Thursday, July 9, 2009

Baron Cohen: Glorious Privileges For Amusement Of Elites

I can't say that I'm a Sacha Baron Cohen fan. (Now, Simon Baron-Cohen, I can totes get behind.) My niece liked his song in Madagascar, I've probably seen Ali G a few times, and other than that I've been pretty much indifferent to him.

But that hasn't been much of an option of late, thanks to this:

A lot of people--led by Liss over at Shakesville--have talked about the, oh, FAIL risk inherent about using homophobic humor to expose...homophobia. Hell, even the New York Times--not my usual stop for cutting-edge progressivism--says as much in a well-balanced review by A.O. Scott:

The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman — or for that matter, two women — would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.

However, here at The Second Awakening, we don't just do analysis: we do analysis of privilege! (It says so somewhere in the mission statement, which I think The Grey Mouser is using as a pillow right now.) So what can we say about the privilege used, abused, hidden, and sickeningly visible in Baron Cohen's work? And is that the reason why no matter what, you always feel vaguely icky watching it?

To answer the last first: Yes. Yes it is.

The thing is, both Borat and Bruno1 are humor for privileged people. They let you, the privileged person, laugh at other people who aren't as privileged as you. To make it funny, of course, we use multiple axes of privilege: so Borat spent a lot of time lampooning white people of different educational or cultural backgrounds. (Most egregiously, the Romanian villagers who provided the backdrop for the movie's early scenes.)

The way that both these movies mitigate any privilege guilt you might have about laughing at other people (please, please tell me you have privilege guilt for laughing--not everybody does) is by selling you the ultimate privilege: you're in on it. Unlike the hapless buffoons of the movie's universe, you get the joke. You know all along that Borat isn't really a Kazakh journalist, that Bruno isn't really a gay fashionista--that Baron Cohen is using these guises to draw people out of their shell and show their true colors. Which are inevitably ugly or laughable. As A.O. Scott says,

They — Americans just like you but of course nothing like you — were exposed as bigots either for being outraged at the things Borat did or for politely agreeing with his misogynistic, anti-Semitic or otherwise objectionable statements. Any twinge of guilt you might have felt on behalf of the actual glorious nation of Kazakhstan was quickly soothed by the spectacle of American intolerance and idiocy that “Borat” purported to expose.

That's not to say that this isn't a time honored technique (Jonathan Swift, for example, used it to great effect.) But I have to feel that there's a fundamental difference in, say, attacking the powerful by pointing out they were essentially eating the children of the Irish by oppressing them into starvation, and getting a laugh out of a few ordinary citizens who aren't hip that they're being lampooned.

I mean, it's not like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia (my personal fave) or anti-religious bigotry needs much encouragement to come out; nor is it likely that using a horrid charicature of gayness to draw people into overt homophobia is going to do much to alleviate homophobia. Instead, it's more oppression masquerading as liberation; a joke for those "good" enough to be in on it, a joke on everyone else.

'Cause not having privilege is hysterical. For them who have it.

1. I refuse to use the idiotic umlauts; that's not how you spell the name in German. And you don't spell "Borat" that way in Cyrillic, which is odd given that the DVD box actually spelled out the English title in Cyrillic characters. Yes, I am a hopeless pedant; you knew that already.


  1. I didn't get the umlaut either.

    I have to admit there's one part on the commercials which always makes me laugh. Bruno says "Dolce and Gabbana, HELLO!" And these two army dudes just look at him and go, "HELLO?!"

    It's just...a very Southern moment somehow.

    But yeah, I'm not seeing the "genius" in a heterosexual man playing a stereotypical gay man for laughs-- again. Is the novelty supposed to be his accent? I don't get it. I mean, honestly, a lot of the "gags" are just old as hell. Hasn't Zoolander covered this ground already?

    Movies like this are so over the top that people's fears and hatreds just come out to play uninhibited. It's like a disguise. If someone gets in your face, you can always turn around and say you're laughing at the "ignorant" people Sascha Baron Cohen is harassing. But what are we really laughing at? "Gay men do this." Eh.

    It's like how people who enjoy watching violence against women will frequently watch crime shows (most of which tend to be written under a really creepy version of the Male Gaze that eroticizes female suffering. Ostensibly we're to believe that viewers identify with the detectives solving the case. I call bullshit. It's another disguise. We want to indulge ugly parts of ourselves, and certain types of media exist to alleviate the guilt.

    Just think...that flick cost money to make. :/ People got PAID to produce that.

  2. Eek, forgot to close my paragraph:


  3. I hated Borat, because in the course of satirizing bigotry, it happily perpetuated a ton of it. I remember an especially painful wave of bile when Borat sits in some women's group meeting or something *repressed memories* and basically the entire scene makes fun of the women with their stupid feminism. The joke is not on sexist Borat but on the women. And that went on and on through the whole film, and don't even get me started on the black woman character he ends up marrying.

    So, yeah, his stuff is not so much attacking all this crap as a chance to get the sexist, racist assholes in the audience to laugh at sexist and racist jokes.

  4. P.S. That faux-Cyrillic spelling almost drove me into a dark abyss of madness.