Chameleon comedian (chamedian?) Sacha Baron Cohen’s three recurring characters on The Ali G Show not only heralded a supreme comic talent bringing with him a multifarious entourage of iconic characters, but Cohen also imbued each of his creations with their own subversive satirical utility. Ali G’s conversations and interviews with elite members of the older generation represented him as a caricature of the “dumb youth” stereotype; a cultureless, tasteless, nightmarish manifestation of all the older generation’s most outrageous fears regarding the young “MTV” culture, and one they were suspiciously ready to believe was real. 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.
Cohen’s third character, Bruno, served two distinct purposes. On the one hand, he revealed a narrow-minded ludicrous sense of self-seriousness within the fashion industry, a dense vapidity ripe for mocking. On the other, Bruno explored both casual and overt forms of homophobia within American culture, and one of his most prime targets for exploration was the Bible-toting American South.
But with the release of a Bruno movie, the potential limitations and contradictions of the character—and Cohen’s satirical goals therein—become apparent.
First of all, it seems problematic, at least initially, for a character who is supposed to embody all the superficiality of the celebrity-worshipping fashion world to also be a character who reveals intolerance in other parts of the nation. Sure, many of the voices of intolerance Bruno encountered both in the movie and in the TV show were disturbing representatives of harmful, hateful thought, but what do we make of the vessel revealing that intolerance to be a character representative of everything empty within popular culture? It reminds me of Perez Hilton’s controversial and never fully articulated justification for outing celebrities as an effort he makes for progressing the homosexual community at large, as Hilton, the very last person one would think of as the ideal representative for promoting gay rights, potentially confuses gossip with social activism.
Of course, this is a limited and unfair comparison. While Hilton himself may have devolved into caricature and self-parody, Cohen’s cultural persona is not limited to the character of Bruno. The reason the Bruno skits work is that we the audience are aware that Bruno is actually Cohen, an intelligent comedian and not a superficial fashionista. Thus, when Bruno/Cohen encounter various sources of intolerance and asks ridiculous questions or challenges them with Bruno’s overt sexuality, we accept these not simply as typical actions of the character he has created, but as efforts on behalf of the comedian to challenge or reveal the intolerance of his subjects, sometimes infuriating them to the degree that they display the frightening extent of that intolerance (as Borat often “outed” racists and anti-Semites, Bruno does the same for homophobes) and in turn make a fool out of themselves.
But Bruno has recently come under fire by GLAAD, the organization stating that the film “reinforces negative stereotypes” and “decreases the public’s comfort with gay people.” GLAAD shouldn’t be approached as speaking on behalf of the entire gay community, of course, but one can easily see why they have reservations about the film. Sure, Bruno reveals intolerance for homosexuality, but does he challenge the presumptions and stereotypes at the root of this intolerance? Sure, it felt like a wonderful “fuck you” to see Bruno tied to his male assistant in S&M paraphernalia while walking past the “God Hates Fags” sign-toting protest by Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church, thus making an effective joke at the expense of the venomous intolerance characteristic of this organization, thus possibly enabling Bruno to lessen the threat of such outrageous displays of homophobia. But it can’t necessarily be argued that Bruno here challenges stereotypes, as the only reason this joke works is because it feeds on the presumption that homosexuals are somehow naturally prone to more bizarre and even aberrant sexual behavior.
Other sequences work on one level but become problematic on another. The instance where Bruno adopts an African baby effectively satirizes the apparent tendency of celebrities to use children from third world countries as accessories comparable to fashion itself, a practice both insensitive to the needs of the child and actively disrespectful to, or at least ignorant of, its culture of origin. But when Bruno takes the baby to a daytime talk show with a predominantly African-American audience and has the child wearing a short that says “Gayby” and displays Photoshop’d images of the child in a hot tub while Bruno and his friends engage in sexually explicit behavior, Cohen here seems to be lampooning the stereotype that homosexuals actively look to “recruit” children into a lifestyle promoting the “gay agenda.” But is there any way for Cohen to lampoon such an offensive stereotype without actively embodying it, or without potentially reducing Bruno to a gay caricature?
Cohen’s humor acts on two levels: with the audience witnessing it in the form of one of his films or television episodes, and with the more immediate “audience” who are witness or victim to his pranks. The presumption here is that the latter type of audience are the intolerant subjects for whom the joke is often at their expense, and we assume that this audience will likely not change their views on homosexuality (as this is also, of course, not Cohen’s goal). Cohen also presumes that the former audience, those watching the film, do not share the same narrow views as do Bruno’s subjects, and are therefore able to “get the joke.” But I fear that this is not always the case. Bruno opened even bigger than Borat, which implies that the film played well across the board, even in those areas Cohen visited in an attempt to make a joke out of intolerance (i.e., the South). I wonder what exactly some of these audiences are laughing at, and where exactly the joke lies for them. Do they see the satire and social commentary within Cohen’s efforts, or does Bruno simply embody for them everything they already assume about homosexuals, and thus Cohen’s subjects are thus rendered, for them, the voice of reason? After all, homosexual characters have often been nothing more than a punchline in much of mainstream cinematic history. It is in this sense that Bruno has the capacity to reinforce stereotypes rather than challenge them.
An alternative to GLAAD’s reading of Bruno has surfaced from “That’s Gay” host Bryan Safi, who argues that people aren’t too dumb to understand that Bruno makes the homophobics the butt of the joke rather than gays themselves, a corrective for Hollywood’s tendency to do the reverse. (It is striking here that Safi’s clip uses a scene from Talladega Nights to illustrate how homosexuality is thoughtlessly used for the easy joke, as Cohen played the homosexual racecar driver that Will Ferrell refers to in the clip. It would be interesting to look at where the jokes regarding that character lie in comparison to Bruno. I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear your take.) Safi’s argument within the context of recent cinema history is convincing, but I still feel that some people won’t get the joke. Also problematic to Safi’s rather winking assertion that Bruno is “the renegade leader we need right now” is the obvious fact that Cohen the comedian is straight. In the larger spectrum of events, the fight for gay rights, of course, needs the support of the straight community, but is it a problem when that support turns into straight people attempting to stand in to speak on behalf of gay people? As far as Hollywood goes, sensitive and complex gay characters have most often been played by straight men, usually with a handshake by Mr. Oscar waiting on the other side (Health Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, Sean Penn in Milk—it seems now, in an inverse of the arguments made by Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder, as far as statuettes go, gay is the new retarded).
But maybe Cohen is challenging us in a more complex way. Many of Bruno’s jokes are rooted within the title character’s overt displays of sexuality. On the one hand, one can fear that these displays may reinforce negative stereotypes of homosexuals. It is wrong, of course, to assume anything about one’s specific sexual practice based simply on any orientation they may have (and, as Cohen illustrates with the swingers scene, straight sex can be plenty fucked up). But on the other, Cohen challenges the idea that aberrant sex exists at all, that anything involving consenting adults can actually be labeled weird or against the norm. The joke in Bruno is not that he engages in such sexual activity because he’s gay, but that he forces acknowledgment of such sexual behavior within the public sphere, turning the weak “whatever you do in your bedroom is your business” argument posing as tolerance on its head. In the red band trailer for the film released a few months ago, Borat, still tied to his partner S&M style, struts through a mall in a scene that didn’t show up in the final film. It’s not funny because it’s S&M, it’s funny because people are forced to react to it. Bruno attacks more than just America’s predisposition towards homophobia, but its outright denial of sexuality at large. Sex is inherently weird and funny, and Sacha Baron Cohen wants you to deal with it.