Laden with obscene bawdy jokes and crude burlesque caricatures, Sacha Baron Cohen’s work has always gained a certain gravitas from its conceit of carnivalesque citizen journalism. Da Ali G Show (Channel 4, HBO, 2000–2004) cut its teeth on pranking journalists and politicians, from Ralph Nader and Newt Gingrich to Andy Rooney and Donald Trump. The original Borat film leveled its hijinks against a rogue’s gallery of proto-Trump voters, including a Confederate tchotchke peddler, a Pentecostal State Supreme Court Justice, drunken fraternity members, and with some equal opportunity “lib-trolling” thrown in for good measure. The film was also released several days ahead of the 2006 midterm elections, which delivered on their coveted “blue wave” by decisively flipping both the House and Senate. To invoke the mythical Iowa cornfields of Kevin Costner movie lore: “If you build it, they will come.” But sure enough, If you laugh at them, they will resent you.
Revisiting the first Borat film with 2020 hindsight feels a bit like opening Pandora’s box from the lip of a hellmouth. Cohen’s recent television follow-up, Who Is America? (Showtime, 2018), derived prestige from its body count of GOP stooges, including Dick Cheney, Joe Arpaio, Jason Spencer, and Roy Moore. Its furious laughter indicted the enablers and predecessors of Trumpism, erupting from the sheer despair and pathos of 2016. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is not a far cry from these forebears, dropping on Amazon Prime days ahead of the 2020 elections. Though cathartic, its antics are anxiously on the nose — the nihilist spawn of a once utopian impulse. In the sequel, Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) infiltrates conservative battleground spaces of the raging culture wars: a gun-rights rally, crisis pregnancy center, QAnon bunker, and Conservative Political Action Conference, where he dons Klan robes claiming he’s Stephen Miller and is violently ejected from Mike Pence’s speech while masquerading as Donald Trump.
The film’s payoff derives from the visceral satisfaction of pushing hypocrisy beyond the brink of obscenity, and then amplifying that gross revelation with scatological humor, dick jokes, fart gags, and stag porn. For example, while sheltering with two avid QAnon supporters, Borat does weight training exercises in a spandex thong and enormous strap-on penis as his two hosts research COVID-19 conspiracy theories on the internet. When Borat takes his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the plastic surgeon for breast augmentation surgery, he solicits the doctor to seduce her and then farts loudly upon news of the $21,751 bill, offering to cut costs by swapping out saline implants for raw potatoes. The messy body is like a visual laugh track for Borat 2’s satirical trench warfare.
That bait-and-switch is part of the lure, as the grotesque body gleefully repulses any threat of its disciplining or objectification. Borat 2 will die on the hill of that joke. Bakalova, Cohen’s breakout Bulgarian co-star, kidded she initially worried the film was not a mockumentary but a “human trafficking situation.” Though the plot is as loose as a string of spaghetti, the driving premise is that Borat must traffic Tutar to a member of Trump’s inner circle to curry geopolitical favors or else his nation will execute him for making them a laughingstock with the first Borat movie. (Indeed, Kazakhstan was not happy about Borat, though not for precisely the reasons the movie presents.) Much of the humor revolves around Tutar’s miseducation in the art of feminine glamour and self-exploitative seduction. She’s coached by Instagram influencer Macey Chanel on how to sexually gratify older men, during which Tutar sits spread-eagle and opens a beer bottle with her vagina. Tutar and Borat perform a “moonblood fertility dance” at a traditional debutante ball in Macon, Georgia. Their routine opens with an armpit hair sight gag and climaxes with Tutar’s bloody menstruation reveal. (Picture a John Waters reboot of The Seven Year Itch.) But the icing on the cake unfolds in a crisis pregnancy center. Tutar accidentally swallows a plastic baby figurine while engorging cupcake frosting in the back alleyway behind a Christian bakery. She and her father must seek help “removing the baby” at a nearby crisis pregnancy center, where an evangelical pastor willfully turns a blind eye to Borat’s explicit confessions of rape, incest, and pedophilia.
