Saturday, September 30, 2006

Borat Row...

Sasha Baron Cohen did have his moments as Ali G. It could be funny when he managed to trick establishment figures. His playing stupid act could be amusing and similtaneously clever. Having said that though, I was never a big fan.

Cohen always has walked a fine line between satire and reaction, but with his latest 'Borat' incarnation the scales seem to weigh on the balance of the latter. His
'Ali G' character may have been a rather cruel satire on poverty and ignorance (along with a crude racial stereotype) but at least people in Britain have heard of Staines. Likewise most white people here know some Black people, or at least know something about the Black community in Britain. Cohen's spoof did not bring the existence of this particular group to the attention of a public, or create any new prejudices. It's also worthwhile adding that 'Ali G' was not even supposed to be Black, but rather a white person ripping off that culture (i.e. a 'wigga' or a 'chav').

'Borat'(see link), on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish.
How many people in the West (especially the United States) had even heard of Kazakhstan prior to it being an object for Cohen's ridicule, let alone know anything about it? What Cohen is doing is simply trading on racial stereotypes that he imagines people will have about Kazakhstan or countries like it (Impoverished Muslim nations that were part of the former Soviet Union). Kazakhs are portrayed as a group of anti Semitic, incestuous misogynists.
I especially love this piece of 'comedy':

"When Mr Nazarbayev marked the start of his three-day state visit by dedicating a statue in front of his Washington embassy, along with a four-page advertisement for the country in the New York Times, Borat denounced the publicity as "disgusting fabrications" planted by the Uzbeks, "who as we all know are a very nosy people, with a bone in the middle of their brain"."

As 'we all know'? Really?

Cohen can say what the hell he likes, however abhorrent. I would be the last one to favour any State imposed censorship. Defending his right to express himself doesn't equate with having any support for what he says, or giving it any credibility. I can quite understand while the Kazakh government take offense at his movie. It is not a question of them needing to 'lighten up' or gain a 'sense of humour' at all (as the former Tory MP Neil Hamilton seems to think). Nor is it political correctness gone mad. There is very little that is either funny or true in Cohen's portrayal of Kazakhs. As the more discerning people noted in the comments of the 'This is London' article , if Cohen (or, even worse, a non Jew) decided to satirise the Jews of Israel the anti defamation league would have pulled the plug long ago. Or, at the very least, it would not be viewed as being acceptable. If anti semitism is not acceptable than neither should be any other type of racism.

Bernard Manning, who is openly racist, homophobic and sexist, is no longer thought of as being funny in liberal society. But Cohen acts under a different persona, and that seems to make all the difference.


Anonymous said...

Well I guess you have never been to the FUSSR but I am pretty damn sure that you'll find a great many mysoginistic anti-semites in Kazakhstan.

You see you have kind of missed the point but in being Borat SBC is sending up those around him. He is exposing the hypocrisy of those who on the outside are oh so nice and PC but infact are quite vile. No where in Borat's sketches do I get the impression that being anti-semitic is fun or a good thing. I will admit that if a non jew was doing it the anti-defamation league would have jumped on it, but they jump on anyone who even looks at a jewish person the wrong way.

AN said...

I think he is more compliacted as hi Borat peresona brings to the surface things that otherwise would nenver ever be admitted to.

well, the scene for example where he started singing blattently anti jewish songs (My land has a problem, too many jews in my land") at a mid west country music club, which then recives a rapturous response from the audience.

or where he attends a dinner with Southern US big land owners who admit they think the abolition of slavery was bad.

Liz said...

I see your respective points. As I noted, to get people (namely establishment figures) to admit to things they would not do otherwise does seem to be where Cohen's cleverness lies.

However, couldn't he have picked a fictious but plausible sounding country for his Borat character? That would have caused less offence and far less controversy. I don't know why he had to pick a real place, he should have foreseen that offence would eventually be taken.

Perhaps I would find a few misogynists and anti semites in Kazakhstan, but that's not the point.
He plays on stereotypes that already exist and reinforces them.

I can see the point about the wealthy Southern landowner, but the mid Western bar? Do people from the mid West really deserve to be stigmatised as anti Semites (bearing in mind it was Cohen singing the song in the first place, setting them up in other words?). The rich and powerful perhaps deserve to be set up, as they wield clout in society. Regular bar attenders are different though.

This is not the first time Cohen has been accused of being racist, his Ali G persona got similiar flack from some Black Britons. I didn't take that view, but conceded that he was walking a fine line. Borat, shall we say, veers more on the side of reaction than did Ali G.

AN said...

Well this raises a further question, can he be funny and racist at the same time? Or rather is it Ok to find him funny?

Liz said...

I think that people can be funny and reactionary at the same time, yes. There are things I have found funny (including Cohen at times) while acknowledging it is not very pc. So I guess it's ok to find him funny - while recognising he is walking a rather fine line!

Political Umpire said...

Borat - and of course Cohen and all his characters - are at their best when their ridiculous stance draws out the prejudices of others. For example, an early Borat piece had him interviewing both pro and anti hunters, and riling both intently. It was very funny. By contrast, a lot of other stuff he does is just 'gross out' comedy or lame stereotyping.