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November 13, 2006


New Kid on the Hallway

I was actually surprised that I liked Borat as much as I did, because normally I hate hidden camera stuff; it makes me cringe. But Borat did that much less than I expected. For one thing, I was so horrified by the frat boys that I can't really feel bad that he took advantage of them. I didn't see innocence in them as much as smugness and complete unawareness of their own privilege. Their only innocence was in assuming they could say things like that to a stranger, and personally, I'm glad to see that innocence taken advantage of. For another thing, despite all the ways that Borat exposed people's ugliness, consistently throughout the film people welcomed him and honestly attempted to help him; maybe he took advantage of that, but at the same time that he was showing them in an ugly light, he was also showing Americans' openness to strangers. (Even the racist guy at the rodeo - he was incredibly offensive about Muslims, yeah, but not to Borat directly; and while the Pentecostals honestly scared me, they welcomed Borat with open arms.)

Oh, and regards the chicken: I can't get too upset about briefly shutting a chicken in a valise under the controlled circumstances of a movie shoot when there are millions of chickens crammed into factory cages doing nothing but producing eggs all the livelong day.

New Kid on the Hallway

Having gone over to read the article about the villagers, I do find that kind of manipulation much more distressing than anything he did to the Americans portrayed in the film.

Kip Watson

In the original Ali G series (not Ali G in America which was not as funny), he used to have a nice comedic-switcheroo trick, where he would line up various experts, elites and bien penzants, and then act as ignorantly as he could. The humour was in how few of English society's movers and shakers realised it was a joke, thus demonstrating their outrageous elitism and low regard for ordinary working class Englishmen.

It's a shame that Sasha Cohen has been reduced to 'taking the p#ss out of the yanks', which is just about the stalest form of humour an English comedian can indulge in. It was already getting old when Oscar Wilde did it!

Or perhaps he was trying for something a bit more subversive but just couldn't pull it off...

Lynn Gazis-Sax

I find it hard to have any sympathy, really, for the frat boys. They were drunk? Well, they knew they were going to be on camera, and they took the drinks. They said awful, racist and sexist things, under the assumption that their words would be playing in Kazakhstan, or something, and now get held up to ridicule in the US? Well, don't they give a damn how the US looks to the rest of the world, that they say such things on camera? Since the only thing they're suffering is to be shamed for saying shameful things, it's hard for me to feel much sympathy, sorry. Not everyone acted like that for the camera. The African-American guys on the street corner, not so far from the frat boys in age, were friendly and welcoming to "Borat" without doing any trash talking about women.

But then, the frat boys were especially easy not to sympathize with. Some of the other people struck me as more complicated mixes - welcome, smugness, nervous unwillingness to confront bigotry, sometimes gradually apparent uneasiness as "Borat" pushed the boundaries. And I actually found myself liking the Pentecostals more than not, even though they're far from how I'd express my own faith.


I submit that if any of those frat boys is going to become a decent person at some future point they'll have to come to terms with the fact that they deserved the mockery this film gave them, and a fair bit more besides.


Hmm - in many societies, getting "drunk" is merely a socially-tolerated means of having the opportunity to tell someone off, whether their targets truly deserve it or not, without major social consequences (e.g. a worker telling his/her boss off). And from what I've heard, a number of these people aren't that inebriated when they do tell someone off (they just act like it) - just the fact that they have engaged in the process of getting "drunk" in front of witnesses (i.e. consuming alcohol in a social setting) is good enough to attain that opportunity.

Now, with that in mind, when these frat boys made these comments during their bout of drunkenness, are we to fully empathize with them when they say that their comments were made under less than lucid mental states, or are we to also suspect that they used in some fashion a "social drunkenness" loophole as a springboard for stating their overt criticisms and avoiding "responsibility" for their words?


I also disagree about the underlying innocence of the frat boys. They could see the guy had a camera for god's sake. The fact that they expressed the kinds of views that they did on camera makes them pretty hardened i think. I also don't think the filmmaker owes it to anyone to be empathetic or understanding of his subjects, especially not of bigots. I would honestly have been much angrier if empathy HAD been expressed towards people like this. Unless he somehow tricked them into going on camera, or filmed them without consent I don't think he did anything wrong.


