So, Will Smith was attending a premiere for “Men In Black III” in Russia when a male reporter mobbed him on the red carpet and tried to kiss him, attempting a headlock to pin Smith in place so he couldn’t move. He reacted like pretty much anyone else would in that situation; by recoiling and striking out, because, woah, personal space much?
And now, the incident seems to have sparked a whole array of responses taking Smith to task for everything from not being familiar with European cultural norms to being homophobic. Now, I know as the resident Issues Spice here at xoJane, you’re probably expecting me to tell you that Will Smith is clearly a horrible homophobe with no cultural awareness who should be told to go stand in the corner to feel bad.
I actually wholly side with Will here, folks, because that reporter was completely out of line, not just professionally1 but as a human being. Invading someone else’s personal space and body is not okay, and being upset about that doesn’t make you homophobic. It makes you understandably uncomfortable with being violated.
There’s some fascinating language going on around this situation; for example, people ask “What if it had been a female reporter,” using that to imply that Smith wouldn’t have slapped a woman for the same violation. I’m not inclined to agree with that logic, though; the video of the situation clearly shows him startled, upset, and angry by the violation of his personal space, not by the gender of the person doing the invading.
And reacting violently to an unexpected assault is a thing that happens, especially when people are keyed up and nervous. It’s really hard to control instinctive reactions, particularly when they involve the fight or flight that triggers when unwanted touch is happening.
And let’s talk about the assailant, Vitalii Sediuk, for a minute.
This wasn’t the case of a European journalist airkissing (or actually kissing!) an interview subject on the red carpet after being formally introduced...which would still be a little odd, but not entirely unprecedented. European “manners” don’t actually involve charging people at public events and trying to land a big smacker right on the mouth. Casual kissing is more common in Europe than it is here in the land of mom2 and apple pie, but this was not a casual kiss: It was an attack.
Sediuk’s been involved in several incidents like this, with behaviour verging on the stalkeresque. At Cannes, he mobbed Madonna with some unwanted hydrangeas, which sounds amusing on the surface, but really wasn’t. As many lady readers know, being approached by strangers forcing things on you, even at public events where your personal safety is probably assured, is scary and not fun. It’s rattling and upsetting.
So here we have a situation where a man known for trying to start trouble chooses to try and start some and he got slapped for it. Forcing a kiss, or any kind of unwanted touch, on someone is assault. Smith was well within his rights to react defensively and be upset by the situation; hell, I’d do exactly the same thing if some random stranger loomed up and tried to kiss me, no matter what that person’s gender was.
It’s not homophobic to push a strange man away when he’s trying to kiss you. It’s just not. I’m sorry, kids.
There’s another fascinating undercurrent here with the assumptions being made about Smith in the predominantly white and US-based media. When you have white people claiming this is evidence of homophobia, it’s hard not to think about the fact that we regard the bodies of celebrities in general as public property, and that goes double for Black celebrities; after all, it’s not that long ago that the bodies of Black men like Smith were property.
And there's still an enduring "angry Black man" stereotype playing a role here, where Smith is being framed as animalistic and scary for being upset because he was touched without consent.
As Mikki Kendall pointed out on Twitter, “...there's a long history of sexual violence against black bodies including black male bodies that is sanctioned by the state.” She added: “#rapeculture is saying that men can't be assaulted or feel violated by unwanted physical contact.”
The fact that these issues are being neatly elided in many conversations about the encounter between Smith and Sediuk is important, and it says a lot about the people dominating those conversations.
Implied in the claims that Smith is homophobic for not wanting to be kissed by a total stranger is the assertion that Smith’s body is an object of public property, available for anyone’s use. Telling that many white folks, particularly women, seem so bound to condemn Smith for homophobia for defending his personal boundaries.
1. Seriously, dude, thanks for making it harder for the rest of us to get press passes. Return
2. Fact: Europeans do not have mothers. They are instead hatched from eggs laid by wine-drinking, cheese-eating, air-kissing dinosaurs. Return