I wrote this after reading Mark's post about the Borat movie.
Sometime soon (I hope) I will see the Borat movie. I've been terribly excited for it for some time. It's fair to wonder whether (or better, to what degree) the Borat conceit is exploitive. Tied into that is the question of what we're laughing at when we laugh at the Borat movie. Are we laughing at his unwitting participants? Or is he the object of our amusement?
I've thought about this. Even though some of his subjects (or, victims, I guess) might be more ripe than others for satire, I'm comfortable, as is my conscience, with my enthusiasm for Borat. I don't refer to my conscience lightly, having been raised in the Midwest and educated in the cultural studies, it's easy to make me feel guilty for enjoying something that might be ideologically problematic. Fortunately, though, by all accounts Sasha Baron Cohen is a intelligent, considerate human being (no to mention probably politically sensitive, too), and this does make it easier for me to like his work.
Another, separate, question might be does enjoying the Borat movie make one complicit with, or an active participant in, exploitation? Sure it does, though, again this is something better measured by degrees than absolutes. But while I'm conceding that there is a politics to laughing at Borat (or, Borat), I also have to concede that all my choices are politically fraught. I'm also a tacit supporter of exploitation, oppression and all sorts of things more materially harmful than the Borat movie when I vote certain ways, buy diamonds (or strawberries, or any number of things picked or produced under terrible circumstances), purchase clothing or linens made in sweatshops, or even buy meat-based products.
I don't eat meat, or buy diamonds, and I like to think I avoid the sweatshop labor and vote for people and policies that are minimally odious, but (and this is just me) I also don't judge people who have different standards or draw their lines in different places (I'm aware that plenty of people wouldn't choose my level of ice cream consumption for themselves). It's easy enough to extrapolate an ideology based on the tastes or choices of a person taken out of context, but it's not going to be accurate or honest. Indeed, some of the most charitable people I've ever known eat meat, buy diamonds, shoot guns, vote Bush, vote (or fail to vote against) the anti-gay marriage amendment, etc.
Some time ago, I would have been dogmatic enough to ascribe odious or cynical motivations to those who did, on the grounds that "the personal is political." But the real world has augmented the theoretical underpinnings of the that statement. What I've realized is that I don't know anyone who would mock the less fortunate (or even the charitable). In fact, all my closest friends go out of their way to align their personal decisions and politics as much as possible, even when there's a material, emotional or financial cost involved. Do people not deserve to laugh? Or to feel relieved of their stress? Or to share a common pleasure with their friends? For almost 5 years, I worked for a low-wage and spent my free time running a non-profit agency (which I co-created) that helped poor people where all other institutions refused to, and that's not particularly remarkable in the grand scale of what people do to help other people. Does that count for nothing if Sasha Baron Cohen's audacity doubles me over with laughter? What do you think the clients of my nonprofit agency would say?
I know a lot of good, kind people excited to see the Borat movie, and as far as I know most of them have fewer qualms than me about laughing at it. If the worst thing anyone ever does in enjoy themselves while watching Borat, then we should all aspire to their example.