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Alopecia remains in public eye a year after ’22 Oscars

Kharlita Chambers-Walker and Peter C. Roby

It’s Oscars time again. In advance of the March 12 ceremony, with Chris Rock finally speaking publicly about receiving Will Smith’s “slap heard around the world” on stage last year, it’s worth revisiting that incident and the larger issues it raised about how Black women are watched and how men try to protect them.

On March 27, 2022, surrounded by cameras and celebrities in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, Jada Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes when Academy Awards host Chris Rock, only feet away, mocked her alopecia, a medical condition leading to hair loss.

Hollywood’s many cameras concealed anyone laughing along at home to Rock’s wisecrack suggestion that Jada’s next pursuit should be “G.I. Jane 2,” referring to the 1997 film in which Demi Moore shaved her head to become a Navy Seal.

Her husband, Will Smith, wasn’t laughing. He strolled onto the stage and hit the comic. The audience gasped as one.

Smith’s antics seized the spotlight — and deflected attention from his wife, her medical condition and the film they had co-produced.

Will and Jada were there that night representing the production team of “King Richard,” in which Smith artfully portrayed Richard Williams, the father and exemplar of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. The couple had assembled for their crowning achievement — Oscars glory. After the slap, that glory dissipated, alongside the oxygen in the room.

With one cheek surely smarting, Chris Rock announced it to be “the greatest night in the history of television.”

“King Richard” was nominated for best picture, and Will Smith, its leading man, would win best actor for the title role.

But something was rotten in the state of California: “King Richard” had bombed at the box office. Fawning critical acclaim of the movie had not delivered viewership. Gross revenue came in $11 million short of its producers’ costs.

At the Oscars, America’s arm’s-length embrace of our Black champions was on full display: Disinterested fans had shunned the Williams family’s silver-screen legacy. Then, the public condemnation that followed Smith’s behavior at the Oscars further discouraged thoughtful engagement with the proceedings.

Instead, we should be examining the moment to better understand the spotlight focused on strong Black women among Hollywood’s and sports’ brightest stars.

Two protective men

Last summer, Serena Williams announced her retirement. Her final match was at the U.S. Open, the site of her first solo-grand slam victory. Throughout her departure, she was silent on what happened at the 2022 Oscars. Interviewed 11 months later, she redirected an Oscars question back to her family’s story: “I think it was such a great film.”

Back in Hollywood, she and two sisters, Venus and Isha — executive producers, all — had watched in 2022 without smiles as Will Smith accepted his award for depicting their father in the film.

On stage, Smith invoked Richard Williams as “a fierce defender of his family.” The actor then began to cry.

“Art imitates life,” he reflected, before breaking into a grin. “I look like the crazy father.”

Both men show a propensity for protective antics. Smith’s Oscars performance imitated Richard Williams’ protective and violent behavior in the first act of “King Richard,” which dramatized the family’s fateful origins in Compton, California. In Compton, the girls’ father confronts a gang harassing his daughters during tennis practice. Outnumbered, he is beat down, but his family remains safe. At his limit, Williams arms himself to hunt down the men from the park. But before he finds them, one of the gang members is shot dead.

In Compton, Richard Williams was spared from acting on impulse. In Hollywood, Will Smith had no such luck; he acted out his instinct to protect his wife.

Black hair under scrutiny

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who also has alopecia, was watching the Oscars. She instinctively shared solidarity, reaching out quickly on Twitter.

“Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults,” read her now-deleted tweet.

Ultimately, Smith’s smack was inexcusable; live televised violence remains intolerable. Whatever momentary purpose it served soon yielded to mounting criticism. Pressley — a victim, a survivor — went on to clarify her opposition to violence in its every form. Even Smith disavowed his own deed.

But the issue goes beyond the right-and-wrong of physical violence. With deeper analysis, the spectacle can shine a light on alopecia’s psychological toll, and on the often harsh spotlight successful Black women — and their hair — endure.

Smith’s onstage action was met with viewers’ incredulous astonishment instead of self-reflection. But this was a revenge plot we should have foreseen.

