Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody and the Battle over Borat

By Robert A. Saunders. London: Lexington, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0739123362, $39.95. 183 pages.

Review by Perin Emine Gurel, Yale University

The humorous has always been political. However, the increase in the world’s “complex connectivity” via new media technologies and the rise of relatively “horizontal” communication methods like the Internet have made political satire even more intense, volatile, and decidedly transnational. Take the Danish Mohammed cartoons: they are not worse than most things Europeans have written and drawn about the “Mohammedans” in the Middle Ages, yet they have certainly proven more dangerous in this age of speedy transnational communication. The YouTube war that broke out between Greek and Turkish youths over a couple of amateurish Greek videos mocking Turkey’s apotheosized founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is another case in point. So is Kazakhstan’s struggle against and eventual resignation to Borat, a fictional “Kazakh” television journalist played by the award-winning British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Studies of the political satire Baron Cohen unleashes through his ethnic personae (Ali G, Bruno, and Borat), therefore, require a decidedly transnational and multidisciplinary approach, making this media phenomenon a scholarly gold mine as well as a landmine. Robert A. Saunders, an assistant professor of history and politics at the State University of New York at Farmingdale, navigates this complex topic with grace. The result is The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody and the Battle over Borat, a smart, informative, and crisply-written little book that may leave the reader wanting a bit more. A political scientist and scholar of national identity, Saunders sets out to provide a summary analysis of the sources and effects of Baron Cohen’s ethnic pantomime in a world of globalization and multiculturalism. Identity politics and the construction of national identities are two political phenomena Saunders is particularly interested in, and they function well as anchors to the book, the former dominating Part I and the latter Part II. The first chapter, the only one specifically on Sacha Baron Cohen, focuses mainly on the comedian’s Jewish background and connects it to a tradition of ethnic humor and satire. Baron Cohen’s interest in the history of the Civil Rights movement and interracial activism as an undergraduate at Cambridge also influences Saunders’s contextualization of his comedy. In this chapter, Saunders argues that Baron Cohen’s outrageous anti-Semitism continues the Jewish tradition of counter-aggression, that is, “a moral response to the aggression of others.” Saunders, however, is skeptical of pundits who argue that Sacha Baron Cohen’s life story as a progressive, well-educated British Jew justifies and fully explains his deeply offensive personae. As Saunders himself notes, the characters’ boisterous misogyny and the troubling lack of critical response to it, to cite one example, cannot be explained away so easily. The second chapter historicizes the rise of Ali G, the ethnically-ambiguous, vapid, wannabe persona that first brought Sacha Baron Cohen to fame in Great Britain and, eventually, earned him a cult following in the United States. This chapter is rather short on analysis, and reads a bit like exceptionally astute journalism; the third chapter, “Personae Comicae: The Postmodern Politics behind Alic G, Borat, and Bruno,” however, provides the balance with a strong dose of political and cultural analysis. Here Saunders adeptly connects identity politics to national identity crises by tracing the contemporary debate on multiculturalism and Britishness in England and “the myths of racial tolerance” in the United States (74). Saunders’s main thesis also emerges most fully in this chapter, as the author connects Baron Cohen’s irreverent and anarchic performances as Ali, Borat, and Bruno to “the postmodern politics of today’s globalized society,” “blurred lines between information and entertainment,” and the oft-maligned de-politicization of Western youth. Utilizing the works of poststructuralist theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman and Paul Gilroy, Saunders argues that “[e]ach of Baron Cohen’s three characters represents a critique of identity politics in the postmodern West,” exploiting their “unclassifiable” foreignness, they spark both “proteophobia” and “proteophilia” (64-65). Ali G showcases the crisis of multiculturalism in England; Bruno, the flamboyantly gay fashionista with a Nazi fetish, generates chaos by assuming everyone is queer (and/or into the aesthetics of the Third Reich). Borat evokes ambiguous and politically revealing reactions simply by being “a chimera of Islamo-Arab foreignness with a colorful Soviet gloss” (72). The second part of the book, “The Battle over Borat,” throws the spotlight on the complex mechanisms of nationalism and state branding under globalization. Saunders, who wrote his dissertation on Kazakh national identity, is fully in his element here, which he demonstrates with a tight and detailed summary of “Kazakhstan’s history, culture, and evolving national identity” in twelve pages. He connects the state’s frenzied reaction to the humiliating Borat persona to the fragility of post-Soviet Kazakhstani national identity and the necessity of marketing the country’s global brand in a postmodern world fueled by images and sound bites. Kazakhstan’s responses to “Boratistan” shift from baffled to astute, as head-in-the-sand silence is replaced by sporadic and angry statements by high-ranking officials, the blocking of the site, and finally, as Saunders puts it, “buying into brand Borat” (113). In this section, Saunders reveals a respectful empathy for the country’s people, finding Baron Cohen’s use of Kazakhstan to expand his own fame “indefensible,” and his choice of this relatively powerless state cowardly (126). He seems relieved that Kazakh officials have finally reversed the game and now use Borat’s coolness to put their country on the map. However sympathetic he may be to his field, Saunders does not flinch from criticizing the country’s still authoritarian political culture at the end of the chapter. The section’s mixture of erudition, emotion, and conscientiousness is laudable. In the preface, Robert Saunders admits that he tried to talk himself out of writing this neat little book. Most readers will be glad he failed. Part unofficial intellectual biography, part primer on Kazakh nationalism, but mainly an accessible analysis of “identity politics” and nationalism in an era of fast-spreading infotainment, The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen is a valuable political history of what its author calls a “global minstrel show” (165). Other readers, however, may wish he had failed more “spectacularly” by talking himself into writing more of the book. Saunders does not read too closely into Baron Cohen’s rhetoric and leaves much of the “cultural” analysis to the eminent scholars he cites. There is, for example, no close analysis of the various languages of the personae; Saunders acknowledges and contextualizes Ali G’s multicultural urbanese, Borat’s fake Kazakh, and Bruno’s lisping Deutschlish, without really looking into how these new paroles work. Language performance is clearly a vital aspect not only of globalization and the new media but also of satire and humor in general. In the case of Borat, for example, the superficial humor depends heavily on the character’s misuse of various English prepositions (e.g. U S and A), making the way for stinging political jokes, as when Borat tells a whole arena of Rodeo fans that he supports America’s “War of Terror.” The many sides of the Sacha Baron Cohen phenomenon necessarily call for the tools of many disciplines. Folklorists have long analyzed ethnic jokes under the category Blason populaire; Americanists have extensively explored racial minstrelsy; linguists have written on code-switching and foreign language performance; sociologists have dissected the interpersonal functions of humor. It is not fair to ask a political historian to apply folklore, humor studies, and linguistic analysis to his work, and Saunders does cite experts in all these fields often enough. However, some readers may feel tempted to draw a few supplementary maps of Boratistan after they read The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen. And that is good. To misquote Ali G, “dis be cultural studies.”

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