Borat can’t pretend it’s satire while being racist and sexist, pure and simple

Micha Frazer-Carroll
·7-min read
Not so very nice: ‘Borat’ and its recent sequel were both criticised for their offensive depiction of Kazakhstan  (Amazon Prime Video)
Not so very nice: ‘Borat’ and its recent sequel were both criticised for their offensive depiction of Kazakhstan (Amazon Prime Video)

When Borat was released in 2006, I didn’t see it (I was 12) – but I had a strong sense of the joy it inspired in my classmates. The film, which follows a fictitious bigoted Kazakh journalist to America, where he says the unsayable and documents American prejudice on his merry way, resonated deeply with teenage boys in the early Noughties: the mankini, the toilet humour, the [Borat voice] “very nice”, which would often echo across the classroom. In my mind, it fit squarely alongside the juvenile humour offered by South Park, Little Britain, and another of writer and actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s creations, Ali G Indahouse.

So, upon the release of this month’s new Borat movie: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, I was surprised to learn that Borat is actually broadly loved by critics on what appears to be a deeply intellectual level; and that the new instalment, which sees Borat return to the US with his daughter Tutar to take on anti-maskers and Trump supporters, would prove a massive hit.

So, if like me, you had never really engaged that much, or were a child when the concept of Borat first graced the cultural landscape, here’s the deal. The common intellectual case for Borat is that the film is satirical. Yes, while the character himself is racist, sexist and bigoted in a number of other ways, this is instrumental in coaxing Americans (often Republicans) into feeling comfortable enough to expose that they hold those views themselves.

<p>Sacha Baron Cohen’s moustachioed alter-ego became something of a celebrity after the hit 2006 original film</p>Amazon Prime Video

Sacha Baron Cohen’s moustachioed alter-ego became something of a celebrity after the hit 2006 original film

Amazon Prime Video

While Borat is fictional, the politicians and people he interacts with are real – and the fact that they not only believe that Borat is a real Kazakh, but often feel able to reveal their own racism and sexism when they interact with him, is shown as proof that the joke is on Americans, Republicans, racists and sexists. By taking aim at these groups, Borat punches up, and so avoids being offensive. Or at least that is the case for Borat held up by both liberal critics, and Baron Cohen himself. But does it work in practice?

I’m not so sure it’s as simple as this. One early sign that Borat’s concept was failing back in 2006 was that the film was banned in Kazakhstan, due to its portrayal of the country as antisemitic, sexist, and broadly “backwards”. Not in a subtle way, but in an obscene one. Borat, like many other natives of his hometown, celebrates the Holocaust (for added context, Baron Cohen is Jewish himself). Stories from Borat’s village also casually reference incest and rape. As a satirist, Baron Cohen is supposedly rehashing an old joke about Americans’ ignorance of other cultures – he’s not showing the real Kazakhstan, but what Americans think about countries like Kazakhstan.

But in practice, it seems Borat actually does more harm than good for the underrepresented country, particularly considering Kazakh people launched a petition against the new film, signed by 110,000 people. Numerous additional accounts from Kazakh people, particularly the few living in the US and UK, have demonstrated that many British and American people do in fact think that Borat is a realistic representation of Kazakhstan. This poses the question: despite Baron Cohen’s stated intention, how can we be sure that all audiences “get” the nuance of such a high-risk joke? And in terms of the film’s wide and disparate fanbase – are the 30-something film critics and the 13-year-old schoolboys really laughing at the same thing?

Kazakh people are not the only ones unhappy with how Borat showed the country onscreen. The “Kazakhstan” scenes in the original Borat, which show people living in abject poverty, were filmed in Glod, a Roma village in Romania. The villagers seen in the film are real residents of Glod, who later took legal action against the film, claiming they were exploited, misled and humiliated. One Roma community leader alleged that villagers were told it was a documentary rather than a comedy. He also said community members were each paid around three euros for the privilege of Baron Cohen branding specific unwitting villagers as town “rapists” or “abortionists”, or installing cows in their homes. Is this still punching up?

<p>Baron Cohen, as Borat, goes undercover at a Washington gun rally during one of the sequel’s biggest set pieces</p>Amazon Prime Video

Baron Cohen, as Borat, goes undercover at a Washington gun rally during one of the sequel’s biggest set pieces

Amazon Prime Video

To clarify its politics, there are parts of Subsequent Moviefilm supposedly intended to demonstrate to audiences that victims of racism and sexism can be good people (in case you didn’t already know). Unfortunately, they too end up being treated as fodder for audience chuckles. Take Jeanise Jones, Tutar’s 62-year-old babysitter, who grows concerned about the exploitative nature of Borat’s relationship with his daughter, and attempts to take the young woman under her wing and give her guidance, woman-to-woman. Jones is one of the few sympathetic characters in the film, yet she gets the same “Borat treatment” his most abominable interviewees do – with a side serving of racism – as he asks her: “Will you be my new black wife?” It’s painful to watch and you end up feeling sorry for Jones, who has now spoken out about feeling “betrayed” by the film. She told Page Six: “They told me it was a documentary for this young lady to understand she has rights and she can do whatever a man can do. I felt pain for her.”  

The film undoubtedly raises old questions about what satire can actually achieve. In the current climate, I’m highly sceptical of the idea that mimicking the most obvious face of bigotry will do anything to truly challenge it. Writer Jason Osamede Okundaye articulated this well in a takedown of the “ironic racism” genre earlier this year: “Baron Cohen secures his cultural cachet through baiting and caricaturing what liberal, bourgeois audiences consider to be the unfashionable, stupid and obnoxious face of racism – all the while giving oxygen to abominable views.”

It’s been stated time and time again that in Trump’s America, there is ever-shrinking wiggle room for satire – the president is a reality TV star who makes shout-outs to neo-fascist groups on national television. Ultimately, this is the most glaring new pitfall that emerges in Subsequent Moviefilm; racist views are no longer secret, taboo disclosures quietly revealed to a foreign documentarian – they’re rife across Facebook, they’re in the White House, and many fascists will gladly put their names to their opinions. As one reviewer wrote for Time Out: “Want to gawp at white supremacists flaunting their Nazi ideology at a rally? Turn on the news.”

So, since Baron Cohen is not telling us anything we don’t already know, what, really, is Borat doing? If the racism and sexism can no longer even justify itself as a means to an end to expose some greater truth… isn’t it just racism and sexism plain and simple?

The more I hear critics I usually align with continuing to wax lyrical about Subsequent Moviefilm, the more confused I’ve grown. Maybe, in these times, the bar is low.

That’s not to say there aren’t good parts of Subsequent Moviefilm. The moments where Baron Cohen cleanly punches up are the strongest, such as when he storms a Conservative conference dressed as Trump, and is dragged out. There are also tangible positive things that may come out of this project – for example, I do genuinely believe that its final stunt involving Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani might make a dent in the course of the US election. But unfortunately, for Borat, many others are collateral damage.

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