*This article is an opinion piece. It barely scrapes the surface in terms of critical analysis. It is not my intention to condone intolerance, and my empathy always goes out to womxn and POC readers.
**Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Since its release on October 23, I’ve seen Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (otherwise known as Borat 2) twice now. It is the sequel to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The character of Borat is a strange, offbeat journalist from Kazakhstan, portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat visits the “US and A” in both of the mockumentary-style movies, and both movies have been the subject of criticism for disregarding the boundaries of “humor.” Certain politicized topics are not a laughing matter, so the Borat movies have come under fire for insensitivity and vulgarity.
One of the most questionable aspects of the Borat movies is the use of regular people as unknowing reactors to Borat’s appalling behavior. Understandably, a lot of the participants feel tricked and upset upon learning the truth about the filming. The audience watching is usually well aware that Baron Cohen is acting. However, to play Borat to those who do not know the character can be funny at best but dangerous at worst. Let’s break it down.
Telling sexist jokes at the bar or in the locker room would be considered tasteless and disrespectful, so why is it okay in Borat? Personally, I don’t think it’s okay. I don’t think the movie is implying that it’s okay. All the movie does is provide commentary by using Borat to bring out the vast and extreme viewpoints that are actually held by regular Americans.
A lot of the people Borat interacts with are genuinely good. The babysitter in Borat 2 is probably the best possible representation of a woman of color. However, to me, the most concerning parts of both movies are when people don’t know Borat is a character, yet they still agree with his ignorance and condescension towards women. Another thing that really bothers me is that Borat can be quite creepy to the real-life women. If I didn’t know he was acting, I would be afraid for my safety and that is not “funny” to me.
Still, the second movie delivers some satisfaction in terms of feminism. On his second visit to the US, Borat travels with his daughter, Tutar. She has been raised with propagandized sex education and internalized inferiority. In the beginning, Borat treats her as property and livestock. But through his interactions with people in the US, his attitude shifts so that he starts to see women as capable humans deserving of equality. His and Tutar’s revelations indicate that, while the US may be advanced in women’s rights, there is still a long way to go.
Also: Applause to all the Americans who told Tutar that, yes, women can in fact drive, and vaginas do not have teeth.
The films portray Kazakhstan as a painfully backwards and barbaric country, and I don’t think that portrayal should count as satire. A lot of the humor comes from Borat’s bizarre accent and broken English. Should the writers have used a made-up country instead? Maybe. Probably. If Borat was from a country that felt personal to me, I might be angry about it.
However, I do believe the movies still offer valuable commentary. When Borat interacts with real people, many of them treat him a certain way because they assume him to be from a foreign, developing country. In the eyes of a white American, his foreignness seems to normalize and excuse his myopic and prejudiced views. His antics would absolutely be questioned if he looked and sounded American, but because he does not, people let it go.
This is important because it’s a real phenomenon. It’s uncomfortable to decide whether or not you should project your values onto a person from another country. I have experienced a form of this myself, from observing or being immersed in cultures that do not view women to be equal to men. Wanting to be polite, I never said anything. So similarly, people likely feel it is not their place to correct Borat, even when they see how he treats Tutar. No one knows exactly where to draw the lines between cultural relativism, oppression, and humanity.
Arguably, Borat’s antisemitism is the most controversial of all. Baron Cohen himself is Jewish, although this does not serve as justification on its own. Borat believes the derogatory stereotypes associated with Jewish people, and he is a Holocaust denier. When he learns that it truly happened, he is delighted — to the audience’s shock and disgust.
The movie itself is not antisemitic. In context, Jewish people are not portrayed badly — it’s Borat who makes himself look like a bigot. I found the synagogue scene from the second movie to be extremely powerful. The two ladies made me think of my late grandmother who was also a Holocaust survivor and one of the strongest women I know. To me, their patience and kindness to Borat spoke much louder than his abominable comments.
At the very least, the cringeworthy antisemitic scenes remind us that horrors like the Holocaust are not so historically distant as people think. Antisemitism and neo-Nazism very much exist today, and Borat brings this to light. We cannot slack off on challenging those ideologies. Still, I struggle with this because satire can sometimes come across as dismissive or minimizing of people’s pain, and I remain torn on whether or not there is any value in using antisemitic content.
Some argue that the Borat movies are too offensive to be satire. I respectfully disagree. Borat’s behavior towards unsuspecting people is offensive and inappropriate because they don’t know Baron Cohen is playing a character. However, the audience does know, which provides the opportunity to interpret Borat through a satirical lens.
I recognize that many people find the use of certain issues in satire to be disrespectful and off-putting. But I also believe that sometimes, the best way to gain perspective on these issues is to see them embodied by someone else. For better or for worse, satire makes people pay attention. The purpose of the art is to stir the pot, and the creators know their work carries major risks.
Personally, I believe we are fortunate to live in a society where nothing is off the table, where we can make critical and thought-provoking entertainment. The movies never call for harmful action to be taken against any groups, which is the main caveat to free speech. As a writer, I think it is crucial to protect the genre of satire under our First Amendment rights.
Identifying with women, immigrants, and Jews is very, very personal to me. If the movies actually mocked those communities, it wouldn’t be satire anymore, and trust me, my opinion would be much different. But that’s not what they do. The brilliance of Borat is subtle. The message it sends is, None of this is okay. If you are disturbed by the Borat character, that’s normal, and you have the right to speak up. If you aren’t, you need to ask yourself why.
I’m still human. Of course I was sickened by the misogyny, xenophobia, and antisemitism. Of course the movies make light of trauma and violence. There is a staggering number of problems I didn’t even get to — mental health, pedophilia, racism, political conspiracies, guns, consent, abortion, you name it.
But I also appreciate the insight. Borat movies always leave me thinking hard, and that’s what a good piece of satire should do. Satire is not meant to be synonymous with comedy; Borat was created to be problematic. Is this how I would go about making critical content? No. However, I think the movies, the character of Borat, and the real people — especially all the amazing women — raise serious philosophical and social concerns that communicate so much more than just bad taste.