By the time Rudy Giuliani makes his infamous cameo, unzipping his pants for Tutar in a hotel room (that likewise mixes metaphors of Four Seasons and “total landscaping”), the message is clear. Ironic gotcha tomfoolery is utterly worthless without a grotesque body behind it — a menstruating, farting, incest-perpetrating, strap-on flexing, fetus-cannibalizing, toothed-vagina masturbating, conspiracy-ejaculating human corpse of instrumental reason. In other words, behind every phallus (or false symbol of supremacy), there is a penis, which turns out to be even more of a farce than the phallus. As Hélène Cixous once memorably proclaimed, “For when the Phallic period comes to an end, women will have been either annihilated or borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence.” The context for this declaration was nothing less than Cixous’s call for the collective un-repression of feminist Medusan laughter. Borat 2 doesn’t quite get that far, unfortunately, because the penis keeps scooping the phallus before it can shore up its fantasy of symbolic mastery and moral sovereignty. Borat 2’s laughter echoes from the void of broken ideological meaning, buttressed by a relay of never-ending sight gags about strap-on dildos and erectile dysfunction. For lack of a better metaphor, its devalued satire goes balls to the wall.
But what is at stake in the film’s mockumentary revelation of libidinal evidence? First, the perverse body simply stands in for the vacuum of documentary belief. In the era of QAnon conspiracy theories, doctored Deep Fake videos, social media echo chambers, and the wholesale unraveling of democracy and democratic values, those Enlightenment Phalluses can no longer bridge the gap between unconscious obscenity and the promise of political freedom. It’s always been the project of farce and satire to carry the mantle of a damaged social contract. But isn’t irony dead, or, at the very least, on life support? In Cohen’s hands, the grotesque body and unrepressed libido, harkening back to raucous medieval folk festivals (such as “Feast of the Ass”) and the Roman Saturnalia, tag team with dry wit in a rapid-fire turnstile of eye-winking puns and Chud-punking gags.
Here’s where things get sticky: the grotesque body doubles down on the far-right rhetoric of unlimited freedom. The bludgeon of “Freedom!!!!!” is everywhere in our bitterly partisan culture, amplified by backlash against even mild regulatory attempts to enforce gun reform laws, mandatory masking, or COVID-19 lockdowns. It’s a truncheon in the war of language games, which is the wheelhouse of myth, to invoke Roland Barthes’s unendingly relevant 1972 treatise, Mythologies. Myths prey on the uncontested meaning of words, empty them out, and wield those hollow signifiers like semiotic tear gas. The Bush-era neologism of “freedom fries” (because “French” fries conjured state opposition to the US invasion of Iraq) marked an awkward prelude to the rampant weaponization of “freedom” in every level of American political discourse. The myth of freedom will liberate intolerance and steamroll consent on behalf of an embattled white Christian conservative minority. From the corporatized internet to the tuition-gated college campus, organizations such as the Campus Freedom Network and Campus Freedom Alliance deploy First and 14th Amendment rights to defend homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual speech acts in the name of freedom and diversity of expression.
Comedy has its own bones to pick with “safe spaces” and “political correctness,” as the line between satire and sensitivity increasingly feels like a high-rise tightrope walk for edgy or controversial comedians, regardless of their ideological stripes. For what it’s worth, Borat 2 takes that line very seriously, if rather broadly. Again, the grotesque body does an enormous amount of work to square the circle or broker a détente between crude caricature and polemical critique. In a memorable scene, Tutar interrupts a woman lamenting the decline of heterosexual marriage to give an impromptu public address at the Hillsborough Republican Women’s Club, where she overcomes her superstitious fear that her toothed vagina will eat her alive if/when she masturbates. As with her menstrual reveal at the Deb Ball, religious constituents are shocked and bewildered by her realization that female masturbation does not result in dismemberment or decapitation. The goalpost of Tutar’s mock liberation is to catch pace with the pseudo-feminism of conservative women’s pro-life advocacy: free to choose to negate one’s right to choose. It’s a battle royale of libidinal grotesquerie versus self-defeating ideology that is satisfying to watch but all too familiar.
