Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Politics of Bruno

Sacha Baron Cohen's recent film, Bruno, has been causing quite the stir. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation rebuked the film for reinforcing negative stereotypes with the president of the organization stating "the movie was a well-intentioned series of sketches _ some hit the mark and some hit the gay community pretty hard and reinforce some damaging, hurtful stereotypes." While it is understandable having seen the film the ways in which some of the skits could be read as "hurtful" or as "reinforcing stereotypes" such a reading is perhaps problematic as it does nothing to engage the brilliance of the film.

To explore the brilliance of the film, I want to start by noting that I believe GLAAD, similar to other political advocacy groups, engages a politics of identification. In engaging politics in this way, they seek to argue for "positive" images that people can identify with - images that make those who are "different" look reasonable or understandable or intelligible to a "mainstream" audience. There are of course benefits to doing this so I do not mean to delegitimate those benefits. However, in doing so such politics must also engage in the process of disidentification - to distance themselves from images that are negative (i.e. damaging stereotypes). As such, these politics get caught within, as Tim Dean notes, the dialectics of identification and disidentification. What though, might happen if we sought to engage politics away from this dialectic to think about or engage these issues differently? This engagement is not one about positive and negative identifications, but about exploring the ways in which lives are regulated, constrained, liberated, etc. in different ways.

In watching Bruno, I can tell where people might get upset - especially "gay" people. Images of a father holding a baby in a hot tub with sexual acts occurring right next to the baby, "unmentionable sex acts" occuring between two men, etc. Yet, the issue is not that these images are negative, the issue is that we still have an aversion to sex and seeing sex up close and personal makes us uncomfortable...and in such discomfort we seek to distance ourselves from that (i.e. walking out or violently attacking those engaged in such acts) or regulate the ability for such images to be seen (i.e. censorship). Baron Cohen's film exposes this brilliance by doing it, by making people react to these images and in such reactions we see the discomfort and hate people have for difference, for lives that are outside of the norm and unrecognizable...AND in such unrecognizability, people do violence...they ask for a baby to be removed from its home, they throw chairs at two men "wrestling", they seek to turn people "straight"...and in trying to do so, they seek to make, in this case Bruno, normal, the same as everyone else.

Bruno then is a brilliant social commentary that seeks to do politics in a different way...seeks to through the joke, through parody, mock those things that seem to have become "legitimate" or "recognizable". For instance, he mocks transnational adoptions by the stars not because those children do not deserve to be adopted or to have a "life", but because such adoptions provide a certain type of capital to those celebrities...it provides them with this humanitarian gold star and publicity. It also raises fascinating intersections of issues - the role of "culture" in raising a child, the normal "familial structure" that is imagined to be "best" for the child, and the complexity of race relations within the contemporary world. Reading the film at its surface level, as most seem to do, fails miserably to engage this complexity - in part because this complexity fails at allowing us to think about, well, the complexity of these issues that have a history, often times violent, a present, often times violent, and a future, one that is perhaps reparative, but perhaps violent. It is significantly easier to, as GLAAD does, to take a clear-cut stance that divides representations into "positive" or "negative" because it provides a foundation, a starting point...when depending on the context and the bodies involved...those judgments vary as do the starting points.

So then, the beauty of Bruno's politics are that they seek to illuminate the problems of identification and how in such identification and its dialectical process with disidentification, exclusions still occur...what his film does produce, in the wake of this critique is an possible politics that seeks not to say "good" or "bad" but challenge its viewer to think about why discomfort, disgust, violence, or anger emerges in the context of difference, of otherness? What pushes people to the edge and asks them to push back to re-establish boundaries - boundaries that challenge one's coherent view of the world? What challenges us to see the world in ways that go against the normative frameworks of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality? And how in going against such normative frameworks are 'we" changed but also the world changed to allow different viable possibilities to emerge?

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