Is Borat racist?

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Like most of the other people who have been swept up in the avalanche of hype surrounding it, I am really looking forward to Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat movie. Or, to give it its magnificent full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan. But one thing has troubled me as I’ve visited his hilarious website and read the enormous number of news stories with no real point other than to Make Benefit Glorious Box Office Of Borat Film. I’m starting to suspect that Borat’s appeal is more than a little bit racist.

Oh, I know, what a brow-wringingly politically correct objection to make. Where’s my sense of humour? It’s a joke. It’s satire. And so on.

But I think it’s problematic. It’s just that Baron Cohen is mocking an ethnic group whose feelings we don’t particularly care about. We’re used to the perception of Eastern Europe as being dour and backwards – we were fed it throughout the Cold War. Very few people have travelled there – I certainly haven’t. The Working Dog team’s excellent Molvania book also spun comedy gold out of the same vodka-soaked stereotypes.

The Kazakh government hasn’t exactly helped the country’s image with its bumbling overreaction. Rather than laughing along and then saying “that’s funny, but of course, Kazakhstan is actually nothing like that”, their actions in banning Borat from their internet space and criticising him have only made themselves look bad and given him free publicity. And the plan to release an alternative film based on Kazakh national hero Mansur, an 18th century warrior, isn’t exactly going to make the country look all 21st century and groovy.

Let’s just imagine we weren’t talking about Kazakhstan here. Let’s say someone instead had invented a comedic character called Reuben, who went around in Orthodox dress trying to screw people out of their money, drinking the blood of Christian babies (a particularly insidious myth, that one) and trying to take over the world through some kind of vast global finance conspiracy. He’d speak in a hilarious parody Yiddish accent, say “Oy vey” a lot, and otherwise make himself the fool in a way that gave non-Jews a sense of smug superiority. You can imagine the outrage a comedy character like that would create. And I certainly can’t i imagine anyone eagerly awaiting the film. But isn’t that exactly what Borat is, for Eastern Europe?

While still all too common, anti-semitism is a taboo in our society these days – as is only reasonable in light of that whole “centuries of persecution” thing. So of course Baron Cohen cleverly integrates that into Borat’s character as well. His famous “Throw the Jew down the well” song gives us just another reason to look down on him, as well as the rednecks who sing along.

So we laugh at Borat with his “harmless fun” stereotype of Kazakhstan as a bleak, violent, sexist, homophobic backwater, and condemn him for his “unacceptable” stereotype of Jews as having crooked noses and horns.

This sort of humour is, in general, on the way out, despite the staunch attempts by Mahatma Coat to keep the dream alive. As a genre, blackface is dead, and the unflattering Indian goofball played by Peter Sellers in The Party and Mickey Rooney’s appalling portrayal of Holly’s Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s would never be permitted now, for instance.
The main difference with Borat, though, is not the kind of humour, but the quality of the writing. His response to the criticisms of the Kazakh government, for example, still make me laugh:

“In response to Mr. Ashykbayev’s comments, I’d like to state I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my Government’s decision to sue this Jew. Since the 2003 Tuleyakiv reforms, Kazakhstan is as civilized as any other country in the world. Women can now travel on inside of bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and age of consent has been raised to eight years old. Please, captain of industry; I invite you to come to Kazakhstan where we have incredible natural resources, hardworking labour, and some of the cleanest prostitutes in whole of central Asia. Goodbye! ”

Homophobia isn’t all that funny, but the idea of gays being made to wear blue hats is more inventive than your common-or-garden prejudice, and that makes it much easier to laugh at it without so much of a guilty conscience.

I’m going to see Borat, and I’m confident the positive reviews will be proven correct. But I suspect that in a few decades, Borat himself will seem as much an anachronism as the character’s anti-semitism.

Dominic Knight

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