Bae Humbug! Sacha Baron Cohen and the Pranking of Truth
I despise the terrible byproduct of social media where people sneak up on unsuspecting passersby and take unflattering pictures of them with their smartphones to post online. Please, for the love of all that is private and sympathetic, DO NOT click on or read the link in this paragraph. Just take my word on this one. “People of Walmart” is awful, ugly, mean, homophobic and transphobic, racist, ageist, reeking of body shaming/slutshaming, and I do not in any way endorse this site.
You may recall the #planebae brouhaha. If you don’t remember, in 2018, some people on a flight took surreptitious pictures of a couple in the seats in front of them, “documenting” the strangers’ private conversation and possible flirtation, fictionalizing it with a romantic narrative, and then posted the whole thing on Twitter as one long thread. It promptly went viral.
At first blush this tale of aerial romance seems relatively fun and harmless, but of course it’s the 21st century and everything is terrible. The couple involved in #planebae was promptly doxed (their identities were publicly revealed, my friends-who-live-under-rocks). The male participant in the #planebae saga welcomed the invasion with apparent glee as he was an aspiring model. In a perhaps unsurprising turn of events, the couple who “documented” the #planebae “romance” were themselves revealed to be aspiring actors. But the female end of the behashtagged couple – dubbed “Pretty Plane Girl” by the Internet – was apparently not an aspiring anything. Pretty Plane Girl was rather shockingly satisfied with her actual non-Internet-famous life and was, in her words, “shamed, insulted, and harassed” by the people who were like, just soooo totally excited to see #planebae turn into an IRL thing.
While some lamented the “loss of Internet whimsy” (the modern day definition of the word “whimsy” apparently entails doing whatever the eff one wants with images of other people and not brightly colored clothes with large daisies on them like I had previously thought) that the demise of #planebae indicated, for one brief shining moment, people concluded that exploiting others by taking pictures of them without their consent and then using it for one’s own social media cred is a pretty shitty thing to do.
Right?? Can we all just agree on ONE THING here, America? Regardless of one’s political persuasion, can we not agree that taking pictures or recording unsuspecting people without their consent, creating a narrative around that recording that may or may not be true, then sharing it publicly to grow your brand and boost your own social media standing is freaking WRONG??? It’s creepy and weird and exploitative and no one should ever do that under any circumstances at all ever no matter what.
Enter Sacha Baron Cohen.
Sacha Baron Cohen is a guy who has made a name for himself doing exactly that. He’s developed various fake personas – Ali G, Borat, Bruno – that he uses to encourage, entrap, or con unsuspecting people into behaving like buffoons while secretly recording their reactions. He does this by acting so utterly outrageous and shocking that people are caught out and don’t really know how to react. Sometimes they laugh at the awkwardness of the situation, other times they go along with it out of politeness (even according to reasonable person Christopher Hitchens), other times they get angry and lash out. Most (not all, but most) of the people Cohen dings tend to be conservative-leaning. He’s been doing this for decades and the ethical implications of his schtick have been long debated.
Regardless of the ethical considerations, in the past, many folks giggled in delight as Cohen took down Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, Dick Cheney, Ron Paul, and most recently, Rudy Giuliani. A lot of people were calling it truth revealed, and maybe it was, a little in some cases. In other cases, including the most recent incident featuring Rudy Giuliani tucking in his pants at an inopportune moment, Cohen used camera tricks and deceptive editing to make it appear people were doing things they weren’t. Just like with #planebae, this false narrative stuff is so obviously immoral that it’s not even particularly interesting to talk about, though it makes me very sad how far gone some people are that they buy into something that is just this side of a deep fake if it makes ‘the other guy’ look bad.
A more interesting question to me is this: How much truth do we really have a right to?
I’m inclined to believe organizations like Project Veritas have the right to film public officials undercover when their guards are lowered (and may I point out, Project Veritas has rightfully faced scorn for having used camera tricks and deceptive editing to make it look like people were doing things they weren’t – so it appears two can play at that game.) I’m inclined to believe that Wikileaks has the right to publish classified government information given to them by whistleblowers. I’m inclined to believe that women should come forward with their #metoo stories even when they cannot be corroborated. But these are simply reveals of things that are actually of legitimate interest to citizens, not a premeditated setup in which someone was coaxed or encouraged to take part in a situation they never otherwise would have. Planned Parenthood really was selling fetal tissue, police in Minneapolis are investigating whether ballot harvesters in Ilhan Omar’s district are taking cash to secure votes, the Clinton campaign really was undermining the Sanders campaign, and Roy Moore really did end up marrying someone who was in high school when he was in his 30s. These actions transpired, and journalists simply brought them to light. The journalists did not initiate the actions themselves, they simply revealed them after the fact.
