Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Meaning of Borat

For this week’s Sunday Bonus Post, I’m reprinting a note I sent to some email lists.

I went to see the film Borat last night. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it as entertainment as much as I thought I would. Nevertheless, I thought I wanted to correct a common misconception.

A lot of people seem to think the movie is just making fun of stereotypes. Borat is a sterotypical foreigner, his “victims” are stereotypical Americans, and the humor comes from laughing at them. There are perhaps a couple short scenes where this might be true, but it’s a pretty small part of the film.

In reality, Borat is about the existence and enforcement of cultural norms. In place after place, Borat goes somewhere and does exactly what you’re not supposed to do. By doing so, he demonstrates exactly what our cultural assumptions are, makes us laugh uncomfortably at their violation while we start to question their legitimacy, and then documents the punishment inflicted for violating them.

There are scenes where he questions feminist dogma, provides a brilliant critique of nationalist rhetoric, violates norms about racial integration, takes superstar-worship culture to its logical conclusion, and, in my favorite scene, deconstructs the fake niceties of the television interview (something I’ve always dreamed of doing).

This is an incredibly tough kind of humor to do, because watching people violate cultural norms is so challenging. We’re ingrained from birth with an injunction to follow the rules of behavior in such situations and violating them does not come naturally. (A Japanese friend said that watching the film was actually painful in parts.)

Even though, as I said, I personally didn’t enjoy the film as much as I hoped, I still think that it’s an important project. Challenging cultural assumptions is incredibly tough. If you just criticize them outright, people think you’re weird and dismiss you. And if you violate them yourselves, you suffer the social punishments. But it’s a very worthwhile cause; I’m glad to see someone receive so much success for trying.

You should follow me on twitter here.

November 12, 2006


Aaron. How do you have time to run a startup, write a blog, do all the other things you do, and watch movies?


posted by David M. on November 13, 2006 #

Your post failed to mention why you think challenging cultural norms is an “important project.”

In a number of cases, I agree with this in principle. But you should fill in the blanks as it was your missive.

posted by Ron Bischof on November 13, 2006 #

Hi all, I guess that it is time to start explaining better instead of just criticising something for free. We all know that there is nothing free. So, if a film wants to publish a critic about something (specially if it belongs to a public culture or way of expressing) it should explain from where is that critic comming: is it from a bunch of ‘Borgs’ that hate communication or all kinds of ideas that didn’t come from their boss? did it origin in some traumatic experience? Anyway, people might buy these critics, and perhaps, for free. But what they are really buying is their own insatisfaction and insecurities. And after we all finish studying our reasons to laugh or talk, we might surely end laughing about the old times when we used to live spontaneously.

posted by chanio on November 13, 2006 #

Anthropologist Grant McCraken has two essays, where he provides similar analysis — http://www.joegrossberg.com/archives/002790.html — his remark that “Borat is about boundaries” was particularly salient.

posted by Joe Grossberg on November 13, 2006 #

Yes, let’s discard all social norms — only then will the world will become a much more sensible and livable place!

One way to interpret peoples’ reaction to Bort is that they’re stupid, unimaginative dolts who deserve scorn. Another is that they’re people confronted with one or more generally unacceptable social behaviors and try to find some more or less graceful resolution of it without creating offense.

In the end, it’s not clear to me that Bort isn’t the ignoramus, albeit one whose cleverness lies in acting like a jackass for the amusement of other ignoramuses.

posted by Riley on November 13, 2006 #

Borat’s cleaverness is making us cringe about aspects of his culture, then showing us that our culture is closer to his than we think… hidden behind a layer of pretence.

Eg. Americans cringe at Borat’s fear and loathing of the Jews… then Borat exposes the fact that many Americans have a similar fear and loathing of ‘terrorists’ and muslims.

Eg. We cringe when we hear Borat putting down women to the feminists and the American boys laugh at Borat when he falls out of love with ‘Pamela’ just because she’s not a virgin. Then Borat asks why the American boy doesn’t ‘call’ the girls after having sex with them… “because I don’t respect them, man!!!” Just the same, after all. The double standards are exposed…so much for men and women being equal.

Eg. The Southern Society people try their best to accommodate the different culture Borat comes from…. but order the black prostite out of their house. No tolerance there!

posted by Lisa on November 24, 2006 #

Borat is a very disturbing film the attempts to confront the cultural issue of acceptance from the perspective of humor. For instance, the Southern dinner table scene where the dinner party was accepting of his rude comment about the Pastors wife, and the idea about eating with disabled peope at dinner table, and even the bag full of feces. But when the issue turns to accepting Borats African American, provacativly dressed prostitute friend. The jokes over, and they are told to leave. The idea of tolerance and acceptance ring consistantly in the movie to show that many of the social norms are hippocritical and racist. Finally while chasing the socially concocted vision of beauty (pamela Anderson) Borat comes to find beauty in the darndest place. Borat makes pokes fun at he melting pot of American culture and and shows that its not really melting just mixed.

posted by Kat on December 12, 2006 #

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