I haven't seen Borat: the movie, but I am familiar with Sasha Cohen's work from the UK, where he has long been on our screens...yeah, a lot of his jokes may be infantile or adolescent but I think that is because that is what his audience finds funny (or more precisely, I think he is trying to capture a certain audience that finds crude humour funny, to draw them in). Essentially the humour moves towards exposing the ridiculous illogicality of certain views - namely, oppressive views. This film is going to get seen by a huge audience, many of whom may share the views he's exposing. I think that is what will hit home with people and hopefully make them pause for thought, where a thousand websites and textbooks won't. So I can't hate Borat, even if I don't agree with everything he does...
Just a side note. A lot of people have said here that they would not see the film because it sounds like the sort of thing they disagree with. Do you wish you had never seen it Hugo? Or do you think that sometimes art should be uncomfortable or offensive?
I do appreciate what you say about extending humanity to the bigots (we're all made of the same atoms, literally, not to mention EVERYONE has the capacity to hate and be bigoted) but I don't think everyone is as enlightened. Maybe this film can reach people you or I never could.

Matt S

Saw Borat tonight. It was brilliant. Get a sense of humor. How was anyone exploited? These people were not tricked into making racist or sexist or homophobic comments. They believed they were chatting with a real foreigner and said what they said. Some of the people came off well. Some not so well. That's what was interesting- the variety of different reactions.

Pulp Fiction was far more artistic than brutal.

And sincerity is so, so, so overrated.


I have to submit that you were too busy having your sensibilities being offended by Pulp Fiction that you missed a lot of what was happening in it. You are correct, it is a world where death lurks around every corner and happens swiftly and randomly. You do realize that that sort of world does exist, right? Well, if you don't... it does. However, the point if the movie is NOT that that sort of world exists. Pulp Fiction is about changing circumstances. The point is that sometimes a man sees that he's been doing wrong, and should leave that space. Not only that he starts to becomes merciful and saves a man's life which, at the beginning of the film, he would have shot without hesitation. The point is that his partner, who laughs at his change of heart, dies a pointless death on the toilet. Not only that, but we see the "highest of the high" come to a truce with the "lowest of the low" after they go through a trial together.

This is not to say that there isn't a lot of brutality and uglyness in the Pulp Fiction world, but if that's all you see you really need to look again.

I also say the same about Natural Born Killers. Look again.

But then, the frat boys were especially easy not to sympathize with. Some of the other people struck me as more complicated mixes - welcome, smugness, nervous unwillingness to confront bigotry, sometimes gradually apparent uneasiness as "Borat" pushed the boundaries. And I actually found myself liking the Pentecostals more than not, even though they're far from how I'd express my own faith.

I completely agree. I thought it was incredibly funny, but it did make me uncomfortable in some places. I don't think that the Pentecostals were portrayed in a particularly bad light, or even the rodeo crowd, for that matter (but the rodeo manager won't get much sympathy from me). I also felt a bit for, and was impressed by, the etiquette coach, as she kept her cool and came off as gracious to him. And the African American boys also came off as friendly and fun. But the frat boys will get no sympathy from me whatsoever. I thought that overall the movie was a brilliant commentary on our culture--both the welcoming, friendly aspects of it and the underlying ugliness.


Kate, I do think art should provoke. But provocation is one thing, manipulation and hurt are another. In virtually every instance, Cohen exploits those who seek to welcome him as a guest. Whatever else they say, the frat boys throw their arms around Cohen and embrace him. The hospitality of a bigot is still hospitality, and to throw it back in the faces of those who welcomed you is not a kind of art that interests me.

Look, I'm not telling anyone else what to do. I'm not picketing the film. I'm a zealous believer in free speech. I have no right to demand that Cohen not make such a film, but I also have the right to be offended by deception, exploitation, and an uneven cruelty that seemed particularly targeted towards the white, the rural, the Southern, and the faithful.


You may be right, Amanda. But I, for one, would rather find a way to attack the bigotry without attacking the bigot. I refuse to believe that hateful ideas are inextricably linked with the identify of he or she who holds them.--Hugo

Let's say hateful ideas aren't inextricably linked with identity (I think I agree, but the devil will be in the details). The question here then becomes: What are good ways of extricating the bigotry from the identity? I'd hazard a guess, without having seen Borat, that those particular frat boys, and perhaps others like them, will have a different take on their own racism and sexism. Being humiliated can have the effect of inspiring some humility (though I'll admit it can also have the effect of creating more hate and anger).


