Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why am I not worked up about Borat?

Actually, I'm VERY worked up about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, but in a good way. I think I actually shed a single tear of joy when I first saw the poster subtly announcing the film's impending arrival.

But apparently Sasha Baron Cohen's lovable character isn't charming the pants of everyone (which, by the way, probably makes him the happiest man alive). In fact, some feel Borat Sadiyev, with his unabashed anti-semitism and sexism and racism and every other un-PC -ism you can name, portrays Kazakhstanis so crudely and offensively that it warrants diplomatic action. (George W. Bush has obviously won the war on terror if this is how he spends his time.) America is outraged.

Let me explain why Borat is funny: It's because he's offensive. The joke is that Americans are pretty dumb and patronizing, that they don't know Kazakhstan from Ajerbijan from Toledo, and that Cohen's victims will let him say offensive and ignorant things (and sometimes even think it's cute) because they're trying so desperately to be culturally sensitive to an exaggeratedly culturally insesitive man. The joke is on us, not on Kazakhstan. He's poking fun at how, in our misguided attempt to be politically correct, Americans will smile and clap along to anything they deem exotic and unique. (Cohen probably assumed a Kazakhstani identity because he could bank on no one knowing where Kazakhstan is or what its people look like, act like, or believe.)

Ultimately, though, Borat brings out the political incorrectness in many of his unwitting partners, and that's half the fun; though a conversation might begin innocently enough, by the end of the bit, he's gotten a score of white people to agree in song to throw the Jew down the well. That's comedy gold, folks.

The pseudo-insightful criticism of Borat is that audiences only accept his sheepish outrageousness because the culture he's ostensibly poking fun at is Kazakhstani; he's making fun of white people, so the critics say, so no one cares if he's perpetuating an inaccurate and offensive seterotype. It's "reverse racism," they claim, which is just as bad as "plain old racism." Is Borat really the Kazakhstani Sambo?

I'll buy this argument for a few moments, but something is still off. For one, he can't perpetuate a stereotype that doesn't yet exist. (What preconceptions did you have about Kazakhstanis before Borat entered your life? None? Yeah, me too.) Second, there's no such thing as "reverse racism," but I don't need to waste space explaining why. Third, there are dozens of beloved characters in American pop culture who exist as essentialized versions of their group (e.g., Dave Chappelle's crack head, all those crappy Carlos Mencia characters, William Hung), and we accept them in part because they're being portrayed by members of that group, but in larger part because they are co-opting those negative stereotypes and turning them into a joke. They're neutering the fuel of the racist fire by riffing on the stereotypes themselves. It's very post-modern.

But the most important reason I don't get worked up about Borat is because he's such an outlandish exaggeration, such an obvious parody, that I can't conceive of anyone watching the character and thinking that he's accurately representing Kazakhstan. The only people stupid enough to (a) not realize that Borat is fictional and (b) think that Borat is a cultural ambassador are the people Cohen is satirizing. And, little do they know it, he's satirizing the critics, too. And that's why he's so fucking brilliant.


Aaron said...

Straight up. The fact that the president has to hold talks to discuss "throw the Jew down the well" with foreign leaders blows my mind.

Bret said...

I'll bite. Is it fair to criticize Americans for not knowing anything about Kazakh (sp?) culture? I don't know anything about plant biology, and nobody makes fun of me for that. I'm sure Kazakh culture is no less complex a topic, but a far less useful one.

I'd make two conjectures:

1. Cohen picked Kazakhstan for its obscurity, not to ease the passage of his fraud, but to make the humor more palatable to an ethnically diverse television audience.

2. The "outrage" in Kazakhstan is a game of 'rally-round-the-flag', and Bush is playing along in order to start negotiations on a high note.