'The Hobbit's Martin Freeman Made a Rape Joke, Here's Why It Doesn't Even Matter
The subject isn't funny, but that didn't stop Martin Freeman from making a rape joke Tuesday afternoon. That's right, lovable star of things like Sherlock, The Hobbit, and The World's End, has said a not-so-funny-ha-ha about rape. And before we go any further, let me make one thing quite clear: Rape jokes are bad. A very bad thing indeed. But Martin Freeman's rape joke doesn't matter. Or, at least, it won't matter, because until we are able to shift the conversation to why it was bad rather than just create outrage for outrage's sake ("Look at this very bad thing!" "Boo! Hiss! Rabble-rouse!"), all we're doing is making it easier for everyone else to dismiss the very warranted anger over rape jokes.
Offensive rape jokes and the people who make them have become a well-deserved target of the Internet's ire. To joke about a victim's victimhood because of [insert arbitrary modifier here] is a lazy, hackneyed excuse for humor at absolute best and a horrifically mean way of mocking someone at worst. As for where Freeman fits in? The Hobbit star tried to make a joke about the height disparity between himself (a hobbit) and the much taller elves — an answer to the question "who would you rather take on a date?" It went like this:
Interviewer (voiceover, translated): Let's hear if they'd rather pick a dwarf, a hobbit, or an elf for a date.
Freeman: Elf, definitely.
Freeman: Because look at them. They're beautiful, yeah. Men or women!
Interviewer: And the height difference doesn't matter?
Freeman: Not at all. I've got a ladder, it's fine. And I've got drugs. I could just make them [makes hand motion alluding to an elf falling over] — y'know. Slip them something in their goblet.
[Interviewer laughs, partially covers her face.]
Freeman (continued, talking to someone off-camera): Someone will get offended by that now! [Looking back at interviewer] 'Cause they'll call it [air quotes, eye roll, interviewer is overheard laughing] "RAPE" or whatever. But, um, you know, for me, it's a helping hand [Freeman chuckles]. Maybe I should stop talking.
Interviewer (voiceover, translated): Yeah, that might be a good idea. At least for now.
There's plenty that's bad in this interview. Freeman's eye rolls and air-quoted "rape" and chuckle, the interviewer's seeming complicity in what was happening (her questions overall were decidedly sexist: from "Who is the most manly?" to the Evangeline Lilly-specific question, "What was it like being around all those guys?" Not great, but that's a post for a whole 'nother day), and the lightheartedness with which it was all handled and packaged up into a funny ha-ha segment for a morning Danish TV program (Go' Morgen Danmark) like it was NBD are all awful. They all suck and do things detrimental to our eternally chugging hope that we're on a path to self-enlightenment and greater respect as a societal whole.
But the rape joke is downright egregious, especially because Freeman goes so far as to preemptively attempt to squash criticism. By doing that he's fallen into the "oh well, you know how sensitive everyone is about rape!" trap set by the don't-police-my-jokes types.
Rape jokes are in no short supply in 2013. Especially the bad ones not handled by professionals like Wanda Sykes, Sarah Silverman, Ever Mainard, and Louis CK, who have spent years thinking, pondering, obsessing, nitpicking, and fretting over the nuances, thoughts, and emotions behind their jokes. Clearly, that is not what Martin Freeman did.
So we've seen what happens when a comedian or actor tries their hand at very, very un-PC humor: Someone makes a terrible rape joke; we all get very upset and berate them for not understanding why, even in off-the-cuff moments, that rape jokes are very bad things; outrage on either side of the argument ensues; the person issues an apology and we discuss the merits of it; we move onto the next story to get enraged about.
And while bringing awareness to rape jokes, the culture behind them, the power struggle they emphasize, and the misogynistic undertones they often take on are all important and necessary things in order to bring about change, knee-jerk reaction responses often hurt the cause. Instead, quick reactions only lead those who support rape jokes to turn their nose up at those who are offended. They'll claim that those who are offended haven't developed a concrete argument as to why the jokes are bad are simply being over-sensitive. This, in turn, only breeds a lot more bad rape jokes, the vilification of women, and victim-blaming. It’s a cycle, one that many people feel is inevitable and should just be ignored. As if ignoring something ever solved anything.
Instead of continuing this trend with Martin Freeman's unfortunate and ugh-inducing rape joke, what if we explained why the joke (and most rape jokes in general)'s undertones of establishing power against a desired sexual object sucked? Because the heart of the problem is that this joke's concept surrounds the idea that sexual dominance and/or control is a goal for everyone. That winning in the war of "Look! I could have sex with you!" is somehow an acceptable self-motivator. Because guess what? This is not how many victims of rape — or women, or a lot of people — look at sex at all. Sex has — no duh/case in point — become a very heated, polarizing topic. And care must be taken when discussing it.
Jokes like these should probably be left up to the professionals or people with first-hand knowledge of the stuff anyway, because, sorry, not everyone should make jokes. Especially in a public forum, and especially when they're made on the fly. Sure, everything can be funny if told in the right way, in the right light, from the right point of view. I totally believe that. But nobody should make off-the-cuff jokes about something as serious as rape. We don't all get to do anything and everything we want, special snowflakes.
Of course, the question remains to be seen: Would approaching these jokes differently change the conversation? Move it away from the "who's right and who's wrong and who's good and who's bad" line of thought that's so inherently misguided and far too two-dimensional for our modern world and into a more adult, focused arena of discourse?
Because Martin Freeman did not seem, to me, set out with the intention of making a hurtful rape joke, though he did make it worse for himself once he had. And while we can say with all certainty that his joke was a bad thing, that is merely stating the obvious. Taking it one step further, explaining why it is bad, is a good thing. Getting people to understand and want to be better and get over the paltry-at-best rape jokes and do something better, funnier, and more clever? Well that's what some might call "a proactive use of everyone's time." Which I also happen to call a great thing.