29 March 2022

What is misogynoir and why is it relevant to the Jada Pinkett Smith Oscars controversy?

29 March 2022

There’s a lot of noise around the Oscars incident, but one major thing seems to be lacking – much conversation about Jada Pinkett Smith.

To recap, the 94th Academy Awards was thrown into chaos when Will Smith walked onstage and hit Chris Rock, after the comedian made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

Pinkett Smith, 50, suffers from the medical condition alopecia. Referring to her buzzcut, Rock said: “Jada, can’t wait for GI Jane 2″ – prompting Smith to slap him, before returning to his seat and shouting twice: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f****** mouth.”

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith on the red carpet before the Oscars (Alamy/PA)

While violence cannot be condoned – and Smith has apologised for his actions – much of the conversation is about the men involved, and not the woman at the centre of it all. But after his comments, some accusations of ‘misogynoir’ have been levelled against Rock online.

“Misogynoir is where sexism meets racism,” explains author and female empowerment coach Gifty Enright (giftyenright.com). “Normally, when it comes to the feminism movement, there is nuance – there’s the racial element missed out by the mainstream. It is when black women are made to feel ‘less than’ – it’s a double whammy, because being a woman you run into all sorts of gender biases, and then being a black woman puts another layer onto it. It’s called intersectionality, where you suffer from more than one type of bias.”

Rock’s joke was about Pinkett Smith’s hair – a hugely sensitive and highly politicised subject for black women, and an issue Enright calls “the holy grail”.

She continues: “For years, it has been about trying to make black hair look white to be more ‘acceptable’ – straightening it and using chemicals. It’s only now that wearing black hair in its natural form is not seen as unprofessional.” In fact, the House of Representatives in the US has just passed the Crown Act – legislation ending discrimination against natural hair at work and school – meaning it’s one step closer to becoming law.

“Because of all the things black women had to do to make their hair presentable, a lot suffer from alopecia,” Enright explains. “You get traction alopecia from the braids we wear, and then with all the chemicals they had to put on their hair to straighten it – that leads to alopecia as well.”

While Pinkett Smith suffers from the autoimmune type of alopecia – rather than traction alopecia – her wearing her head bald for the Oscars is still a huge statement raising awareness around the issue. Enright calls it a “brave thing for her to do, and give voice to a lot of the silent suffering” – particularly as many black women “wear wigs and weaves and all that, just to mask their issues”.

Chris Rock made a joke about Pinkett Smith’s hair at the Oscars (Alamy/PA)

So when it comes to Rock’s joke about Pinkett’s condition, Enright suggests “it’s something traditionally used to make black women feel less than”. For Enright, the fact that Chris Rock is a black man is “neither here nor there”.

She says: “When you’re talking about misogynoir, black women are getting it both from black men and white men as well.”

Ultimately, Enright suggests the resulting fall out from the incident between Smith and Rock has taken away from the most important thing: Pinkett Smith’s bravery. “She is drawing attention to something a lot of women suffer from, particularly black women. Rather than being applauded for that, it’s being completely swept under the carpet, and it’s again about the two men standing there, pumping their chests.”

She adds: “If Will Smith was suffering from alopecia and he’d gone to the Oscars bald, it would’ve been a completely different conversation.”

Enright calls it an example of attribution bias, “Where women never get the credit for their achievement” – and this, along with misogynoir, can be hugely harmful.

“For black women and girls coming up, it can be debilitating knowing you have to break against all these biases to be as good as the men. You are as good as the men, but you have to go and fight through all these barriers. So what you then get are capable women hiding their light, because they just cannot be bothered to fight for that recognition.

“It’s a shame, because women bring a lot to the table, and Jada brings a lot to the table. But here we’re seeing her achievements being completely minimised and completely overshadowed by what the men are doing.”

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