The "cruelty" towards "the white, the rural, the Southern, and the faithful" is perhaps uneven in this film, but not in reality. (And it wasn't even cruelty, in my opinion.) This is not oppression of whites, of Southern rural people, and of religious people. This is an incredible satire from the oppressed towards the oppressor. That is why it is so fantastic. "The white, the rural, the Southern, and the faithful" are known, individually, and collectively, to favor limiting the rights of (and thereby oppressing) many groups in this country, throughout history and in the present. To claim that a movie playing off of that oppression (and the very real hate expressed by many of these individuals) is itself oppressive or exploitative is ridiculous.


I am still struggling to find a way to hold in tension a commitment to justice, and a willingness to treat every person with love and dignity

hugo, therein lies the rub doesn't it? i think the trouble that i'm having with a lot of this conversation is the all or nothing aspect of it, that can view the frat boys with either empathy and compassion or censure, but not both.

i guess the way i look at this is that i can consider what the frat boys said to be heinous & unconsionable (note: i haven't seen the film, am only imagining based on the conversation here & what i've known frat boys to spout) BUT -- i can also choose to not use their discomfiture for my own entertainment. and that's largely just where my sense of humour lies; i don't think it's funny to make fun of or put down people, regardless of who they are. 8yo daughters of reprehensible right-wing politicians or drunk frat boys being bigoted idiots, or whomever.

but that has a lot to do with my own FOO issues. i grew up in a large family where humour was all about putting someone else down, and constantly angling for an advantage over another. gets tiresome, and very much in the way of forming healthy bonds with other people.

you know what i find interesting about this discussion -- around the left-wing blogosphere i've read a great deal about the concept of fat acceptance. and i have to be honest that it has really changed the way i look at fatness in our society. and one of the key points that seems to be brought up over & over is how our society attempts to eradicate obesity by shaming fat people, and how ineffective that is.

and i believe that's a really good point, and that there is truth & validity to it.

so why do we think we eradicate racism & bigotry by shaming people?

last comment: i read a quote awhile ago that really resonated with me. it went something along the lines of "when i was younger, i was impressed with cleverness. now that i am older, i'm more impressed with kindness."


Trishka, you cannot in any reasonable way equate being fat with being racist or sexist.


I think one way we help eradicate racism and bigotry is precisely by shaming people. I'm not actually an advocate of shame, but if you make it socially unacceptable to express racist, bigoted, or sexist ideas, you help prevent the spread of those ideas. Racism (for instance) is like a disease - growing up in this country, you are basically bound to catch it to some degree. Making its expression shameworthy is like a quarantine measure.

Balanced against that, for me, is the idea that shame does not make people stronger, but weaker. I would prefer that people are discouraged from expressing bigotry by more gentle confrontation (what I might call "loving confrontation" if I were as earnest as Hugo).

I probably won't see Borat - I'm not that interested in it. But I think that more radical forces than I espouse can be useful and I'm not necessarily opposed to them. (To give another example, I think PETA are a bunch of crazy extremists, but I appreciate their ability to push the debate.)


I think her point was that our society tries to get rid of a "disagreeable aspect" of overweight people by shaming them and it only increases their problems. So she's saying that shaming racists & bigots won't get rid of their attitudes just like shaming fat people won't get rid of their fat.

It's a wierd argument - being overweight is a multifaceted issue that can depend on biology, habits, or just the standards of the person who says their overweight. Some people have a high level of control over their weight, many do not. Some people make moral judgements about self control others make statements about health that imply moral judgements and other simply react to the "aesthetic" standard that they compare an overweight person's appearance to.

If Cohen had shot his scenes of the "Khazaks" being "poor and backward" with an intent to shame them into being more progressive and prosperous, that would be a direct correlation.

Tricking or leading groups of people say things that are judged backward or bigoted by general societal standards to shame them or others into not saying backward or bigoted things might work. It's a communal values versus individual action thing, which is where shame traditionally is the most effective. Why do most people choose their words carefully when talking about sensitive issues? We know how embarrassing and shameful it would be to offend others. Some people don't care and shaming them may make them more hostile, but what other method would you suggest? Shame operates through some level of accountability and empathy.


whoops - I posted right past Tam's - my comments were a response to Wolfa's reading of Trishka's comments.