In a sequence that quickly moves from shocking to sober, Cohen revamps his antisemitic minstrelsy from the original film and visits a synagogue where he meets with a Holocaust survivor, Judith Dim Evans. (Borat’s ear-splitting dog-whistle parody, “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” first aired on the Da Ali G Show in 2004.) His Jewface caricature here would make a Nazi propagandist blush; Borat dons a long prosthetic nose, black talons, frizzled payot, and totes a hefty money bag and marionette labeled “MEDIA.” The rough motivation stems from Borat’s disappointment to learn that the Holocaust was a hoax, which he reads on Facebook. (He also feels stymied in his new driving mission to traffic his daughter to Rudy Giuliani.) But the barbarism of Borat’s bigotry and foiled exogamy (incest looms large) are small potatoes compared to the high-tech apparatus of the myth-mongering internet. As Walter Benjamin warned amid the rise of genocidal Nazism, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Borat 2 echoes this argument, leveraging uncut libido against tech-savvy autocracy to further comment on the inextricability of documentary witness from burlesque simulation. “But I saw it with my own eyes,” avows Evans, raising the specter of Shoah with her words.
Evans’s survivor testimony to Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust, a uniquely serious moment in this utterly ludicrous film, interlaces with Borat’s buffoonish parroting of Facebook’s Holocaust denialism. Cohen himself has repeatedly decried Facebook as a “propaganda machine” that “amplifies hate” and “would’ve let Hitler buy ads.” But the meeting with Evans was staged. Unlike other unwitting bystanders and participants in Borat 2 (Pastor Bright, the Romanian actors who played Kazakhstani villagers, Macey Chanel, Jeanise Jones, Giuliani, Pence, et al.), Evans was given detailed context during filming. In fact, this is itself now a point of legal contention. The Evans family attempted to sue Amazon for posthumous defamation, as Evans herself died shortly before the film’s release. Her family claimed she’d not been clued in on “the joke,” but the suit was dismissed partly on the basis of documentary footage revealing Cohen breaking character to have a forthright conversation with Evans.
The utility of farce for the project of anti-Nazi satire and Holocaust remembrance — from The Great Dictator (1940) to Life Is Beautiful (1997) to Jojo Rabbit (2019) — has been rehearsed and debated at length. Borat 2 more or less toes the line on the problem of “laughter at Shoah,” notwithstanding its many other ethical snafus (which have been adequately covered). Yet, the film recasts these conundrums for the crises of the present moment, especially Facebook’s epidemic of “fake news” and the violent global resurgence of neo-fascism. The stakes of Holocaust denialism become chillingly topical when Borat and Tutar successfully order a bakery cake with the hateful inscription, “Jews Will Not Replace Us”: the words chanted by white supremacists at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. In a Supreme Court case argued that same year, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2017), the Court’s majority (pre-Kavanaugh or Coney Barrett) essentially ruled that a private business has the right to refuse a gay couple their wedding cake, if homosexuality violated the shop owner’s religious beliefs. Simply put, freedom of religion supersedes social equality or anti-discrimination in the context of baked goods. To the point of Borat 2, the baker would have been well within her rights to deny Borat and Tutar their antisemitic dedication, which we watch her carefully craft across multiple cuts. Indeed, she appears all too delighted to fulfill their order.
The comic formula of the crisis pregnancy scene is, again, very familiar. Borat and Tutar’s consultation about “removing the baby” is a direct consequence of their visit to the bakery. Tutar accidentally swallows a plastic baby ornament in her voracious inhalation of cupcake frosting. “I have a baby inside of me,” Tutar explains to Pastor Jonathan Bright, “and I want to take it out of me.” The situational irony unfolds through obscene comic misdirection, as Borat scandalously describes wanting to “give [his] daughter pleasure” in a back alleyway behind the bakery. Pastor Bright is dismayed but unfazed. Like Todd Akin, the Missouri Representative who preached “legitimate rape” as an alibi for the blanket prohibition of abortion, Bright proclaims that “God doesn’t make accidents” and deflects Borat’s insinuations of illegitimate incest: “I don’t need to hear any more of that.”
