The complicated relationship we have with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s complicated relationship

The complicated relationship we have with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s complicated relationship

In the span of a week, many of us have learned more about Jada Pinkett Smith than we previously imagined knowing about the actor, producer, author, metal band singer, and Red Table Talk host.

For starters, Pinkett Smith and her megastar husband Will have been separated since 2016, meaning they were separated when Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars after Rock cracked jokes at her expense. The Smiths also do not have a prenup, but they do have a magical connection, which allowed Pinkett Smith to know she was pregnant with son Jaden within moments after conception.

Pinkett Smith has reached far beyond her famous marriage, though, to open up about her past and present: She’s shared that she sold drugs as a teenager. She’s said that Tupac Shakur, whom she knew as a young woman, is her soulmate and that the two shared past lives together. She said that the late rapper, like Pinkett Smith, also had alopecia. Today, Pinkett Smith describes herself as an “urban nun” who reads from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Quran daily. She believes that ayahuasca saved her life.

Jada Pinkett Smith isn’t exactly responding to an intense public thirst for Jada Pinkett Smith updates, but she is promoting the release of her 400-page memoir Worthy. As with most celebrity memoirs, newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets have been excerpting the juiciest and goriest bits of Pinkett Smith’s book that correspond with the juiciest and goriest bits of Pinkett Smith’s life — most recently the 2022 Oscars slap and the 2020 episode of Red Table Talk in which Pinkett Smith admitted to her husband that she’d had a relationship with one August Alsina.

Hence the Jada Pinkett Smith revelation happy hour, and a reaction from the public for her to perhaps say less.

People are, of course, allowed to be exhausted by Pinkett Smith, her book, and the new revelations around very famous people we already knew what seemed like so much about. Celebrities exist, in large part, for us to feel certain ways about them. But the reaction toward the Smiths, their relationship, and Pinkett Smith in particular may also be more than simple overexposure. It reveals the precarious position that Black celebrity couples hold in pop culture, the often uneven nature of the media that covers them, and what they are expected to represent — whether they asked to or not.

Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage was a good thing, and it was covered that way

To understand the public reaction to these new revelations about the Smiths’ marriage — exhaustion, surprise, and exhaustive surprise — means understanding Will, Jada, and their combined cultural impact. It also means acknowledging the spotlight and scrutiny that the two faced not just as a premiere celebrity couple but as a Black celebrity couple.

The two met and began dating around 1995, an era that predates modern celebrity tabloid culture and our heavy social media consumption. Will Smith was on the ascent, transitioning from a TV star and rapper to a bona fide movie star. In 1995, he starred opposite Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys. A year later, he would take a leading role in Independence Day. In 1997, Smith anchored the ultra-successful Men in Black while also releasing his top-10 debut solo album Big Willie Style. At around the same time, Pinkett was garnering praise for her roles in movies like A Low Down Dirty Shame, Jason’s Lyric, and Set It Off, as well as starring in box office hits like The Nutty Professor.

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The couple married in 1997.

The three in sunglasses at the Men in Black Hollywood premiere.
Jada Pinkett, Will Smith, and Trey Smith in 1997.
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

“That moment in popular culture, when they become this very well-known celebrity couple, was also a moment with a lot of reports and studies about the decline of marriage among Black people. In many ways they become symbolic of possibility — even though they’re obviously in a whole different world,” said Treva Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University who studies and teaches gender theory and Black popular and expressive culture. “That kind of representation is significant for a lot of people because Will and Jada become a counter narrative against the impossibility of Black love; for all kinds of reasons — social, political, economic — they come to mean a lot.”

As Lindsey explained, the Smiths have never really just been two people in love. That’s true of all celebrity couples to some extent. Fame equals visibility; visibility equates with representation and so much more. The public attaches all kinds of emotions and judgments to married Hollywood couples. This goes back to the days of old Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, and is something we still do today with couples like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson or David and Victoria Beckham (who are the subject of a new Netflix documentary).

But because there have been so few Black celebrity couples, and because the Smiths are so successful, particularly Will and his dual movie star-music star status, the couple becomes an outlier even among their rarified cohort of famous married people.

The ways in which the Smiths are written about and the ways in which that news is read and interpreted by a mainstream, predominantly white audience, is very different than if they were one of many white celebrity couples in Hollywood. Their success is spotlit, how well they have created a happy blended family (Will shares a son with his ex-wife, and has two children with Jada) is frequently mentioned in articles written about them, and how hard both of them have worked to get to this place also becomes part of their narrative.

“So much of Black life is consumed as spectacle. There’s often this fantastical attachment to Black life and Black relationships,” Lindsey explained. “As social media picks up and as Will becomes even more of a star, as their children become stars in their own right, there becomes even more investment in this Black family in which there’s so much success.”

The Smiths’ career triumph essentially becomes the couple’s secret weapon.

The Smith family at the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscars Party
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout their relationship, there were always pesky whispers about infidelity, Will’s sexuality, and possible connections to Scientology — par for the course for a very, very, very famous couple, and the less said the better. So that’s why from a public relations perspective, Pinkett Smith’s decision to create her Facebook talk show series Red Table Talk was somewhat perplexing, in that it opened herself and her family up to confront those rumors and gossip that their marriage had largely eclipsed.

