Brüno Walks the Line

Sarah Seltzer

Is Brüno a punch in the face to American homophobia or does it perpetuate homophobic stereotypes in the name of satirizing them?

It’s never a good idea to underestimate Sacha Baron Cohen. More than just provoking laughs, Baron Cohen’s aim is to
push prevailing social attitudes forward through aggressive comic
confrontation, targeting the unwitting (or witting, as the case may be)
participants in his sketches, the audience in theaters and himself all at once.
So while his new film Brüno, upon
first viewing, is likely to feel disappointing and shallow to fans of his work,
it’s definitely worth mulling its attempt
to use humor to bludgeon our sexual mores to death
.

The widely varied reviews of Brüno, both
professional and on message boards, include a mix of approbation and outrage
for the film’s treatment of sexuality. The critical mass of professionals and
plebes alike fails to answer the "big" question definitively: is it a brilliant Swiftian satire, a crude "gayface" slapstick-fest, or something in
between
?  Is Brüno a
punch in the face to American homophobia or does it perpetuate homophobic stereotypes in the name of
satirizing them
?

The answer is both, and neither.  Baron Cohen purposefully puts the onus
on the audience, challenging us to examine our role in the joke.  Are we
actually laughing at Brüno’s out-there gayness or are we laughing at others’
crude reactions to said gayness, or (most likely) both? Certainly Brüno’s
outlandish libido, which encompasses every freakish permutation of kinky sex
imaginable, is meant to poke fun at ridiculous fears of gay sex, but it also
manages to tap into those fears as well. So as we cringe or groan upon
witnessing Brüno’s predelictions and then laugh at those who are affronted by
him (to wit: a group of randy hetero swingers who love kinky male-female sex
but are weirded out by Brüno) we are mocking ourselves. It’s seriously meta, an
attempt at a kind of mass exorcism of our own homophobic demons. And although by the movie’s end demons may still linger, the
film is a fascinating mess.

In the movie’s weaker first half, when Austrian TV host Brüno’s outsize ego (and
an unfortunate incident with velcro on a local fashion runway) send him to
Hollywood to seek stardom, the joke is on him and his vapid pursuit of fame at
all costs. His narcissistic inability to see his own lack of talent and his
ruthlessness towards his lovelorn assistant turn him repulsive.

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During a sequence in which he adopts an African child whom he treats as an
accessory, Baron Cohen walks very close to the line: in a particularly tricky
scene, Brüno presents his adopted child to an African-American TV audience, and
their appalled reaction to his sexuality in and of itself is then undercut by
their rightfully appalled reaction to his poor parenting skills.  This
scene takes a stereotype about homophobic African-Americans and a stereotype
about gay parents being corrupting influences and basically pits them against
each other. It’s clever and bold, but during moments like these one wonders just how far
over its audience’s head some of Brüno‘s
message will fly. Viewers may leave that scene with the same smug stereotypes
they had going in, and it’s this first half of the movie that’s likely to bring
out the audience’s own homophobia as it pushes the boundaries of "good
taste" to their limit.

Then the movie switches gears, halfway through, and Brüno launches himself into
the heart of masculine America to turn "straight," thinking it’s the
ticket to fame. Suddenly, it’s easier to side with him. Even an obnoxious,
insensitive egotist like Brüno has a right to be himself, we begin to think, as
he rhapsodizes about the stars in the sky and Sex in the City on a macho hunting trip, or puts a striped scarf
over his army fatigues to "break up" the pattern. Watching him try
and fail to conform to gender stereotypes, and watching the hate-filled stares
his effete mannerisms elicit, is both painful and painfully funny. A scene in which Brüno
mournfully shoves pie in his mouth at a local diner and the patrons’ grimaces in response recalls an
iconic scene from Easy Rider in which
the locals at a diner mediate violence against the long-haired hippies in their
midst. When Brüno finally realizes his love for his assistant and tries to
marry him, only to be denied by a bigoted priest, it’s powerful. Suddenly we identify
strongly with this blowhard we just hooted at–he becomes a symbol for
something at the heart of our national struggle to widen the net of liberty and
acceptance.

The weird juxtaposition of Baron Cohen’s two targets, celebrity and
intolerance, was intended. We were meant to be disgusted by Brüno’s shameless
pursuit of the former and then sympathetic to his experience of the latter. The
questions that juxtaposition poses are: Even if a person from a stigmatized
group conforms to the worst, most callous, stereotypes, shouldn’t they still have the freedom to be themselves?
Are we only interested in openness to minorities who conform to a dominant
ideal? How far will our so-called liberal values go when our deeply-ingrained
prejudice is awakened? It’s a fair point. In our age of "tolerance," where even
politicians who pass anti-gay legislation claim to have no problem at all with
their LGBT neighbors, Baron Cohen is exposing the primal disgust lurking
beneath the thin veil of acceptance, the fear that a gay (read: gay sex) agenda
will follow the protection of gay civil rights and
marriage equality. Certainly that was the intended point
of Brüno’s awkward attempted seduction of Ron Paul.

The reason some of these intentions may not sink in, though, is that Brüno is a
mixed bag artistically, neither as sharp nor as prescient as Borat. Coming at the end of the Bush
era, Borat tapped into America’s
newfound self-loathing, our need to vent against "the ugly American."
It also eerily prefigured the frightening racism, sexism and homophobia that
would be caught on countless cable news clips and YouTube videos during the
2008 election. Brüno was launched
into production riding on Borat‘s
fame and critical embrace, long before the first flutterings of a full-blown
national resurgence of a movement for gay rights, a movement spurred on by the
hateful Proposition 8. Thanks to that national dialogue Brüno’s humor now feels a little
dated: the soul-searching Baron Cohen advocates has already been going on quite
in the hearts of many Americans, including governors signing same-sex marriage
laws. On the other hand, those activists bruised from recent culture war battles may be less
inclined to go along with the joke: they already know plenty about homophobia,
thanks very much.

Beyond the zeitgeist, though,  some of the movie’s failings are
less deep: there’s the fact that the pioneering shock value of Borat is old hat. Brüno almost feels like Borat lite, broader, more disparate and
wackier, possibly staged in parts. Then there’s the issues with the character
himself, always third fiddle to Baron’s masterpieces Ali G and Borat. Those
first two characters are both idiots who espouse prejudice galore. They both
test people’s willingness to accept ignorance and bigotry when they arise from
"the youth" or a "foreigner" who may not know better. But
Brüno, who originally targeted the fashion world and not much more, was never
as subtle or interesting a concoction. He worked best as a wispy hanger-on, as when, wide-eyed, he told a fashion
designer that a collection was "hard-edged" and also
"soft," "dark" and also "light" and elicited
knowing nods in response to his absurd assertions. Was he meant to hold up a
feature-length film burrowing deep into the American psyche?

From Apatow "bromances" to movies like "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"
there’s a new trend of straight white dudes exploiting homophobic humor while
denouncing homophobia, and many say Brüno fits right in with the trend. But Brüno‘s intentions are certainly to be
much more than that, and it’s both riskier and more challenging to the status
quo than those tamer comedies. There’s no question that Sacha Baron Cohen has
gotten more Americans talking about the nature of and proper response to
homophobia than any other single recent artistic work (even Brokeback or Milk, both far better films which reached fewer people.) If there has to be an
artistic edge, Baron Cohen is a good person to be on it. I hope he goes back to
the drawing board for a good long time and comes up with a new way to shock us
out of our sensibilities. I can’t wait to see his take on feminism.

Other thoughtful takes on Brüno:

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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