Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Borat (So What?)

Yesterday at lunch with the awesome Pied Piper and an accomplished, pioneering writer whose anonymity we shall preserve, Piper turned to me and said, “You saw Borat and didn‘t blog about it?” And I shrugged sheepishly into my chopped salad and did my best to explain that I’m having a bit of a crisis with my response to comedy. It’s true.

Much to the somewhat indulgent amusement of my family, I laugh at the lamest of jokes. But my thinking side is increasingly uncomfortable at the influx of comics who made it because they trashed on their own ethnicity. Suddenly it's okay--no really, okay--to make ethnic and racist jokes again. As the song goes, "Everyone's a little Racist Sometimes." So Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, and Jeff Foxworthy make malicious jokes about Black, Jewish, and "Redneck" people; I find that troublesome. I can handle Margaret Cho and Russell Peters who mock ethnic culture rather than ethnic race (Make sense?). As for the rest, I’m fairly sure that the subtext is that comics secretly ethnic stereotype everyone although some bizarre sense of cultural correctness or essentialism allows them to broadcast only mockery of “their own.”. Either cultural correctness or comic selectivity--Jeff Foxworthy for all his proud Southern Redneck-ism cannot make anti African American jokes--because what would be funny about that?

Which is why Sacha Baron Cohen or “AliG” as I have called him for the last five or so years--ever since I watched my first couple of episodes on BBC’s Channel Four, too dim-witted for too long to figure out that Ali, Borat, and Bruno were Sacha meme--is my favorite comic. Because Cohen doesn’t say stupid things, he just asks stupid questions and any resulting humor is the consequence of the interviewee’s own idiocy and bigotry. And also, Cohen muddles both ethnic race and ethnic culture--AliG fancies himself a RudeBoy (you’d call it gangsta this side of the puddle) and seems to believe that he is Black, frequently accusing his uncooperative guests of “racialism;” Borat’s vociferous anti-Semitism is directly contrary to Cohen’s own reportedly orthodox Judaic upbringing.

So what in the name of sweet baby Krishna is my problem now? I have to say somewhat meekly--and at the risk of sounding like a hipster-in-the-manger whose favorite indie label has gone mainstream--that Cohen was okay as a small, inside joke. The huge Twentieth Century Fox spectacle of Borat morphs what was once funny into cruelty because what was once merely a silly prank is now a hugely profitable deception. When Borat is no longer the little guy, it‘s harder to excuse his lapses of decency. When he’s no longer the little guy, the fulcrum of honesty seesawing between power and sympathy shifts from the pompous interviewee who is essentially being true to himself to the fraudulent player-interviewer egging him on. Even the gag about being a Kazakhstani reporter seems maliciously opportunistic, because we know that Cohen wouldn't dare impersonate a bumbling Russian or German with impunity. Borat has to be coded as a token white person to gain the kinds of access he does, but he is simultaneously an inept parody of the voice--and presence--of a people with minimal to none-at-all influence in the Western world. When even NPR begins to josh about Borat being a better representative of Kazakhstan than President Nursultan Nazarbayev--Oy! Cohen, we have a problem.


P.S. Also the movie wasn’t as funny as the show. Cohen’s team imported a (weak) plotline, which, methinks, was unnecessary. Borat is essentially Jackass with ideas. And I don’t remember Jackass pushing plot.



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5 comments:

r.c. said...

Solid. But what about Carlos Mencia?

Anonymous said...

Finally, Maya! Have been eagerly awaiting this post.

As you already know, my reaction to the movie, perhaps because it's unsullied by any significant prior knowledge of Sacha Baron Cohen (no HBO), was even harsher than yours. I never saw Borat before seeing the movie, but I'm having a hard time understanding why what is now "cruel" could possibly have once been innocuously "funny" or a "silly prank."

Here's some of where I get stuck and confused (and I know you might not disagree with some or any of this). Was it funny when Borat was the "little guy" for Cohen to portray not simply a "bumbling" Kazakhstani reporter, as you charitably put it, but rather an excessively backwards, misogynistic, anti-Semitic reporter from a Central Asian country that could have been (and seemingly was) chosen at random? I get the comedy value in the abstract of having Cohen's various characters interact with ordinary people who don't realize it's all just an act -- there were certainly moments like that in the film which I thought were funny and which made me laugh. But the particularities of Borat himself -- and of pretty much everyone else of supposedly Kazakhstani descent in the movie -- involve such blatant stereotyping.

Cohen never comes out and explicitly states that his character is Muslim, but is there any other plausible implication? After all, Bush and Blair never came out and explicitly stated that there was a connection between one set of brown people involved in al Qaeda with a second set of at least vaguely brown people in Iraq, either. In each instance, however, the impression seems to have been left to linger very much by design, deliberately activating and reinforcing stereotyped assumptions about a set of groups (1) who are easy targets to pick on, (2) about whom the public's awareness beyond the stereotypes is limited, (3) for whom the public's disdain is sweeping and high, and (4) for whom, therefore, the consequences of those broad generalizations are particularly pernicious.

