Voices: This was Will and Jada’s year of radical honesty – why couldn’t we handle it?

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  • Jada Pinkett Smith
    Jada Pinkett Smith
    American actress
  • Will Smith
    Will Smith
    American actor
Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith attend the premiere of ‘King Richard’ on 14 November 2021 in Hollywood, California (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith attend the premiere of ‘King Richard’ on 14 November 2021 in Hollywood, California (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

I know a lot about Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage. I know they got married on 31 December 1997, in what was at the time one of the most secretive celebrity weddings of the year. I know Jada wore a white velvet Badgley Mischka gown, and Will wore a white Badgley Mischka suit. I know they haven’t always had an easy time staying married. I know there was a time when Jada woke up crying for 45 days straight. I know they felt they had to “destroy” their union and essentially rebuild it from the ground up. I know that at one point, Jada had an “entanglement” with singer August Alsina. I know they were monogamous for a while, until they weren’t.

All of which is to say, I know more about Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage than I do most of my friends’ marriages. And I didn’t have to dig for that information, either. Will and Jada offered it up, bit by bit, in a series of increasingly candid interviews over the years. They have been especially open over the past couple of years – Jada on Red Table Talk, the talk show she co-hosts on Facebook with her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris and her daughter Willow Smith, and Will in his self-titled memoir, which was released in November. Together, they have redefined the way celebrities talk about marriage and relationships – and reader, we have not always been able to handle it.

This year’s revelations included Jada stating in an episode of Red Table Talk that being married for as long as she and her husband have been is “hard”. “The thing Will and I talk about a lot is the journey,” she said. “We started in this at a very young age, you know, 22 years old. That’s why the accountability part really hit for me because I think you expect your partner to know [what you need], especially when it comes to sex. It’s like, ‘Well, if you love me, you should know. If you love me, you should read my mind.’ That’s a huge pitfall.”

Meanwhile, Will was telling GQ: “Jada never believed in conventional marriage.… And for the large part of our relationship, monogamy was what we chose, not thinking of monogamy as the only relational perfection. We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way. And marriage for us can’t be a prison. And I don’t suggest our road for anybody. I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences and the freedoms that we’ve given one another and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love.”

Reactions to Will and Jada’s statements have ranged from run-of-the-mill annoyance (a sort of “This again?”) to crippling secondhand embarrassment. People routinely complain on social media, with varying degrees of comical exaggeration, about knowing way too much about Will and Jada’s union. And yet, we can’t stop reading. We can’t stop talking about it, either. (Saying you want to stop talking about it still counts as talking about it.)

There is something captivating about our collective ambivalence to listen to Will and Jada’s takes about matrimony. We don’t truly know what to do with their declarations. They are known to wrap them up in sweeping declarations about life, success, and what it means to be a person in the world, which can make their trains of thoughts a little hard to follow. But at the end of the day, we are witnessing something still quite rare: an internationally famous couple, who have been married for a quarter century (I could end this sentence right here; that kind of longevity in Hollywood is truly the exception, not the rule), telling us that they’ve had a rough go of it.

Of course, Will and Jada are not the first celebrities to publicly discuss their relationship. Celebrities do it all the time! But their declarations can usually be sorted into three broad categories: 1) cookie-cutter statements about how happy they are together; 2) PR-polished breakup announcements, and 3) attempts at sounding relatable by discussing the many fights they purportedly get into, which usually just end up sounding like advertisements for divorce.

Will and Jada don’t fit into any of these categories. When they tell us there were times they weren’t happy, it sounds believable. And when they tell us they decided to stay together despite those difficulties, well, it makes sense, because they’ve been married for 24 years. There is a kind of credibility only time buys, and Will and Jada’s marriage has it.

Perhaps this is what makes their interviews both fascinating and challenging. There is real pain, real sadness in them. We’re not used to celebrities breaking the fourth wall like this. They’re not telling us what we should do with their declarations, or what lesson we should draw from them. They’re just telling us what is, and we’re left to make of it what we will.

Take, for example, this anecdote from Will, which GQ printed as part of its Will Smith profile. In 2011, Jada turned 40. Will, we’re told, spent three years planning a birthday party for her, during which he “screened a documentary he’d commissioned that chronicled her life”. Jada, Will recalls in his memoir, admonished him later that night, once they were back in their hotel room, telling him: “That was the most disgusting display of ego I have ever seen in my life.” They fought until their daughter Willow asked them to stop. “Our marriage wasn’t working,” Will writes. “We could no longer pretend. We were both miserable and clearly something had to change.”

This is a sad story. Obviously, the specifics aren’t exactly relatable, but nevertheless – the three years, the complete misfire, the ensuing fight? Good intentions turning sour in the time it takes to snap one’s fingers? It’s gutting, it’s real, and no one comes out of it looking like the obvious bad guy.

I imagine there are reasons for Jada and Will’s candor that aren’t only connected to wanting to share their experiences with the world. Presumably, by making these bits of information public, they’re pouring water on rumors they know might circulate. No need to speculate, guys. It’s all out there for us to hear. In showbiz, they call it “getting ahead of the narrative”.

Perhaps this is why their declarations bother us sometimes. When we speculate, we are poking at what we imagine to be a reservoir of titillating possibilities – but when Will and Jada tell us the truth, it kills off the mystery. We’re forced to stop gawking and start seeing. It’s less, well, fun.

And we’re not used to unpolished veracity from our favorite celebrities. Sure, Will and Jada’s statements are controlled. They share them on their own terms, usually via platforms they manage (Jada’s show, Will’s book). But there is always an element of genuine vulnerability to their declarations. People might judge. People might disagree. But Will and Jada have made their choice, and that choice is a form of disarming, radical honesty. Who are we to judge them for it?

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