Scholar Delia Douglas’ 2012 “Journal of Black Studies” commentary on the attention focused on the Williams sisters was predictive. She guided readers to look back at the sisters’ audience of fickle fanatics.

The Williams sisters’ visibility and success in tennis’ otherwise-white environment was deemed a “threat” early on, Douglas notes, and tennis audiences responded with “containment.”

Douglas depicts tennis’ on- and off-court preoccupation with the girls as “surveillance.” She argues that it represents viewers’ means to “control the range of available representations of the sisters.”

Specifically, audiences looked past a caring Black family to focus entirely on athleticism, reinforcing dominant racial stereotypes.

As these surveilling audiences scroll past headlines about the sisters, such mass-media coverage becomes a kind of watching without seeing.

Certainly, the wholesome biopic about the Williams family was surveilled, not seen. Their audience, a decade after Douglas’ analysis, remained true to form.

For Pressley, hair has been both part of her identity and part of her continued fight for fair treatment of Black girls and women. In her view, Black girls in are left feeling paradoxically targeted and ignored.

“To be a Black woman, to be a Black girl is to be both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time,” Pressley said in Hulu’s “Hair Tales,” as she explained her rationale for writing the CROWN Act — a federal ban on hair discrimination.

She had in mind the discriminatory school suspension of twin sisters from Massachusetts, Deanna and Mya Cook, because of their hairstyles.

Last July, Massachusetts enacted CROWN Act protections, prohibiting discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles.

“For far too long, Black folks have been punished for the hair that grows on our heads and the way we move through and show up in this world,” said the congresswoman when her home state adopted the law. “Enough.”

Pressley’s legislation governs school-based dress codes, to which Black hair rarely conforms easily. Such rules need not mention race explicitly for natural Black hairstyles to defy them.

Venus Williams infringed seemingly race-neutral rules at the 1999 Australian Open tennis tournament. Matched against the top seed, Venus’ beads fell off twice on the court. An official penalized her, ruling she had deliberately hindered her opponent.

Venus disagreed with the ruling and said so in a post-match press brief.

“No, I shouldn’t have to change,” she insisted. “I like my hair.”

She and her sister began sporting new styles, like micro-braids, in the years to come. Eventually, both championed the natural hair movement, embodying the beauty of unstraightened Black hair.

Unlike her sister, Venus Williams continues to compete to this day. Both sisters have enjoyed long careers atop professional tennis’ world-rankings. When asked to account for their success, they often credit the support they got at home.

For instance, see Venus’ trailblazing debut as an Open Era tennis pro. Its portrayal was the climax of “King Richard.”

In the film, Venus, verging on stardom, sits with Serena while their mother, Oracene Price, braids Venus’ hair.

Arriving on the court, her beaded braids — a protective style — guard her first reaction to her audience. An arc-shot brings the smile of a confident champion.

After the match — a loss — the sisters exit to find adoring fans.

Alopecia today

Over 147 million people worldwide are living with alopecia today.

Half of Black women will experience some form of it, claimed a medical expert in “Hair Tales,” robbing them of a traditional source of self-assured femininity.

For Pressley, her hair was “what I considered to be my femininity, an expression of my womanhood, my black womanhood; my ethnic pride,” she said in “Hair Tales.”

For many Black women, Jada Pinkett Smith and Ayanna Pressley are champions. Their fashions, like Jada’s flowing Oscars attire, are advancing Black beauty, and their feelings about and handling of their alopecia provide a window into the experience.

Pinkett Smith, after addressing the Oscars incident on Red Table Talk, identified a sense of shame “when you go bald, and you don’t have a choice.”

Pressley said her self-confidence is “pulled from a very deep place, because I don’t have my hair anymore.

She added, “As a Black woman, I already have to put on so much armor, I don’t want to put on anything else.”

Pressley cited her late-mother’s grace with helping her embrace her new look.

As for the 2022 Oscars, she tweeted, “I’m a survivor of violence. I’m a proud Alopecian. The psychological toll we carry daily is real. Team Jada always. That’s that on that.”

Alopecia, ayanna pressley, Black hair, CROWN Act, Jada Pinkett Smith
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