Martin Freeman’s Jokes: A Consistent Pattern of Offense
TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses rape, date rape, and other potentially triggery content.
It’s always difficult when an actor you like fumbles and says something completely horrible. It’s even harder when that actor is in so many pieces of media that you adore that you can’t exactly just cut ties with him and be done with it. This is where I’ve found myself with the recent Martin Freeman controversy. He plays John Watson on BBC’s Sherlock and Bilbo in The Hobbit trilogy, which means he’s very difficult to avoid if I want to keep enjoying anything in either of these two fandoms. When he’s not being absolutely offensive he tends to be a pretty funny guy, a bit adorable, and delightfully sarcastic, so it’s not as though I have reasons beyond his offensive humor to hate the guy. If this were his first offense I might try to excuse it, blame it on him being tired from so many press junkets, or just attribute it to a bad split second decision with an awkward question. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Freeman has fumbled and offended large swaths of people with his humor. It’s becoming a consistent pattern and many are finding it difficult to ignore.
His most recent gaff involves a date rape joke made in an interview about The Hobbit. He was asked which race in The Hobbit he would most like to sleep with. He responds with a rather rambling answer about elves, drugs, and ‘rape’ (air quotes are his, not mine):
“I’ve got drugs. I could just make them, y’know. Slip them something in their goblet. Someone will get offended by that now! ‘Cause they’ll call it ‘RAPE’ or whatever. But, um, you know, for me, it’s a helping hand.” He then goes on to state, “maybe I should stop talking.”
Oh Martin, honey, you should have stopped talking several sentences prior to that one. There is nothing remotely air quote worthy about date rape. Drugging someone to take sexual advantage of them is absolutely rape and trying to play it off as anything else is clearly offensive, joke or not. Some people might view rape jokes as no big deal, but the topic carries a trigger warning on this website for a reason. Even mentioning the word ‘rape’ can trigger some survivors and it’s not exactly something that should be joked about. The only saving grace is that he seemed to realize that what he did was highly offensive and tried to backtrack. Unfortunately for him it was far too late. Add this joke onto his already colorful history of offensive humor and you have a large portion of fandom upset just a week after The Hobbit premiered and only 11 days prior to the long awaited third season of Sherlock.
For a rather extensive list of the other offensive jokes Martin Freeman has told it’s best to look at this post on the Tumblr account Your Fave Is Problematic. Highlights include racist and homophobic language and some sexism thrown towards Lucy Liu who plays Watson on Elementary. When an actor is so ingrained in your fandoms it’s easy to make excuses for their behavior. ‘They just have a dark and sarcastic sense of humor,’ you might say. ‘Perhaps they didn’t really mean it.’ When the jokes at the expense of marginalized or underrepresented groups begins to pile up, though, a consistent pattern of offense begins to emerge that you just can’t turn a blind eye towards any longer. The offensive humor of one actor can cast a taint over your enjoyment of media and it becomes extraordinarily difficult to move past.
So what’s there to be done? Boycott his works? This isn’t likely to have much of an effect. The Hobbit and Sherlock are huge franchises that are going to have a large viewership regardless of what you do. Besides, both fandoms have been waiting far too long for their respective pieces of media to turn their back on it at the finish line. You might get personal satisfaction from boycotting it and feel that you are making a strong statement, but that alone is not going to make a huge difference where it matters most. Calling out this behavior on websites such as this, Tumblr, Twitter, or various other blogs can have an impact if read by the right people, but the chances of the right people paying attention to fan blogs isn’t guaranteed. Freeman has been called out on his behavior before and yet it continues regardless. His attempt at backtracking may be a sign that he’s starting to learn his lesson, but it could have just been him realizing that that particular joke was going too far even for him. It’s hard to say really.
So what is to be done about this whole thing? I really don’t know. I wish I had an answer. I’m still going to watch the new season of Sherlock. I’m still going to see the third installment of The Hobbit when it comes out (I’ve already seen the second). I’m still going to probably laugh at most of his non-offensive jokes and his dry sarcasm. I’ll just be doing all of this with the uneasy feeling that this actor that is so ingrained in my media is extraordinarily offensive. Beyond my own discomfort and disappointment with Freeman I’m not quite sure what else to do. Perhaps I could just ‘get over it,’ but that’s getting more and more difficult with each offensive joke.
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.