This is clearly not at all what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing. Sacha Baron Cohen is #planebae-ing America, creating a narrative that suits his own purposes, and going out and not only gathering, but ORCHESTRATING the production of video clips to illustrate that narrative.
Certainly, the people of the US should be made aware of what people working under the umbrella of our government are doing in our names. I hardly even think that’s debatable, though I know many people out there think Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are murderers, and others who believe James O’Keefe is human scum. And of course, we should – to some extent – be able to know the types of people we have placed in positions of power, by both their words and their deeds. But do we have the right to know and judge a person by whatever “truth” they’re tricked into revealing when their guard is lowered? I’m not sure that we do.
After all, our public figures have given us more than enough grist to judge them on just based upon the things they’ve done without any encouragement. Do we really need to know the inner workings of someone’s mind when they’re taken by surprise by someone who isn’t following the rules of polite society? Is it necessary to know how they’d react in some bizarre scenario they’d never really encounter in real life to prove them fit to lead? And even if it is, if the benefits of hearing Ron Paul use a not-particularly-offensive word in a moment of shock outweigh the risk to his reputation, is it worth breaking down norms regarding privacy and consent that have been in place for many years, norms that are already under assault by the rise of the smartphone and social media?
If #planebae is wrong, if it’s wrong to film unsuspecting people to forward your own agenda (and I believe it is) then how is Sacha Baron Cohen any different from the wannabe actors who humped a stranger’s plane conversation dry for social media cred? In fact, isn’t he significantly worse? He’s creating the situations that people get caught up in, after all. Is it at all beneficial to society to tolerate what basically amounts to entrapment, to film people being tricked into saying and doing things that they’d very likely NEVER say or do publicly?
The existence of Sacha Baron Cohen’s deceptive schtick was one thing 20 years ago before the rise of social media and the kind of mob mentality that ruins people’s lives over offhand remarks. Things are different now. Cancel culture is real; people can and DO have their lives ruined over an out of context tweet or a joke they made decades ago. Enticing people into bad behavior feels extra super wrong in a climate where people’s lives and livelihoods are utterly and irrevocably destroyed by a handful of words they spoke, without even being tricked into it.
Some of the defense of Sacha Baron Cohen centers around the notion that he’s doing investigative journalism of some sort, or that he’s a documentary filmmaker. But both journalism and documentaries center around the idea that the end result is meant to capture some kind of truth. Cohen is not capturing reality. He’s putting people into impossible and freakish situations (in some cases, actually getting them drunk beforehand) that would never occur in the real world and then judging them based on their reactions to these situations. Worse, he’s exploiting people’s innate tolerance, politeness, and kindness in order to do it. If people were really as prejudiced and close-minded as Cohen seems hell-bent on proving, he never would have gotten as far as he does. It’s BECAUSE people want to be nice to the oddballs of the world that Borat ever got his foot in the door to begin with.
Worst of all, Sacha Baron Cohen is using a veneer of authenticity that he has solely due to being rich and socially powerful himself, to get people to lower their defenses. He’s got PR people working for him who know the tricks of the trade, he has lawyers to write up release forms, he has the resources of Sony and Showtime and Hollywood itself at his disposal so it’s really not even a fair fight.
It seems pretty dishonest and sneaky to punch down like that – especially at the people who are not powerful public figures like Giuliani, but the everyday people whose lives were trashed when they were tricked by Borat, Bruno, or one of Cohen’s other personae into being jerks on camera.
Truth, schmouth. Cohen and the team that supports him are experts at creating false situations and hanging them around the neck of another person. Cohen is not a journalist or a maker of documentaries. A journalist or documentarian might go undercover to unearth skeletons that needed to see the light of day, to discover dirty little secrets that people in powerful positions might prefer their underlings never knew about. Sacha Baron Cohen has gone undercover to trick a person into putting a sex toy into their mouth.
This is not journalism, it’s pranking.
He’s a prankster plain and simple. Cohen is the rich person’s Logan Paul, and he’s just as repellant, just as much of an abscess putrefying in the belly of free speech. He may as well be a sleazeball sitting behind you on an airplane, snapping pictures of you sleeping with your mouth open or your fly undone and uploading it to the Cloud.
Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t report the news, he makes it happen. Literally.