Film & TV

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Sexual Harassment, in the Me Too Era

Sacha Baron Cohen at the premiere of The Brothers Grimsby in 2016. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
‘Just joking’ is not an excuse.

‘I was just joking.”

One common tactic of sexual predation is the perpetrator’s casual dismissal of the victims’ claims by waving a hand in the air and claiming to be kidding. Not only is it hard to combat — who defines humor? — the dismissal also paints the victim as a prude. No one wants to be either a victim or a prude. Consequently, “Can’t you take a joke?” turns out to be a predator’s pretty effective line of defense. Apparently calling sexual harassment “satire” not only gets you a free pass, it sometimes gets you famous.

Take Sacha Baron Cohen. He rose to stardom through the British television series Da Ali G Show, which aired on HBO from 2000 to 2004. In it, Cohen posed as three equally ridiculous characters: the gay Austrian fashion commentator Brüno Gehard, the Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev, and the ever-posing hip-hop personality Ali G. Cohen frequently pretends he doesn’t speak English proficiently, because Americans tend to want to help people who don’t communicate well in the language. He puts unassuming celebrities into awkward situations by making outrageous comments and broadcasting the ensuing “hilarity.”

He’s at it again. Showtime’s Who Is America? is a seven-part series that explores “the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown, across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate our unique nation.” Though the series debuted only this past Sunday, pundits are already aflutter over the people he reportedly duped in upcoming shows. He got former vice president Dick Cheney to autograph a “waterboard kit.” Then he posed as a disabled veteran (fake wheelchair and all) to score an interview with Sarah Palin, whom he asked perverse questions about Chelsea Clinton.

But should Cohen have a platform at all? Is his shtick “entertainment,” or can we finally admit it’s something else?

I’ll put it bluntly: It’s time for him to deal honestly with the filmed sexual harassment of Texas congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul during a 2008 interview. If you didn’t see this scene in his Bruno movie, I can assure you it was hard to watch. Cohen’s people requested a simple interview about Austrian economics. The GOP candidate arrived at the studio and exchanged pleasantries with the man he thought was his Austrian host. (Cohen is British.) Then a few seconds into the conversation, a light goes out. Cohen suggests that Paul go into another room to wait.

It turns out to be a hotel room. There are no chairs, so Paul sits on the bed. The lighting is low. Cohen offers Paul champagne, which he politely declines. Strawberries and caviar are set on a table. He takes off his jacket and compliments Paul’s “cute” appearance.

The 73-year-old congressman, who had been politely making small talk, starts to get uncomfortable. He gets quiet and perturbed when Cohen turns out a lamp, puts on sexual music, and begins to dance suggestively. Paul physically walks away from him. A secret camera catches him looking around, but there’s nowhere to go. Cohen has blocked the door, gyrating to the music. Paul picks up a newspaper and pretends to read it. Finally, Cohen unbuckles his belt and drops his pants.

When Paul looks up and sees Cohen in form-fitting violet satin underwear, he drops the paper and storms to the door. Bruno blocks his exit. “Get outta here,” an agitated Paul yells, waving him off. Secret cameras in the hallway catch the obviously upset Paul trying to explain to his aides what happened. Since Paul didn’t know that this was satire, his feelings of being fooled by a sexual predator were real.

That Showtime is elevating Sacha Baron Cohen in spite of the success of the Me Too movement is a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve been in the same situation as Ron Paul — tricked by people with evil intent into an uncomfortable, sexually charged situation.

Which is exactly why Showtime should not give Cohen this new platform.

Luring someone into a sexually uncomfortable situation is not acceptable — not for Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, or Sacha Baron Cohen. The Me Too movement’s principles of consent are not suspended when someone thinks it’d be funny to use sexuality as a tool.

Here’s a quick tutorial, for cable execs who haven’t been paying attention to the news. You can’t make sexual moves toward a person who doesn’t want them. You can’t undress in front of them. You can’t make sexual allusions.

Satire doesn’t suspend consent. That Showtime is elevating Sacha Baron Cohen in spite of the success of the Me Too movement is a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve been in precisely the same situation as Ron Paul — tricked by people with evil intent into an uncomfortable, sexually charged situation.

Actual, true sexual predators use the “I’m just joking” excuse to cover unimaginable horrors. So does Cohen. His “humor” relies on the fact that his victims can’t tell the difference.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.

Nancy French — Nancy French is a three-time New York Times best-selling author and a longtime contributor to National Review Online.

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