If you watched The Oscars last night, or used the internet since it aired, the talk of the town is Will Smith slapping Chris Rock after Chris made a joke involving Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair. Jada has openly discussed and struggled with hair loss due to alopecia, so the joke was in poor taste. Despite this, the internet has run amok with memes.
But this wasn’t the first time a controversial slap took over media. In 1998, Irene McGee was slapped by her Real World roommate Stephen Williams.
So why did Irene get slapped? Well, she was quitting the show. She was sick of production’s manipulation, and Stephen was invested in the show. The two had been fighting all season, which had culminated to the point of Stephen stealing some of Irene’s belongings, including a childhood stuffed animal. But the tensions came to a head as Irene walked to her final taxi while departing the show. Irene called Stephen gay (flashforward 10 years and Stephen openly admits he’s gay), which angered Stephen, he called her a bitch, revealed the stuffed animal, and threw it into the water.
It wasn’t until Irene was driving away that Stephen chased down the taxi, opened the passenger door, and smacked Irene across the face.
Afterward, Stephen’s roommates were split on whether or not to allow him to stay in the house. They did, but only if he attended anger management classes. As time progressed, the moment aged increasingly poorly. The concept of a man slapping a woman didn’t sit well with most viewers. But, we also need to remember that Stephen was dealing with the pressures of being closeted. Apparently, Irene knew he was gay, but she also alleges that he was quite homophobic while living in the house.
The moment has been brought up for decades of Irene’s life. She can’t escape it, so she’s learned to deal with it. And she leaves Chris Rock with a message: it gets better.
Susie has also been quick to point out the similarities.
There’s a good chance that this moment will become a bigger pop culture staple than The Real World slap, but it’s also a less challenging dichotomy. Whether or not the slap is justified will be debated based on the comments Chris made, but most other social complexities are equalized. Meanwhile. the Real World slap has gotten more complex with Stephen accepting his sexuality. It was still wrong of him, but we also need to acknowledge that Irene wanted to reveal one of Stephen’s biggest secrets, potentially destroying his life. Nowadays MTV would edit this out, but in 1998 it was a hot moment for viewers to watch.