After seeing Bruno for the second time last night, I would like to take the opportunity to discuss some of the more delicate and more controversial parts of the movie, outside of a review setting. Is Bruno the character, along with Cohen’s other characters, helpful or harmful to homosexuals or their respective stereotype? How effective is the social commentary in these movies? What is the creator trying to say? I was planning on doing something like this, and this article at filmschoolrejects gave me the spark. It’s very well written, intelligent, and thought out, though I disagree with some of the major points. There might be some spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the film you might want to steer clear for a bit.
It is important to note that, first and foremost, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedian. That means he desires two things above all: to make us laugh, and get paid for it. Like all comedians, he has at his disposal a multitude of tools to succeed in his endeavors, only one of which is humorous social commentary. He also uses witty quips, situational comedy, and the shocking and vulgar gross out comedy. A giant, talking penis probably falls into that latter category. There are some that might claim otherwise, that the giant penis’s presence reflected our homophobia; that a male’s sexual organ on display is viewed as disgusting, yet we see breasts all the time.
Firstly, there’s a distinct difference between dicks and titties. Females, praise God, have that extra beautiful body part to cover up, of which there is no male equivalent. The only fair analogy for a penis is a vagina, which we rarely see in films, much less one that speaks before the camera zooms into it like the Millennium Falcon at light speed. If it HAD been gigantic female genitalia, audiences would have been just as horrified (I noticed three people walk out last night at this point. Score one for Bruno). Now I found this to be hysterical myself, but social commentary? I’ve pointed out that this is not an effective attack at homophobia, so the only target that remains is squeamishness at human body parts. This ALMOST works. Half of the world has penises, the other half will likely see one or fifty by the time they die, so why should we be so shocked by it? The answer: social norms.
“Exactly,” nudists say, “The only reason we fear the body is because we live in a society that forces clothes on us! The movie points out the fallacy (phallusy?) of the ‘social norm.'”
Does it? And if it does, should we blindly agree with that? What is so bad about social norms? (This will lead to a pretty good transition to another part of this essay, but I’ll let this simmer for a while). What is so bad about social norms? Why is society such a negative thing? Wearing clothes is a relatively harmless practice. Actually, it’s more than that. Clothes protect us from sun, keep us warm in winter, and support and cover those ‘delicate’ areas away from harm (where they damn well should be!) This comes at the consequence of us rarely seeing those special places, so when we do it’s either in a moment of surprise and shock or in the throws of passion (most prefer the latter). So is it really so bad that a flapping penis on a megaplex screen surprises us and might make us uncomfortable? I argue no. It’s a social norm, which Cohen likes to bring into question, but it’s a social norm of relative harmlessness.
Or it’s just a gigantic wiener, put there to make you laugh. Which it did.
But as promised this would be a good transition point, and so it is. Cohen questions, prods, and occasionally insults social norms and society at large (hence: social commentary). His particular favorite is Americanism in all it’s glory. This was particularly true in Borat, but was present in his new film as well. He likes to bring out the intolerant and the bigoted, and his victims of choice often reside in the South.
Now, the article I mentioned above states:
“Borat encouraged the American desire to assimilate foreign cultures, trying their patience with Borat’s lack of understanding while his pranked “victims” seemed never to be surprised at the fact that Borat was incapable of understanding even the most basic American customs while they remained completely oblivious to his inaccurately depicted Kasakh culture. Borat’s victims revealed troubling tendencies toward elitist nationalism and superiority embedded within the American psyche as they remained infinitely polite, sustaining a belief that the most generous thing they can do is assimilate Borat into American culture rather than the other way around.”
America has become an apologist nation. I’m not going to get into exactly what we have to apologize for and how much, but what we don’t, and should never, have to apologize for is our western way of thinking. I believe Western society has excelled for a reason, because it’s the best way that mankind has discovered to govern and live. Is it perfect? Nothing man does ever achieves perfection. But the ideals of the western world have flourished, and countries that have adopted them are starting to grow (read: India). There’s been a huge anti-western surge, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t unnerve me a little. I read a quote in the Wall Street Journal recently, in an article pertaining to Cold War literature. It said, “The Cold War was won by insisting
the values of Western Civilization were non-negotiable. Is that still our stance today?”
