You may have seen the headlines from last night’s Academy Awards. Will Smith jumped to the stage and slapped presenter Chris Rock, seemingly in response to a joke about Will’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Chris Rock’s joke was an obvious one - a reference to GI Jane, a role for which Demi Moore famously shaved her head.

Before we go any further, we wish to make it clear that we do not condone the actions of Will Smith and do not believe that violence is ever the answer for dealing with unwelcome remarks. But dealing with unwelcome remarks is unfortunately an all too real part of having alopecia. Baldness continues to be an easy target for obvious observational ‘humour’.

Why should Will Smith have been provoked in such a way to respond with violence? Well, we can only assume that over the past couple of years since his wife Jada’s diagnosis with alopecia, he will have seen first-hand the emotional distress that can be caused when losing one’s hair. Not only can it be upsetting for the person directly impacted by hair loss, it can be distressing for those close around.

Is Will’s violent outburst the first we have heard about at Alopecia UK? No, unfortunately not. In the past, we have also heard from students being suspended from school, adults facing disciplinary proceedings at work and sports players receiving match bans for responding to bullying comments with physical violence.

If we are not condoning physical violence in retaliation for hurtful comments, what are we saying should or could be done? We advocate for calling out the insensitivity. Perhaps Will Smith could have stormed the stage to address Chris Rock’s remark (only assuming Jada was comfortable with this happening). Instead of hitting Chris, it would have been brilliant if he had called out why the ‘joke’ was potentially damaging.

We’re not in the business of writing Oscar speeches but perhaps Will could have grabbed the mic and said something like this...

“Apologies everyone for interrupting the proceedings but I really feel the need to challenge the joke that Chris Rock made just now about my wife Jada. The difference between Jada and Demi Moore, who shaved her head for the role of GI Jane years ago, is that my beautiful wife’s lack of hair is not entirely by choice. She has a medical condition called alopecia and she has chosen to embrace the baldness that brings rather than wear a wig as many women with alopecia do. There have been times when this condition has caused distress and anguish to my wife and, as a result, to me and my family.

I feel it is time that obvious jokes were not made about anyone’s appearance. In a society where it is unacceptable to make jokes about someone’s race, sexuality or disability, perhaps it’s time we extended that to include any visible difference. Yes, my wife is bald. But is that any reason to uninvitedly bring her into a joke when she is here, like anyone else, to simply enjoy the evening?

There is another reason for me to call out such a joke. All across the USA and the rest of the world, millions of children and teenagers are living with alopecia. Some of them are unfortunately having to deal with bullies who make jokes and jibes about their hair loss. This should not be happening in 2022 and yet it is. This month, tragically, a 12 year old girl with alopecia took her life because she felt she could no longer face the bullies who were making her life miserable. All because she looked different.

Chris, if I allowed your remark to go unchallenged, millions of people around the world would see it reinforced that it’s ok to make jokes about people with a visible difference that they cannot control. It is not ok and it’s time it stopped. Thank you.”

We know that many people with alopecia use humour as a way of coping. We are not saying that there cannot be jokes and humour surrounding hair loss. We have a blog post on this very topic when we were drawn into a media storm in a teacup about some comments from Gary Lineker a few years ago. 

What we’re saying is that nobody with alopecia should feel like they have to deal with uninvited attention, comments or jokes but unfortunately it still happens. We feel confident that Chris Rock would not wish his joke to mean that thousands of young girls with alopecia have ‘GI Jane’ added to the names that are thrown in their direction. But as we have seen, words have consequences and it is time for that to be acknowledged.

We send our best wishes to Jada Pinkett-Smith and hope she is doing well following the events of last night.