In a subsequent decision, NIFLA v. Becerra (2018), the Supreme Court ruled narrowly that the First Amendment also protects crisis pregnancy centers from state regulation. Refuting the FACT Act, which sought to prevent crisis pregnancy centers from disseminating disinformation about state-offered abortions, Clarence Thomas compared the FACT Act’s censorship of First and 14th Amendment rights to the use of “state power” to “suppress minorities” perpetrated by eugenicist doctors in Nazi Germany. Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion: “Freedom of speech secures freedom of thought and belief. This law imperils those liberties.” Neither rape nor incest exceptions appear in the Court’s decision, because the question at hand was not the legality of abortion but the mandate for crisis pregnancy centers to provide accurate information. Therefore, Pastor Bright was just following orders. His objection to incest could hypothetically diminish his clinic’s unbridled freedom to dissuade and disinform women about their reproductive rights. Freedom, in this cynical usage, means choosing the basic grounds for truth or evidence that undergird one’s own reality. But to call on another “specter,” this does not happen “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Deny COVID-19 as a liberal conspiracy, but it still might kill you. Condemn the spread of socialism, but it won’t stop capital from eating you alive.
Borat 2 responds to predictable dishonesty with a tried-and-true satirical script, extending bad-faith liberty to the liberation of incest. This is where the film’s libidinal shtick and the conservative weaponization of juridical freedom come full circle. To paraphrase my reading of the film’s satirical message, the juridical is libidinal. In other words, the religious right’s consolidation of juridical power these past four years (Trump has appointed over 200 federal judges) hinges on a Faustian pact between pro-corporate freedom and the un-repression of incest. Let me explain. Incest is a loophole to outlawing abortion, because there would have to be allowances made for legal abortions in the case of incest, which is scandalously outside the law. Or, if we follow Pastor Bright’s claim, “God makes no accidents,” then incest becomes legitimate in order to make abortion blanketly illegal. These are the material conditions shaped by the conservative movement’s all-out pursuit of corporate and juridical power, which can only withstand the referendum of democratic elections with the collusion of religious, anti-abortion voters. As we’ve seen, the rule of law can be doctored as handily as documentary evidence when the will to power of an embattled far-right coalition is at stake. Long story short, incest it will be!
In her 1969 paper, Carol Hanisch popularized the second-wave feminist rallying cry, “The personal is political,” calling for women to politicize their everyday struggles, rather than merely placate themselves through therapy or medication. “We came early to the conclusion,” remarked Hanisch, “that all alternatives are bad under present conditions.” Her words fueled the momentum for women’s “liberty to choose” that became the law of the land in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. If it seems cheeky to offer a phrase that rhymes with such an important feminist slogan, it’s because the incestuous libidinal collateral of far-right juridical power poses a direct threat to the material gains of 1960s radical coalition movements: civil rights, feminism, gay rights, anti-war, anti-imperial, pro-environmental, and anti-capitalist political activism. History is a bad rhyme.
Borat 2 somehow ends on a touchingly feminist note with the importation of liberal American values to “make benefit” the film’s make-believe depiction of glorious Kazakhstan. Borat’s crisis of conscience prevents him from trafficking his daughter into political concubinage and emboldens Tutar to team up with her father as a professional journalist. They pressure their government to repeal its misogynistic laws and to replace the nation’s antisemitic rites with a new national pastime: the Running of the American. Giant humanoid puppets run through the streets burlesquing MAGA supporters, as Kazakhstani revelers cheer joyfully to see their nation’s biggest threat (American culture) savagely caricatured. Next, a foam-headed “Karen” who’s open-carrying an AR-15 faces off against Dr. Fauci and his science-based COVID-19 vaccine. In the end, conspiracy theory trumps epidemiology. The father-daughter duo embraces, having inspired their own people to outpace America’s civilization in decline. But the final message breaks from Borat 2’s mockumentary’s frame with the imperative call: “NOW VOTE.”
Vote we did. Trump has yet to concede his defeat, and if the state can eke out a peaceful transfer of power, Joseph Robinette Biden will take office on January 20, 2021. But a presidential term lasts four years; federal judge appointments are for life, satire be damned.
Maggie Hennefeld is McKnight Presidential Fellow and associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.