His violent response to the situation was shocking and unexpected to many, including himself. Smith’s aggressiveness can be explained in part from the perspective of an honor culture – a set of rules that some men adhere to that dictate how to respond to a perceived threat personally. Insulting the family or spouse may be a strong enough stimulus to inspire behavior that would otherwise be irrational.
Although defending the dignity of women may seem like an attractive romantic concept, it also assumes some of the weaknesses of women. The perception of women as weaker and more vulnerable is a form of protective parenting that leads to ‘benevolent’ sexism. This counterpart of hostile sexism is related to the behavior of men who believe that women are somewhat helpless, and therefore in need of defense.
The controversy over the incident has been largely divided, with some saying he was wrong, but many, like my students, saying he was right. Movies are full of heroes who rescue girls in distress, including many of Smith’s films. If pistols were drawn at dawn in movies to protect the humiliated honor of ladies, and were seen as a brave and good thing, then it is not surprising that people feel the same about real-life cases of benevolent sexism and the violence it inspires. .
Outdated gender roles
The screen has its stereotypical heart, from bad boys striking a guy for tearing his girl apart or a gentleman vying for a lady’s heart. By presenting a simplistic and outdated image of men – as strong advocates – and women – as weaker and dependent – television and film have been perpetuating traditional images of sexuality. The resulting and pervasive stereotypes act as powerful cues that influence our social behaviour. Research has shown that some women are so drawn to the idea of being cherished and protected that they don’t see men displaying such vociferous behavior as sexists at all.
One influential study explains this process in detail, arguing that observing the behavior of others contributes to the formation of gender stereotypes. Especially among younger viewers, it creates expectations about the way men and women should behave.
Crucially, it has been said that celebrities not only influence the clothes they wear or what we eat, but also how we act. Will Smith can be considered a role model for many people, especially young people.
Standards of masculine behavior have changed and the concept of masculinity has evolved in the film. Perhaps one of the best auditions for male representation in cinema, as well as in popular culture, is the evolution of James Bond.
Looking at 007’s Sean Connery in comparison to Daniel Craig shows a huge change in defining how cinema displays masculinity. In the first part, the act of murder was underestimated – it often went unnoticed, and sometimes even mocked. Also, only female characters provided a cheerful backdrop in the Bond story and were always portrayed as less intelligent and in search of male protectors.
Craig’s Casino Royal shows a different kind of masculinity. His bond is emotional and weak, and women are more embodied and real. The ladies in his life are not just romantic counterparts but have action scenes and lead the story. In No Time to Die, for the first time in history, though briefly, the code 007 was assigned to a woman. Not only do women need protection no longer, they now protect each other in one of the most toxic and historically masculine privileges in cinema history.
The film industry seems to be becoming more aware of many issues related to gender. Male characters are allowed to have more vulnerability and women can embody more authentic female characters.
A different standard of male behavior is set in films and other media. Take the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s #Haveaword campaign, which aims to address violent male behavior against women. The campaign encourages men to have conversations with their friends and other men and to talk about bad behavior wherever they see it. The burden here is on words, not on violence to defuse situations.
Will Smith offered an unconditional apology to Chris Rock and five days after the incident he resigned from the academy. He did not look for excuses, but instead tried to determine the reason for his aggression. Will Smith also has one big advantage. He has the power and resources to make a positive impact on the younger generation – as a role model and actor who makes conscious choices for character. Certainly, he also has the wisdom to see his wife able to stand up for herself, if she feels offended and wants to strike back. DM / ML
This story was first published in Conversation.
Michel Shmael is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Royal Holloway University of London.