Borat’s success depends on a painful truth in western culture — that a poorly tailored suit is sometimes more effective at reaching the truth than the perfect outfit. Here’s why.
“Borat,” a satirical film released in 2006, stars Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a caricature of a local news journalist from Kazakhstan who embarks on a trip to “the U.S. of A.” to learn about “the greatest country in the world” — America. His hilarious-yet-cringy findings shocked audiences around the world, and gave energy to a form of self-exposing, subjective journalism that first made its debut with Hunter S. Thompson’s radical writing in the late 1960’s, Gonzo journalism.
Gonzo journalism is making a comeback, with big media companies like Vice Media piggybacking off its reputation with their series “One-Star Reviews,” and independent media like All Gas No Breaks using the style to create original, culturally relevant content.
What do they all have in common? An ill-fitting suit. So the real question becomes, why does a shitty outfit work so well at disarming people, and why does it matter?
Borat exposes the underbelly of western society through painfully awkward interactions with politicians, celebrities, and the public. He is a cocktail of pathetic, bigoted, and lovable (at a safe distance). His look is the visual equivalent of a stiff one — with a mix of ignorance, moustache, and slapstick, the combination relaxes people into singing with him, “Dr. Fauci, what we gonna do? Inject him with the Wuhan flu. WHO, what we gonna do? Chop ’em up like the Saudis do.”
How does this wacky character work so well at exposing people’s ignorance?
A lot of Borat’s success is the result of his tapping into a sense of nationalism that is downright intense in America. Canada shares this self-congratulating vein, despite our many failures in championing human rights, animal rights, and environmental rights. With these shortcomings in mind, Canada has managed a pretty cheerful international reputation, thanks to an excellent public relations team that tirelessly works to reinforce the notion that North America is a civilization run on the basis of freedom, dignity, and integrity. Despite Canada’s efforts, Borat calls bullshit on western values, especially American western values. Baron Cohen’s work has resulted in ousting the otherwise inaccessible political figures and upper crust, some of whom are caught with their literal hand in their pants. This really happened.
A crowning jewel in Baron Cohen’s career as a satirical entertainer comes from his collaboration with Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, the co-star in his sequel to “Borat,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which was released just a few weeks ago. The film stars Bakalova as fictional character Tutar Sagdiyev, Borat’s 15-year-old daughter, who interviews President Donald Trump’s personal attorney and former Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani.
We are in an age where the court of public opinion is brutal, and the gladiator sport of our time is catching people’s worst sides and worst moments on film. In 2006, Borat popularized the sport, and now in 2020, Borat has perfected it.
We’re in the confessional age of journalism. We want to see firsthand accounts of events. We want to see corruption with our own eyes. We want to see real-life villains describe their evil master plan to our heros while they’re slowly lowered into a tank of hungry sharks. We want a video confession.
Borat gives it to us.
What does that say about the subjects of Baron Cohen’s interviews, that they so readily lean into bigotry when a man with an accent and loose suit nudges them? What does it say about her interview subjects that when Tutor (the young journalist with bleach-blonde hair and an accent) performs Borat’s classic antics, she endures very different consequences? What does it say about us, the viewers, for the fact that we watch this — the demise of bigoted people and the discomfort of vulnerable people — for entertainment?
Graphic by @ariannasivira