Relationships

The Corny Couple

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are the goofy uncle and bougie aunt of black celebrity culture. And that’s a powerful thing.

Will and Jada Pinkett smith
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for the Clara Lionel Foundation.

Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.

When Will Smith appeared on Tidal’s Rap Radar podcast in early July and said that he and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, “don’t even say we’re married anymore,” it looked like he was finally confirming the ever-looming rumors of divorce. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star has been shutting down gossip around his 20-year marriage for years, including whispers of swinging, and in 2015, the ever-present rumors even prompted a rare, and exclamation point–heavy, Facebook response. “Under normal circumstances, I don’t usually respond to foolishness. (Because it’s contagious),” Smith wrote.

But, so many people have extended me their “deepest condolences” that I figured – “What the hell… I can be foolish, too!”

So, in the interest of redundant, repetitious, over & over-again-ness… Jada and I are…

NOT GETTING A DIVORCE!!!!!!!!!!!!! : -)

I promise you all - if I ever decide to divorce my Queen - I SWEAR I’ll tell you myself!

#Dumb People Should Have to Wear Scarlet D’s

Pinkett Smith followed up her husband’s denial of divorce with a succinct “My king has spoken.” Still, as they tend to do, the rumors continued. So when CNN ran a story under the search headline “Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith No Longer Say They Are Married” this summer, anyone keeping up with the drama could be forgiven for thinking that maybe the aunt and uncle of Black Hollywood had indeed finally called it quits. But in typical aunt-and-uncle fashion, the divorce-indicating statement was actually the beginning of a rather corny spiel on the unshakable bonds of the couple’s relationship. “We refer to ourselves as life partners,” Will said. “Where you get into that space where you realize you are literally with somebody for the rest of your life. There’s no deal breakers. There’s nothing she could do—ever. Nothing that would break our relationship. She has my support till death and it feels so good to get to that space.”

I must admit that as a casual observer of the Will-Jada relationship—I won’t deign to call their union “marriage” now that I know the couple’s bond is so unbreakable it transcends that particular mortal realm—it feels good to watch them get to that space, as saccharinely earnest as it is. The last episode of Fresh Prince aired two months after I was born, so I can’t say I grew up with Will and Jada, but the amount of reruns I consumed certainly meant I was raised watching them. Growing up in a household steered by two black Gen Xers meant that all the stars of the golden age of black sitcoms loomed large above my childhood. It’d only be a slight exaggeration to say that I knew all the words to the Living Single theme song before I recognized any of the music my peers were bopping to. Reruns of Fresh Prince and the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World—which Pinkett starred in for two seasons—played in the background constantly, and the movies that either Will or Jada headlined, like the Men in Black, Matrix, and Bad Boys franchises, were staples in my home. Which means I consider myself uniquely qualified to marvel at both the couple’s lasting cultural relevancy and their transition from ’90s icons to their current status as corny legends.

Will and Jada’s relationship feels uniquely singular for a few reasons, the biggest of which might just be the durability of their star power. While they’ve each had their fair share of flops, like the widely panned Netflix fantasy crime drama Bright, the two have largely managed to adapt themselves to the tastes of the time. Will’s YouTube channel and Instagram presence are pure joys to behold, and Jada’s Facebook talk show Red Table Talk is both one of the more intimate lenses into celebrity relationships and a testament to the fact that she exudes the same kind of warmth that her husband does. While that was never a question to me, an admittedly amateur Smithologist, rumors of swinging, Scientology affiliations, and queerness have, as Inkoo Kang wrote for Slate, “solidified perceptions among mainstream audiences of the actress as anything but an ordinary mom.” Those perceptions largely passed me by, as Pinkett Smith always represented to me a kind of warm, black, bougie mystique that felt at once unattainable and familiar, embodied by several of my aunties and complemented by her husband’s relatable goofiness.

Throughout their decades in the spotlight, the two have not only maintained the warm and accessible honesty that tinged their earliest work but also passed that same confident warmth down to their children. (The fact that the couple chose to give their kids diminutive versions of their own names is yet another sign of their legendary corniness.) Watching Will exuberantly point to Jada on red carpets or trade quips back-and-forth on Instagram while on family vacation or show up dressed as a store employee to promote his son Jaden’s water company feel the same as watching him belittle Carlton in Fresh Prince or rib Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black. His roles and his public persona all hold the same brand of humor that makes you shake your head—and yet you can’t help smiling at it. It’s easy to imagine Pinkett Smith shaking her head with you, forever amused by her husband’s antics. In other words, a scene I had watched play out in my own household countless times.

Watching the enduring power and maturation of a decadeslong marriage life partnership in an industry where 20-second relationships are the norm is a privilege that is all too rare. That privilege is only made more profound by the fact that Will and Jada reflect a reality I grew up with: one of long-lasting black love, one that has long been deemed an impossibility due to its lack of representation in a mainstream culture biased toward stories of black dysfunction. Of course, getting so emotionally invested in complete strangers’ personal lives is a bit weird, but it’s impossible to deny the warm, fuzzy feeling I get when seeing Will write to Jada on the day of the couple’s 20th anniversary that “Love is like gardening. I have learned to focus on HELPING you to BLOSSOM into what YOU want to be (into what you were born to be)… Rather than demanding that you become what my Fragile Ego needs you to be.” In a realm where so many relationships are either manufactured for publicity or just don’t reflect people who look like me, Will and Jada’s is one that, for my entire life, has felt like one I might see at the Thanksgiving table when I go home. If loving that makes me corny, so be it.