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“When she came out with Red Table Talk and wanted to air all their stuff out in public, there was a moment when their [celebrity power couple] stock went down,” said Ajia Meux, a communications expert and professor of public relations at the University of Florida. Meux studies media coverage of Black celebrities, and added that it was puzzling watching Pinkett Smith “chase celebrity and fame” in that way, given how Pinkett Smith was already at the peak of Black celebrity.

Before the infamous 2020 Red Table Talk on infidelity, Will’s 2021 memoir, and Jada’s book, we saw a vested interest in seeing this couple do well and be well. Meux pointed out to me that in the national consciousness, the Smiths predate Barack and Michelle Obama and Beyoncé and Jay-Z, two Black celebrity couples that are now considered the aspirational standard.

“We’ve seen Will and Jada grow up, we would say they are part of our lives. They’re a part of some of our childhoods. There are songs about them. We are connected to them as individuals and as people,” Meux said. “There’s something inspirational about their marriage that goes beyond our cousins, our best friends, our family. They’re rich. They’re beautiful. They’re artists. They give us something to look up to, so if they can’t do it, then the question becomes: What does that say about us?”

The tricky pressure that Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith face as a Black celebrity couple

The Smiths’ combination of aspiration and success creates a tremendous amount of pressure on the couple. Perhaps unfairly, they have become a cultural touchstone for Black families, Black relationships, and Black love. Not only do both Will and Jada have to figure out the trickiness of their own marriage, but they also have to do so in the Hollywood spotlight, and on top of that, they carry the visibility of being pop culture’s model Black family.

Coverage works both ways. When the press is positive, the Smiths are a powerhouse that exemplifies love and raising a beautiful family, and in being that, they combat ugly stigmas and stereotypes that the media tends to attach to Black life. They become role models. As Lindsey pointed out, they got together and stayed together at a time when the larger narrative around Black families was about decline.

On the other hand, when Will and Jada have gotten publicly messy — airing their problems on Red Table Talk, slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, revealing intimate details in a book tour — there’s a frustration and worry felt by some in the Black community. The way that the Smiths are analyzed and scrutinized is all too often extended to the Black men, women, and families that the Smiths have come to represent. On top of that, there’s the uncomfortable feeling that a couple as famous and powerful as the Smiths could and should keep their dirty laundry out of the news.

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith at the infamous 2022 Oscars.
Chris Polk/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images

“The idea is that what happens in Black families stays in Black families. It’s a cardinal sin in the Black community to air everyone’s business out in public,” Meux said, explaining the stress of the Smiths’ penchant for media coverage.

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Media coverage of Black celebrity couples like the Smiths is riddled with respectability politics and representation repercussions. Those issues are, to a great degree, absent when it comes to coverage of white celebrity couples. Even though the Smiths have spent a large amount of time being a model couple, their success hasn’t changed and ultimately can’t change the dynamic of how the mainstream celebrity media covers and sensationalizes some aspects of Black life.

How the Smiths present themselves and how the media covers Black celebrity couples creates tension in which one can point out that there’s unfair coverage happening and, at the same time, experience disappointment with the Smiths for still engaging with the press.

Meux drew a distinct comparison to the Obamas and Beyoncé and Jay-Z who, despite having rough patches within their marriages (and perhaps even video footage of said rough patch), seem to be more in control of the spectacle than the Smiths. The Obamas only talked about their marital problems after the fact, and Beyoncé has only referenced the elevator incident and alleged infidelity in songs and albums, turning them into much-heralded art. Jay-Z’s interviews about infidelity happened in post too, and mainly focus on how he repaired his relationship with his family.

“There’s more of a range of what high-profile celebrity Black marriages can now look like, from Beyoncé and Jay to Barack and Michelle to Cardi B and Offset. What’s important is the ways in which those people communicate about each other, what that presentation looks like, and how consistent is that with Black cultural values,” Meux added, saying that although all those couples can seem extremely different, she would be extremely surprised if, at any point, any of those people would be sitting down and airing their grievances about their partners on a talk show.

In the wake of Pinkett Smith’s press tour, the current media narrative is that she’s oversharing — the sort of thing that would be avoided if the Smiths didn’t give the press anything to talk about at all.

But on the other hand, what Pinkett Smith is doing isn’t that different from what most celebrities do when they’re promoting books: sitting down for interviews and peppering exclusives and excerpts in magazines. It’s not as though Pinkett Smith is tweeting out these details on Pop Crave herself. When it comes to celebrity oversharers, the Smiths’ gossip empire still pales in comparison to many, many other celebrity families.

“Their perceived dysfunction, because that’s how it’s being depicted, feeds into some racist and sexist stereotypes about dysfunctional Black relationships. That has unfortunate media consequences because it potentially puts us on the defensive about a relationship we’re not in,” Lindsey, the professor at Ohio State, told me, explaining that she still finds herself being protective over the couple even though the spectacle and media frenzy they invite often makes it difficult.

“Every revelation feels exhausting and jarring simultaneously — which is actually really hard to accomplish. There’s the broader contextual ways that we think about Black relationships, Black love, respectability, all of those big, big issues,” she added. “And then there’s the literal spectacle of two people who keep telling us stuff whether we want to know these things or not.”