The "comedic" suggestion of widespread and nonchalant anti-Semitism among Muslims or Central/South/West Asians, in particular, is quite appalling to me. What are the assumptions and premises necessary for any of us to find that funny? It seems to me that the only thing that could possibly make that kind of a joke funny is the assumption that it's true at some level. But that assumption, however, is highly loaded and not particularly funny at all. If anything, I find the ease with which someone would make that kind of an assumption -- and reinforce it in the minds of millions, whether on HBO or the silver screen -- to be evidence of a thought process that is not simply facile, but also quite troubling.

Am I missing something here? And was any of this any different in the pre-movie, "merely a silly prank" Borat?

p.s. -- thanks for the shout :)

maya said...

Thanks for this comment, Piper--I’m fascinated by the way you see Borat.

It’s something of a consciousness-raising eye-opener for me because I’ve become so inured by my infatuation with Cohen’s characters that until you pointed them out, I entirely failed to see that the specific kinds of stereotyping that he is pandering to are especially irresponsible and unfair.

I wish Cohen had done the honorable thing and invented a fictional country that he could have impugned to his heart’s content. As you say, Borat’s particularities also type him as Muslim and in a post-9/11 world--or really, since the creation of modern Israel in 1948--it is the Muslim rather than the Jew who has been displaced, disenfranchised, and caricatured to vilification.

Still, I’d like to argue for context--unlike the U.S. where the entertainment industry boasts a high density of Jewish-identified performers, Cohen is possibly the first Jewish megastar in England--and England (per my Jewish friends now in Israel) is a notoriously difficult place to grow up as a Jew. It is Cohen’s feeling (if not experience) of persecution that makes him characterize Borat as Anti-semitic. Additionally Borat is taken out of positional context--sandwiched between AliG’s supreme stoopidity and Bruno’s narcissistic self-involvement, Borat provides merely *another* facet of social distortion played for laughs rather than the *only* one. Many of issues are, obviously, played for laughs in the Archie Bunker style, so that the viewer is intentioned to actively disagree with the delivery. So just because the show features misogyny or anti-Semitism does not automatically imply that the show endorses them.

All the Cohen sketches are highly polysemic so very often there are issues are coded in ways that the viewer is expected to pick up on. Therefore AliG’s cannabis use is coded cool, although his misogyny is ridiculous; Borat’s non western naiveté is coded engaging whereas his unawareness and ignorance are contemptible; Bruno’s gay pride is courageous while his conceit and vanity are repellent.

Although in writing this I can see that all of Cohen’s characters--wannabe gangsta Ali, backward Muslim Borat, and queer queen Bruno--are based on minorities that Cohen himself (apparently, Orthodox Jew) does not identify with in a participative fashion. Clearly, I’ll need sometime to figure this one out :).

maya said...

R.C., Thanks :)

I was hoping someone would challenge me on Mencia. I see him as a product of the Chris Rock school which believes that racist jokes are A-OK. Mencia's particular schtick is that he claims to ridicule the practices of all races and cultures claiming that this somehow makes it equitable.

Another anomaly in my original post is that i categorized Jeff Foxworthy as someone who makes fun of his own "race" although it actually redneck *culture* that is the butt of his jokes. In my view, it is impossible to be a so-called "redneck" unless one happens to be white--there is an automatic assumption of exclusivity there. So until someone of color gains admittance to the redneck club, i'll stand by my definition of "redneck" humor being about race rather than culture.

Anonymous said...

It is Cohen’s feeling (if not experience) of persecution that makes him characterize Borat as Anti-semitic.

I hear your argument for context, and I'm all for context. The countercontext, of course, is that deploying the notion of Central/West/South Asians as anti-Semitic, especially if they are vaguely Muslim, has a very specific and highly loaded political valence. In non-comedic contexts, such a move is not infrequently used to dismiss and marginalize political perspectives (and avoid political discussions) that may often have very little to do with anti-Semitism at all. Clearly, the movie isn't endorsing the anti-Semitism or misogyny that it exhibits -- less clear, however, is whether it is endorsing the attribution of those perspectives to the groups for whom Borat is standing in. Cohen claims that it should be obvious that he is not, but I think that may be a lot more obvious to him than it will be for a lot of the viewers laughing along in the theaters.

But I appreciate your giving a bit more context for understanding Borat, since I have none -- it does seem, based on your description of the show, that the movie doesn't include very much of that context.

(At a much more mundane level, comedy shorts and sketches often fall flat when they are made into movies. What do you make of that?)