Sometime around 1994 a movie called Pulp Fiction came out. My friend told me all about it. His dad said it was one of the best films he'd ever seen, but yet would not let his son, my friend, see the movie. Now, I am not arguing that Pulp Fiction is appropriate for an 11 year old, what with all the violence and drug use. But oddly enough, I do remember this friend talking about watching and loving 'True Romance', which is arguably even more violent than Pulp Fiction. So what gives? After seeing the movie a year or so later, and pondering the double standard for the past 15 years, I am pretty sure that a certain scene involving a psycopathic, S&M loving antique store owner, a couple of ball-gags, and gay-rape was probably what swung the balance.
I reference this now, because we seem to have come a LONG way in those past 15 years, when it comes to accepting graphic images and ideas in mainstream media. And if you can't find anything shocking (which is still a constantly changing variable) on TV or in the movies, well, they are just a google search away. Which is why I was kind of surprised that I was genuinely shocked by what I saw Sacha Baron Cohen get away with on the big screen yesterday. I was not totally sure what to expect going in, as I had heard it mostly referred to as worse than Borat (which I wasn't a huge fan of), but far more explicit.....which I found hard to believe. (but which was proven very much correct within the opening minutes of the film) This is not supposed to be a conventional review, but I will say that I laughed quite a bit, was happily aghast when I wasn't laughing, but would not necessarily recommend anyone else go see this film, even though I didn't regret spending my $10 on it.
However, the most important thing that I took from the film was not the shock-value of the images, or the prevalence of homophobia in middle America, or its culture of celebrity worship; we didn't need Cohen to bring any of that to our attention. Instead, I think that Bruno bends gender roles in a very clever way, and I think it is as much a commentary of the treatment of women in the media and in general, than it is about homophobia or gay culture. I had an inkling of this before I even saw the movie, when discussing the gigantic Bruno billboard at Yonge and Davenport (gone now) with my girlfriend and sister. Michelle said it was disturbing, and while I think that's a strong word I kinda had to agree. When I saw it for the first time I did a bit of a double-take.....but why? Because it is so engrained in collective (media) consciousness by now that the person in that image, dressed, styled and airbrushed that way, should be a woman. I mean, if Bruno was a woman, could the image be considered shocking or provocative? Yeah, maybe. 50 years ago.
WARNING SPOILERS (not spoiling much)
I found that a similar vein did run through the movie, with a number of scenes seeming totally absurd, not because Bruno is a flaming homosexual, but because he is a man (not a woman). The self-defence class was an excellent example. Enrolling because it seemed a straight thing to do (be tough), it is immediately given a gay sexual context. "What happens if a man runs at me with a dildo? 2 dildos? 3 dildos?" And we watch on as this grey haired caucasian martial arts instructor disarms Bruno of his ridiculous array of sex toys, and laugh because it is so outlandish. But isn't the biggest, if not only, reason that women take self-defense classes to protect themselves from sexual predators? The concept seems perverse only because it is a male figure that is expecting or anticipating a sexual assault, an entirely normal risk for a woman.
As Bruno is accosted by a naked blond woman attempting to fuck him and whipping him violently with his belt at a swingers party, gender conventions are again tipped on their sides as he resists, "Can't we do this properly, I'll sit down and talk to your father?" before escaping through the window and running into the darkness. Again the situation seems ludicrous, even humorous, but if we were to reverse the male and female roles the behavior would be viewed as appalling and even criminal. And while there are other examples of this in the film, none bears mentioning moreso than the final cage match scene ending in a near naked gay make out session and a near riot. The true shock and emotion on the faces of the drunken redneck audience are priceless as the grappling male wrestlers suddenly kiss. Need I say more?
The other half of the equation is Bruno making hetero males uncomfortable using his own overbearing gay sexuality, and it is interesting that most of these scenes did not draw laughs, but produced totally awkward silences (on screen and in the theater). Here now we have not gay man as woman (funny), but straight man as woman, and neither the subjects in the film nor audience knew quite how to react to it. And I feel like this is sort of the root of it all, the ground zero of homophobia; if we as men can keep down gays, we will never have to worry like a woman worries. Even if that worry does not extend so far as rape or assault, even if it remains at the level of leers or catcalls from unwanted suitors, it is something that we are not equipped to deal with systemically, and I think that is why this movie has alienated much of its audience. It was a lot easier to deal with "the other" in Borat when the caricature was one of a far away land. It is a different story when the caricature could very well be one of the repressed sexuality of both the subjects in the film and its viewers.