Monday, December 15, 2008

Robert A. Saunders' "The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen"

Robert A. Saunders is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Economics & Politics at Farmingdale State College-SUNY.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody, and the Battle over Borat, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford’s “Page 99” test works quite well with my book The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Ethnic Pantomime, and the Battle over Borat. On that particular page [below right, click to enlarge], I address the first public spat between the Kazakhstani government and the ribald British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Borat as well as Ali G and Bruno. The text begins with a quote from Talgat Kaliyev, the First Secretary of Kazakhstan’s embassy to the United Kingdom, in which he asserts that his country is nothing like the post-Communist phantasmagoria depicted in Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show. The remarks followed the 2000 premiere of the program in the UK. Kaliyev states: “We can take a joke like anyone else. But this has gone too far—it’s a form of racism.... My country is a young country, so you have to understand that we are sensitive to such matters. We do not like the behavior, the manners of this character. He has no idea how to behave in society, asking such questions as he does. We are a secular, modern state, not a state of such barbarians. If this were in a newspaper, this would not be so bad because people might forget it the next day. But this is broadcast to a huge audience.” Building on this quote, I discuss how the diplomat’s attempts to counter the Boratistan parody fell on deaf ears in the West. Still obsessed with Cold War tropes of crumbling gray buildings, bushy-browed party officials, and forlorn citizens, the British press used Kaliyev’s indignation to frame Kazakhstan—a progressive and welcoming country by post-Soviet standards—in a most unflattering way. I write: “Such coverage had a decisively counter-productive effect vis-à-vis the intentions of the diplomatic corps. Rather than reversing negative stereotypes generated out of thin air by Sacha Baron Cohen, the media attention affirmed and/or reinforced generic perceptions of the country as a Sovietesque, tin-pot dictatorship.” Near the end of the page, I analyze how Kazakhstan’s tentative first steps in engaging Baron Cohen’s parody—which included an ill-conceived demand that the British government put a stop to his antics—floundered: “The notion that Borat would or could be banned was taken as incontrovertible evidence that the Kazakhstani government was still suffering a post-totalitarian hangover.” As the face of the new Kazakhstan, Kaliyev himself even came under scrutiny. As he tried to defend his country, he was alternatively portrayed as a blustering buffoon or an iniquitous enemy of free speech. Overall, this page provides the reader with a brief but evocative morsel. One of my principle aims in writing this book was to explore the impact of the spread of global media on 21st century statecraft. This selection provides a keyhole glimpse of one aspect of this phenomenon: the current difficulties of combating mass-mediated threats to a country’s national image or—to use a more appropriate term for our times—its “brand.”
Read more about The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen, and learn more about the author and his work at Robert A. Saunders' faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue