Opinion | Sacha Baron Cohen’s film advocates feminism

Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Borat Sagdiyev, appears at his movie's premiere in Köln, Germany, on Nov. 10, 2006.

Photo Courtesy of Michael Bulcik

Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Borat Sagdiyev, appears at his movie’s premiere in Köln, Germany, on Nov. 10, 2006.

By Samuel Rahman, columnist

Sacha Baron Cohen introduced the world to the Kazakh journalist Borat in the 2006 film of the same name. Fourteen years have passed and the sequel to the cultural hit came to the Amazon Prime streaming platform at a busy time in Cohen’s career. Another film, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” in which Cohen stars was released a week earlier on Netflix.

Beyond that, 2018 marked the first season of Cohen’s successful Showtime program “Who is America,” widely known for filming elected officials voluntarily performing ridiculous acts. Cohen undeniably has one skill that shines above the rest: the ability to persuade individuals to admit to absurd notions most viewers would categorize as ignorant at best. 

Not many journalists, let alone satirists, could persuade former Vice President Dick Cheney to sign a waterboarding kit or groups of concert-goers to sing along to lyrics advocating for “chopping (journalists) up like the Saudis do.” While Cohen’s original “Borat” framed itself as a comical attempt to expose an underbelly of hatred and racism in America, this subsequent film applies the same satirical rigor to the topic of women’s place in society.

The film follows Borat’s second journey to America, this time accompanied by his daughter, 15-year-old Tutar. The movie’s comedy and commentary are revealed chiefly in the parallel mistreatment of Tutar through obviously regressive fictitious Kazakh customs and very real American phenomena. 

While Borat may cage his daughter, train her with a clicker and treats and walk her on a leash, American doctors readily prepare the teen for rhinoplasty and breast implants as a Debutante coach attempts to civilize her. 

The same arguments Borat makes alleging, “The strings in (a woman’s) brain might break if you try to teach her” are eerily similar to those historically used to keep women out of education in developing countries today and in 19th century America.

With the film being so absurd and overzealously shocking at times, its feminist message could simply be brushed aside with accusations of cheap editing tricks and anecdotal evidence. 

“Borat” is first and foremost a comedy, but if the film decided to put forth a thesis on social issues, it could use some additional quantitative evidence.

A landmark 2008 study measured mathematics and reading performance in over a quarter million students across 40 countries to determine a biological or cultural root for the well documented global gender performance gap in math.

 The global pattern shows girls performing, on average, 10.5 points lower than their male classmates. The researchers examined the socio-cultural factors that could impact a country’s test scores — a handful of metrics such as countries’ World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, Political Empowerment Index and  World Values Survey, among others. 

The conclusion? Author of the study, Northwestern University Professor Paula Sapienza put it most straightforward.

“The so-called gender gap in math skills seems to be at least partially related to environmental factors. The gap doesn’t exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities,” Sapienza said. 

While the global average puts girls comparatively underachieving by 10.5 points, in the most equitable countries — Sweden, Norway, Iceland — the girls slightly outperform the boys. The worst academic gender gaps occur in countries with histories and presents of female disempowerment and the gaps inversely scale with equality in “resources and opportunities.” 

The historical and cultural precedent of females not receiving comparable educations continue to have lasting impacts. The assumption that boys are better in mathematics and girls are better at reading creates self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Starting in grammar school, American teachers are more likely to call on boys to answer math questions in class. Boys receive more attention and resources because they are expected to achieve comparatively more in the subject, therefore creating an environment that artificially increases their math abilities to the detriment of their female classmates. 

The study also found inequality in global reading scores. The gender reading gap between the higher-achieving girls and lesser-achieving boys in Iceland is twice the global gap. Girls academically achieve more in both mathematics and reading in the most equitable countries. Yet, all too often, females are assumed to be the less academically viable sex due to a history of disempowerment.

One heartfelt moment of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” arises as a woman gives a speech to Tutar before the girl plans to undergo plastic surgery.

“You shouldn’t want to be anyone else, but yourself … I don’t see anything on your body or on your face that needs to change. I want you to be happy … Think about going to school. Use your brain, because your daddy is a liar … You got a big brain up there, so use it.”

The American fixation on most other facets of women’s lives downplays the value of equality of education and leads to these statistics. America’s gender math gap is 10 points — barely above the global average. Other countries have figured out how to make theirs zero. 

Train teachers on their statistically significant unconscious bias. Push for more girls-in-STEM organizations. Create recruiting pipelines for female students in industries that historically existed as boys clubs. This cultural probem is a solvable; it is astounding America must learn this lesson from “Borat.”

Sam is a junior in LAS. 

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