But I agree with Tam about shame - it isn't a "positive" technique but it can be very necessary society in enforcing moral actions and empathetic language out of less conscience-sensitive people.


vacula interpreted my post correctly -- i wasn't equating being fat with being racist or sexist, but rather examining the effectiveness of using shaming as a techniqe to change something we don't like in people.

Tam, i'm thinking about what you said about how shame works effectively for people. this is a interesting point:

Why do most people choose their words carefully when talking about sensitive issues? We know how embarrassing and shameful it would be to offend others.

do we choose our words carefully because we don't want others to see us as behaving offensively, or because we genuinely wish to not offend out of concern for the feelings of others? i'm not sure it's entirely all of one or the other. i think that shame maybe works for the appearance aspect but not so much for the desire to actually be that thing.

and in response to this: Some people don't care and shaming them may make them more hostile, but what other method would you suggest?

well, i'm not sure what exactly to suggest; someone like hugo who has experience actively working to alter people's perceptions & bigotry without shaming them may have some ideas.

but i do think that doing something that you know doesn't work and will likely have the exact opposite effect - just because you don't know what else to do, is generally not a good idea.

this is a good discussion!


I think it's interesting to note that it seems like Hugo (sorry for putting words in your mouth here, if I am) would say that it's never a good idea to shame people in order to get them to recognize the shamefulness of their behavior, because (and I don't quite understand why) there is a difference between the shameful actions and the person making them that is important enough to not induce shame at all--but why should this be the case?

Isn't it likely that having lots of different ways of bringing racism and sexism and the like to light in people's lives would be better than having fewer ways? Maybe some people will only respond to shame. Or perhaps some people will more strongly/more quickly respond to shame. Shaming some people into not being bigots might not be the best solution all of the time, but maybe sometimes it is the best. I'd say (having not seen the movies) that racist/sexist frat boys are a prime candidate for having shame work to getting them to see their own faults, while shaming might not work so well in other contexts (i.e. trying to 'shame' out-and-out KKK members is likely not going to work, or trying to shame a 7-year old whose parents are KKK members probably isn't the best way to get her to not become a racist, etc.).

Why is it all or nothing, as far as techniques we might use?

I think the whole idea of a complete, utter dichotomy between 'who a person is' and 'a person's actions' that Hugo continues to refer to is misplaced. Yes, we're not simply any one se of our actions. But our actions are shaped by us and, in turn, shape us. Separating the 'sin' from the 'sinner' seems ad hoc, and is likely a vestige of Platonic/Aristotelean Christianity (at least) that even Christians might want to disgard. What the heck does something like "god hates the sin but loves the sinner" mean, anyway? He doesn't just hate the sin--he hates *you* committing the sin--that's why *you* go to hell (or get removed from his presence or whatever), not your sin.

A person who is a devout racist of some type isn't inextricably a racist--she may learn not to be--but that (to me) doesn't entail that we treat her as somehow completely removed from her racist beliefs, as if she is somehow a person that isn't the sum set of her beliefs. Even if you believe in an individual soul, doesn't that soul interact with the world? Isn't that soul, in some sense, racist if the person is? I just don't get the separation on which Hugo's ideas about this stuff seems to rest.

Temple Stark

hugo, (never been here before, first name sorry),

Your reaction is very personal and doesn't seem rooted in much. Pulp Fiction and Borat and Natural Born Killers are three distinct films. Your attempt to tie them together as just inherently cruel, misses one thing. Two are fiction, one is, like Jackass, mostly staged for potential amusement and / or horror.

I haven't seen Borat and don't plan to do so, but mostly because of the annoyance of the character, the one trick pony joke and fakery. It presents itself as having a VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE, but doesn't, it would appear, deliver. Because, at it's base - it can't. It's very selective and very fake.
- Temple


Your reaction is very personal and doesn't seem rooted in much

Dude, it's why it's on my blog.


If you read the original post, mythago

I did, Hugo. Does that mean your subsequent posts don't count?


I won't excuse the frat boys, but the news about the Roma villagers is truly disturbing. It's shit like this and the Maxim hotties promotionals that make me wonder whether or not we're giving the guy too much credit. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've seen the shows. Part of me believes that, judging from these less defendable stunts, his intended audience is more frat boy than his targets.

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