when we make friends with our fears, our demons, they are still capable of menace.


The language of alopecia is language of the language of loss. I lost my hair. My hair has gone

Like any loss, the loss of hair ripples outwards, fluid, expansive, sweeping up others in its wake. Distress, anguish, shame are vicarious. We are not immune to the suffering of people we love; we want to do something to help, to ease pain, to find a solution. No cure exists for alopecia. It is malignant and omnipotent. No money, fame, medical prowess can challenge it.

When I understand Will Smith’s reaction to Chris Rock’s joke at the Oscars, I see the impact that alopecia has beyond the individual it attacks. It is the third partner in a relationship, it cannot be ignored, nor can it be banished or willed away. In the face of alopecia, we are all powerless. 

When Chris Rock decided to make a joke out of something so raw and physical and live, I think Will Smith was triggered out of a sense of powerlessness, sorrow, and vicarious exhaustion at Jada Pinkett Smith’s experience. Yes, he was unwise but I understand why he did respond in this way, and I excuse him. 

I didn’t allow my partner to fight for me; they left heartbroken, rejected, angry. Will Smith’s slap was not just violence in defence of his wife’s honour, but an angry reaction to a base joke which only served to remind people with alopecia that they fail to conform to conventional standards of beauty, that they’re lesser, the subject of ridicule, the butt of jokes at the globally watched Oscars.

Martin Luther King said, ‘through violence, you may murder the hate, but you cannot murder the lie nor establish the truth.’ It is unfortunate that Will Smith’s decision to challenge a cruel joke about alopecia was overshadowed by the violence of his slap. As a result, he was banned from the Academy Awards for ten years, while Chris Rock’s comedy tour quickly sold out. For a short while, alopecia too was famous, tossed around in the news. Its truth remains long after the joke has been forgotten: incurable, lifelong, much more than just hair loss. 

Photo of Jada Pinkett Smith courtesy of Wikimedia Commons