Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Bruno a No-No?


As a lover of politics and humour, I have a soft spot for satire. I love satire. I love comedy in general, really. But I've found myself in more than one conversation with people about the merits of comedy as a tool of activism.

I've decided that yes, only people of a certain group can mock said group and no, that is not "reverse racism". It's just the reality that in order for something to be reclaimed, it has to take its power from the marginalized group. Otherwise, it's just racism. Now exceptions can be made if you're a well known ally in a certain community; see Kathy Griffin for example. She identifies as straight but is also considered a gay icon and therefore can drop bombs that would be seen as homophobic in another context. The reason being that she's gained the respect of the GLBTQ community, has supported, donated, etc for years and therefore is an ally and not some hillbilly making bad jokes. (Her jokes might be bad, to some, but they're not homophobic).

But what about satire? The big question about satire is:

When is it satire and when is it just stereotyping?

Jon Stewart's The Daily Show = Satire
Stephen Colbert's entire persona = Satire (Sorry Right Wingers; he's on our team)
The Simpsons = Satire

But then it gets tricky. What about Family Guy?

In having these discussions with various people, it seems that the measurement of whether something is satire or whether it's simply stereotyping is to look at both the creator and the audience.

Seth MacFarlane, who created "Family Guy" is also the mastermind behind "American Dad", a clearly satirical cartoon. Which would make one assume that Family Guy is in that category too, but then, I look at the Family Guy audience.

Most Family Guy audience members are not hispters, ex-academics or yuppies. Or even politico junkies. The Family Guy audience is high school dudes. Which is not the pigeonhole all high school aged dudes as being incapable of being down with satire. But "Family Guy"'s following is what troubles the issue for me.

Basically: If it's meant to be satire, but people take it at face value, is it satire anymore?

Ironically enough, this issue has come up in the last few days regarding (in my opinion) brilliant satirist Sasha Baron Cohen. SBC is the genius behind "Da Ali G Show", which consisted of him putting on various characters and then taking them to the streets, so to speak. Ali G was his first big character and since he wasn't exactly that different, nobody really paid any attention. But when SBC gave his one character "Borat" his own movie, then people started paying attention.

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" was a huge success in North America. In promoting the movie, SBC stayed in character a la Colbert style. Not only is the guy a brilliant satirist, but he also has amazing timing. North America and the US in particular was really focused on the Middle East upon the release of "Borat" and so SBC attempted (I'll come back to this attempt piece) to highlight how Americans viewed Middle Easterners. The joke was not on people from Kazakhstan but rather on the reactions of real-life people to a Middle Easterner, in the film itself.

BUT! Like "Family Guy", if you don't get satire, then you take the movie at face value and see it as a crazy guy from Kazakhstan who can't speak English and hates Jews. And if that's what you're laughing at, then is it satire anymore?

Sasha Baron Cohen is running into this problem again with his new movie "Bruno" which is based off another "Da Ali G Show" character. This time the character is a flambouyant gay stylist from Austria. Considering Proposition 8 and the opposing Proposition H8 campaign in the US and how it's highlighted GLBTQ folks in the US of A, Sasha's timing is impeccable.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in the US of A is upset with certain scenes they saw in the pre-screening of "Bruno". These scenes, they say, cross the line of satire and are outright stereotypical; therefore the joke is on them and not the homophobes. But where's that line?

Coming back to the original descriptors of creator and audience, SBC is clearly a satirist and the hope is that the majority of people who see "Bruno" will understand that Sasha Baron Cohen is playing a caricature composed of stereotypes, therefore highlighting the lunacy of these stereotypes rather than promoting them. Like "Borat", the hope is that the viewers will laugh at the homophobic and outlandish responses that "Bruno" gets, rather than siding with said homophobes.

But what if they don't? Does it matter? Do the intentions of the creator matter if the audience takes it in a different direction? It's hard to say.

Although this might seem like a hipster's diatribe, I do think it's important. I think comedy has an important role to play in making social commentary and political commentary in particular. For example, one can't underestimate the role that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert play come election time. Rick Mercer, to a lesser extent, has that effect here in Canada. But their roles have been clearly established; their respective shows are so heavy on politics that they would naturally only attract audiences that are into that, too.

But what about Family Guy? Or hell, The New Yorker?

2 comments:

Making !T Work said...

Nice deconstruction....

Frank Buchan said...

Isn't one of the true cores of the satirical that it is founded on interpretive appreciation? Wouldn't that basically mean that the satirist has achieved his end regardless of whether the viewer is grasping the satire, or the objective provider of same? In SBC case, intellectually, his satire is powerful precisely because so many viewers are unaware of it, therefore providing the contextual evidence of the absurdity he highlights.

As for The Family Guy, they can claim what they will, but it certainly fails one test of satire, which is that satire requires focus. A scattered approach to satirical commentary just isn't really possible.