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The Oscars

When it’s ok to joke about looks

Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. Robyn Beck/Getty

Is it always wrong to joke about someone’s appearance? A lot of people have been making that argument since Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, says Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. The actor lashed out because Rock cracked a joke about his wife’s shaved head. Now, the gag itself wasn’t funny – Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, which she can “hardly help”. But a joke about a public figure’s appearance can still be “valid, and even useful”. The key is that it “should always have a point” – it has to say something about the subject’s “character, persona, behaviour or mood”.

Take Boris Johnson. If you describe him as a “Dulux dog peeping out from under an upturned colander of spaghetti”, you’re hinting at his “chaotic unpredictability and his habit of getting himself into trouble”. Similarly, you might evoke Nigel Farage’s sense of mischief by noting that his “bug-eyed smirk” makes him look like “a toad plotting a practical joke”. I once wrote that Theresa May “looked like someone forced to attend a fancy dress party at gunpoint” – not as a crack about her wardrobe, but to highlight the contrast between her flamboyant clothes and her severe character. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ribbing people for their appearances is fine – it just has to be in the right spirit.