Sitting in a local Boston theater watching Sasha Baron Cohen play Borat, an anti-Semitic misogynist from Kazakhstan, made me uneasy as a Jew and enraged as a woman. The Jewish part of me wasn’t quite sure why all the non-Jews around me were falling off their seats laughing at Cohen’s joke about Jews being money-grubbing cockroaches. Did they see the ridiculousness in this, or did they also harbor the same anti-Semitism skillfully unveiled by Cohen in some of the Americans interviewed? The gun owner who recommended a 9 mm weapon to Borat for use against Jews could very well have kindred spirits sitting near me in the theater. But then again, I have lived in this area for over twenty years and have yet to feel any fear as a Jew. When I am out late at night, I don’t worry about being attacked because some anti-Semite is on the prowl looking for a bit of Jew bashing. Had I watched Cohen’s film in Germany in the 1930s I would have felt differently but today, as a Jew, I feel a lot safer.
This is not to say that I am a stranger to fear. As a woman, I live in that place between cautious apprehension and occasional dread where over half the population resides. When night falls, the world becomes a threatening place. Empty streets, parking lots, deserted parks and lonely public places are to be avoided at all times. For many women, the home is no sanctuary, as this is the place where women are most frequently abused and killed.
So when Cohen makes misogynist jokes about rape, prostitution and incest, they feel anything but funny. Okay, so Cohen may well be trying to satirize American sexism by unveiling the dark side of American men but when the audience laughs, I feel rage because I know that some of the men in the audience may well be on the prowl that night. Some may select the street as their hunting ground, other may prefer the frat party or the bar, and some need venture no further than their own home.
Violence against women, unlike violence against Jews, is a major public health issue of our time and the costs to women makes it a very unfunny topic. In recent school shootings, girls were specifically targeted by men, though few newspaper reports highlight this. Had the killer selected only Jews to kill, there would have been a national debate on the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. And a movie that made jokes about Jews would have been considered to be in bad taste at such a time, even if the filmmaker was Jewish. Maybe today, we need Borat’s outrageous antics to unveil subterranean anti-Semitism, but his misogynistic humor is as mainstream as Howard Stern. In Borat, the jokes about women dying (his wife), being raped (his sister) or being stalked by a crazed fan (Pamela Anderson) are passed off as business as usual in the life of being a woman. For Pamela Anderson, who was beaten by her now ex-husband Tommy Lee as she clutched her newborn baby, violence was indeed a part of her life. So watching Pamela Anderson being stalked and chased around a parking lot feels too close to reality to be funny.
Watching Cohen’s film in 2006 also feels too close to reality for all women. Were the men in the movie theater laughing at or with Borat? I don’t know the answer to this for sure, but I do know that the fear I feel in the world is because of my gender, not my religion. This is what separates me, a Jewish woman, from Sasha Baron Cohen, a Jewish man.
GAIL DINES is professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College in Boston. She is co-editor of the best-selling media text book, Gender, Race and Class in Media.