U.S. (not Kazakhstan) should be embarrassed by Borat
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan opened in theaters on November 3, and with it came controversy. In the faux documentary, Sacha Baron Cohen poses as Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh reporter investigating American culture.
Baron Cohen’s fictional character has earned many a raised eyebrow and disapproving head shake for his near constant stream of offensive statements. During the movie, Borat refers to an African-American politician as a “chocolate face,” blames Jews for the attacks on September 11, and asserts that women’s brains are the size of squirrels’. He simply cannot grasp the imperative of female consent in sexual relations or why Americans don’t see the humor in mental retardation.
Naturally, everyone is up in arms. Many Americans are offended by Borat’s distasteful display, and Kazakhs are insulted by the way he portrays the country. To counteract the damage that Borat has done to its public image, Kazakhstan has launched a huge publicity campaign of ads in The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report as well as late-night network television spots that portray Kazakhstan as economically stable and accepting of diversity.
Still, the foundation of the humor in Borat is Americans’ reactions to Borat’s cultural misunderstandings and misrepresentations. And Americans’ indelicate statements are what’s really offensive in this movie. Preceding Borat’s performance of a fictional version of the Kazakh national anthem at a rodeo in Virginia, he meets with the rodeo’s general manager. In response to Borat’s allegation that homosexuals are jailed and hanged in Kazakhstan, the general manager replies in a lazy Southern drawl, “That’s what we’re trying to get done here.” Later, a packed stadium of rodeo-goers claps as Borat bestows a myriad of Kazakh blessings on the Americans’ war in Iraq. The applause continues loudly even as Borat advocates George W. Bush drinking the blood of all Iraqis.
Later on, Borat attempts to hitchhike to Hollywood. He eventually joins three loud, inarticulate frat boys in an RV, students from a university in South Carolina. A predictable cacophony of drunken shouting and expletives ensues. One of the polo-shirted fraternity brothers expresses his regret that slavery is no longer permitted in America and claims America would be better off without Jews. The same young man tells Borat that he shouldn’t feel bad about a woman breaking his heart because he is bigger and better than a woman.
Now who’s offensive? Of course, Borat’s statements, if taken as truthful, offend our sensibilities. As Americans, we believe in the equality of all races, genders, and religions. We don’t oppress our people. We’re politically correct. We’re democratic. Right?
To be offended by Borat’s antics and opinions is to completely miss the point. Borat is a caricature, not a character. Baron Cohen dons an outdated suit, a thick mustache, and a strong accent, claims to be Kazakh, and Americans are more than willing to believe his ridiculously overblown sexism and racism are authentic. He parodies vague American assumptions that non-western or non-Americanized countries are oppressive and intolerant. Americans don’t feel uncomfortable talking about some of their own bigotry and prejudices around a character like Borat.
It seems obvious, or it should, that Borat’s racist and misogynistic statements aren’t real. They are so clearly hyperbolic that they are unbelievable. Borat claims that Jews are horned shape-shifters and among the top three problems facing modern Kazakhstan. He believes women aren’t merely less intelligent then men, they have been medically proven to have miniscule brains.
Baron Cohen, who created the character Borat, is not anti-Semitic or misogynistic. He is, in reality, a Cambridge-educated man who speaks with the pinched, nasal accent of an upper-class Briton. He is a devout Jew who speaks fluent Hebrew. Baron Cohen is obviously not espousing the views of Borat or even really saying that they’re funny. What is supposed to be funny about his act are the reactions that Borat garners from apparently unsuspecting Americans.
How can one find Borat’s feigned statements offensive when they are juxtaposed with Americans’ actual ones? Americans’ ruthless homophobia, imperialism, racism, and misogyny are what truly offend in this movie. Borat really has exposed some “Cultural Learnings of America.” Despite the quickness with which we Americans jump onto our soapboxes and our high horses when it comes to democratic values and tolerance, it appears that we still have a ways to go when it comes to actual equality in this country. No need to worry, Kazakhstan. The country that really requires a major publicity make-over is America.