To which I fear the answer is: no. People live in fear of being dubbed ‘intolerant,’ and characters like Bruno and Borat play off that to an audience. But as South Park taught me in the episode, “The Death Camp of Tolerance,” there’s a difference between tolerating and just blindly accepting. So is it homophobic to be shocked at two men in S+M chains walking down the street together? Am I really intolerant? Or does that trample the lines of social decency? In the aforementioned TV episode, Mr. Garrison goes on stage in a flamboyant, stereotypical gay outfit (much like Bruno), while riding a gay man named “Mr. Slave,” all in attempts to see how much slack people will give him. When the audience applauds him, declaring how brave he is for being himself, he gets irate. This is what Sacha Baron Cohen does very often.
So when people try to assimilate Borat into American culture (which was his ‘mission’ in the film), why is it elitist and bigoted to be “infinitely patient” as the above quote mentions? And even more important, is elitism always a negative characteristic? I took the dinner party scene (where the victims of the joke did show extreme patience and tolerance) as merely an hysterical prank. I didn’t see that as social commentary, indicative of white America’s gross negligence of another person’s society. And if it were, Borat is a sexist, antisemitic, dirty human being; must we show that tolerance? Must we equate all viewpoints and societies? What about cannibals, or the slave society of the old south? Borat can’t at one end call for tolerance of all cultures and then make fun of an entire culture himself. So again, it’s likely a ploy for laughs.
There has also been a lot of fuss over the character Bruno, and his completely stereotypical approach to homosexuality. He’s a walking caricature, make no mistake, created purely for comical reasons. Does this help or hurt the gay community?
Neither. The people who are in on the joke know he’s an exaggeration, the bigoted idiots who see him as everything they fear in homosexuality see their worries vindicated. It’s the gay man who dresses weirdly, and has such an insatiable libido that he hits on every man in sight, gay or straight, with ruthless abandon. Would I be mad if I woke up in the middle of a camping trip to a nude gay man claiming a bear ate all his clothes except for his condoms? Yeah, since I’m straight. Homophobia is not getting upset when somebody sexually harasses you, which Bruno does often in the film (again, it’s all for humor), homophobia is thinking that gay people are beneath you, that they are less human, that they are evil and dirty. We are over emphasizing what it means to be tolerant when we claim otherwise.
And this is why, I believe, Bruno failed for social commentary. A lot of the laughs in this film come from actions Cohen himself does, whether it’s scripted or not. Singing to the leaders of Israel and Palestine, mimicking a blow job to a ‘spirit’ in the room, are all funny things. But by and large the interviews in this movie are over before they started, and when he’s there he’s stealing all the attention. What I wanted to see Bruno do was take those that are legitimately backwards, from the blatant “God hates fags” groups to those that are more discreet, and bring some contradictions to light. I wanted him to find a Republican who says, “The government should stay out of my life,” and then proclaim, “but gays can’t get married.” I wanted him to press the recent development in Arkansas, where 400 orphans were taken from their homes and put back into orphanages or the foster system because their parents were gay. But instead he played the gay stereotype to the extreme, dressing his black baby in “Gayby” shirts and insinuating that he puts gerbils in unspeakable places.
This is why he missed the mark with social commentary; when it comes to comedy it was still hysterical. Borat struck gold with some of his victims, and showed that some of the sexism and bigotry the character possessed was present in self-proclaimed ‘free thinking’ areas. Bruno has less success. People will laugh at the man who says, “These lips are for praising Jesus,” but it’s not going to convince anyone, or even make anybody question, that homosexuality is not some terrible evil.
The man is still a genius, and there are instances of critiquing with bite in the film. And while I might not agree with all of his views, and I hate the fact that people generalize what they see in his film to the entire southern half of the United States, it’s important to know that these people are out there. But over-analyzing every sketch, or blindly accepting what he’s offering, is as dangerous a way of thinking as some of those that he exposes.