His name is ‘a-Borat’ and he’s back with a ‘Subsequent Moviefilm’. In this latest escapade, shamed journalist Borat Sagdiyev is removed from the gulag (in which he has been imprisoned for 14 years) and entrusted with a plot to restore honour to ‘the great nation of Kazakhstan’.
By applying his acute journalistic acumen, Borat divines that an approach on President Trump may prove difficult (since, of course, he defecated in the bushes outside Trump Tower back in 2006). Now considered a celebrity in America and under threats of execution from his Kazakhstani Premier, Borat takes on a series of disguises in order to tutor Tutar, his daughter, in all manners that proffer her a sufficient gift to Vice President Mike Pence. In Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen delivers us yet another shocking scrutiny of America through the medium of political satire – but to what extent is it ethical?
Parody itself is negative in intent. It sets a target through absurd exaggerations and lures, limns and laughs at that target, discrediting them in the eyes of its audience. Political parody, then, is persuasive. In order to achieve persuasion, parodists such as Cohen must have an objective. For that persuasion to be effective and for it to stay true to the objective, the audience must recognise the authority and moralistic intention that its author disguises behind the character, and they must then weigh this intention alongside its target’s vices.
Now, in the case of Borat, these vices might be obvious for those who are aware of Rudy Giuliani, for those willing to engage in the self-flagellatory act of monitoring American politics. The moralistic intentions of Cohen may also be blatant to those who are willing to endure the counterfeit smiles and contrived laughs of a Jimmy Kimmel interview. But for those who simply have something better to do, and who want to wind down with a good comedy flick, a lack of awareness in these areas can become problematic.
This is because parody operates using the peripheral route to persuasion. The peripheral route encourages an audience to agree with its message based on criteria besides the strength of an argument: criteria such as attractiveness or wit. Opposing that is the central route. We can achieve persuasion through the central route based on the strength of our argument, and studies suggest that this route is deemed to have a more lasting effect on an audience’s attitude.
The peripheral route, then, is problematic insofar as a viewer lacking political awareness, or unfamiliar with Cohen’s moralistic make-up, can misconstrue the absurdism within the film as an acceptable form of humour in everyday life. They can take the absurd and the offensive and apply it in the wrong context. Rather than use its humour to tease out monsters, they could, themselves, become one. And, to speak of monsters, with Borat’s release being in such close conjunction to the presidential election, the most ardent Republicans no doubt consider this short term, peripheral persuasion as a form of liberal propaganda.
But, at the end of the day, comedy is subjective. How can we decide the ethics of a political parody without exercising our own bias? Without being, to some degree, unjust in our own assertions? For Cohen, his comedy is a moralistic exploit. For his victims – immoral. No, the cuts, edits and inserts do not favour his victims. Their opportunity for retort is limited. But Cohen’s victims are identified long before his execution. He morally weighs up his target: he makes his own ethical calculations. Through performance, Cohen and his exceptional costar, Maria Bakalova, do not simply point at monsters: they do not make pets of them. They allow the monsters to reveal their dire traits of their own fruition. Through entirely absurd means, Cohen’s ‘victims’ continually spout the unethical because the unethical is within them. Parody, then, will always do a service to politics – not inhibit them.
All Images Credit to the MovieDB.