Chris Rock's new comedy show, Selective Outrage, aired Saturday on Netflix. It was Netflix’s first live show ever (they are also shooting the SAG awards like this next) and Chris’s first standup special since The Slap. The special confirms what many of us already anticipated: Rock would be working out his feelings about the slap in his own way. And fair enough–this was his choice.
His choice, as we saw on the special, was to not just flirt with right-wing talking points but flat -out tout them. From the twisted reasoning he is pro-choice (one of the many good jokes with potential he wasted) to the very last line of the special, he is telling the world that after being on the receiving end of the most publicized slap in history, what he took from it was that other people were too fragile. It’s quite the leap of logic but that’s what patriarchy does: makes bigotry sound like common sense.
While Chris directed some of his rage to Will Smith, he mostly targeted Jada Pinkett Smith for causing the slap, and a host of other things related to both his friendships with the Smiths and the Smith’s marriage. Chris even found a new Black woman to dump on (Meghan Markle) and white women to pedestalize (all of the Kardashians). That was only a starting point for Rock to bemoan all the other marginalized people who just can’t stop complaining. It was straight from the Dave Chappelle (who was clearly involved) playbook: why would I grow, when I can show you how much I haven’t and tell you how it’s not my fault?
So Chris starts the special by sounding like any man with a podcast - and a Netflix special. Every comedian has material about cancel culture now and they say the same thing: they are not the problem, cancel culture is. But his spin on it sees other people growing, like his friend Fred who went from a convict to a person who suddenly had a desire to be in a “safe space.” He openly mocks human rights and social justice in such a blanket manner it’s clear he only engaged with it enough to be able to joke about it. He targets white people too, but all of those jokes come off soft. There’s a long Lululemon joke about how they must “hate the poor” but clearly Chis does as well. By still sounding like he’s praising white people while joking about or critiquing them, white people are interrogated and harmed the least throughout the special.
The harsh intro sets the tone for the rest of it. A moderately funny comparison between Gayle King and Blac Chyna is the lead-in to his point that getting attention is paramount in today’s society. His four easiest ways to get attention are 1. Show your ass 2. Become infamous (for something bad) 3. Try to be excellent and 4 (the real point of the list). Be a victim. But Chris insists this is not victim shaming, while he presents an often repeated Fox News talking point about real victims:
“Don’t get me wrong, there are real victims. They need your love, support and care. But if everybody claims to be a victim, when the real victims need help no one will be there to help them.” This is just not true. Downplaying then defining victimhood is a conservative avoidance tactic. It works particularly well to dismiss legitimate issues and imply that it is weakness that is the problem, blurring out the source of oppression or power dynamics that dictate the vulnerability in the first place. And it works well for Rock’s brand of patriarchy because the illusion of strength is so important, regardless of how weak his ignorance sounds. Constantly being seen as strong is a crucial element of Black masculinity, and Chris does not hide the things that make him feel strong. If he can find people even weaker, it brings him closer to the power he has been chasing throughout his entire career.
But Chris Rock doesn’t pretend he is a white man even though he sounds like one. He takes time to make a distinction between Black and white people in the special. Black wealth is not significant because white men run the world and Black men are limited to owning vodka and record companies. White men ironically have the power to overthrow a government that they are running. The racial harassment and abuse Meghan Markle faced should not have been surprising because she didn’t google how the monarchy were the original racists (not a bad point on its own–he could have made it without putting the blame on Meghan). A long diatribe about the Kardashians, ranging from their association with O.J Simpson to their long list of Black partners, he paints the sisters and Kris Jenner as virtuously accepting of Black people, citing “crackhead” Lamar Odom and “bipolar” Kanye West. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Blac Chyna again, a Black woman associated with the family, whose fallout with them disproved his point. Chyna was only good enough for a joke about her body earlier in the set. Not surprising considering he was featured in The Kardashians during Kim’s infamous SNL hosting appearance. At the after-party, he called her monologue jokes natural and said she did a good job. And he also used the opportunity to make some transphobic jabs at Caitlyn Jenner. Some truly pointless ones that sound like they were made years ago.
Then we finally got there. During the last nine minutes of the special is where Rock shared his reflections after being slapped. Chris Rock’s brand of misogynoir plays well with his adherence to respectability politics. Why not make everything a Black woman's fault, while also dictating what is appropriate to do in front of white people? The unadulterated hypocrisy is on full display: disrespecting Black women is totally ok to do in front of white people, but defending a Black woman is not. Because that is what it’s all about. That is what happened.
No matter how far Chris veers out of bounds, even the way he explained the story couldn’t avoid the fact that Will was standing up for Jada. What was significant for Chris was that it was Jada’s fault, she’s the scheming Black woman, the “bitch”, who did so much damage to her husband, he went from emasculated “bitch” himself to all-powerful monster when he slapped Chris. He used the textbook racist tactic to describe how much bigger, stronger, and crueler than Will Smith was than him. How he exerted that power over Chris, yet Chris took it like a man–in front of white people.
Chris is still promoting the idea that tip-toeing around in a white world is the only way Black people should govern themselves. It’s been disproven and rejected, because adapting white standards of behavior does not work to keep Black people safe, secure or treated any more fairly. But Chris doesn’t care about progress, these were the (often simple and reductive) jokes he used to make about race and class and he’s back to make them again. In this new iteration, he manages to satisfy white sensibilities while betraying Black people.
It’s not new to pander to white surveillance and scrutiny, nor can it be separated from the way in which Black people engage in anti-Blackness that reduces Black people into stereotypes and distinct groups. This is the embarrassment Chris is talking about and it’s not new.
The Huntley Film Archives captured a discussion group amongst Black people in Los Angeles in the 1960’s. Describing how respectability was classed and stereotypes were categorized by race, a man says:
“The basic embarrassment that me and other negros have...we wanna live together but we wanna to scatter to the far winds and live amongst white people.”
Chris Rock is also still trying to escape his Blackness. He made fun of Will and Jada’s vulnerability at the “Red Table” while inadvertently revealing what Black men should really be talking about at their kitchen tables. By not evolving or becoming funnier, he often sounded committed to the now familiar fearful and angry tone when blasting this “woke” era. Ironically, men like Chris Rock can actually stop white people from becoming allies to marginalized communities, and Black men from protecting Black women.
And granting permission to white people to degrade Black people is not new to Chris. The now infamous clip of 2011 HBO special, Talking Funny, shows him encouraging Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. to use the n -word with a hard r, while Jerry Seinfeld refuses to engage with it. In other words, the same old Chris.