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.

Most Popular

White House

Implications of the Flynn Pardon

President Trump granted a pardon to Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser, today. Flynn had pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about conversations, during the 2016 transition, with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn’s pardon should bring to an end one gross violation of the ... Read More
White House

Implications of the Flynn Pardon

President Trump granted a pardon to Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser, today. Flynn had pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about conversations, during the 2016 transition, with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Flynn’s pardon should bring to an end one gross violation of the ... Read More

The Imaginary Trump

Like Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump is man who represents the age in which he lived. Whatever you may think of the age. Jackson embodied a generation of men who had risen and made their mark in a young country. He represented their desire for greater representation, even if it had costs for slaves and Indians. He ... Read More

The Imaginary Trump

Like Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump is man who represents the age in which he lived. Whatever you may think of the age. Jackson embodied a generation of men who had risen and made their mark in a young country. He represented their desire for greater representation, even if it had costs for slaves and Indians. He ... Read More
History

Thanksgiving Is Not a Lie

We live in a time of heedless iconoclasm, and so one of the country’s oldest traditions is under assault. Thanksgiving is increasingly portrayed as, at best, based on falsehoods and, at worst, a whitewash of genocide against Native Americans. The New York Times ran a piece the other day titled, “The ... Read More
History

Thanksgiving Is Not a Lie

We live in a time of heedless iconoclasm, and so one of the country’s oldest traditions is under assault. Thanksgiving is increasingly portrayed as, at best, based on falsehoods and, at worst, a whitewash of genocide against Native Americans. The New York Times ran a piece the other day titled, “The ... Read More
Economy & Business

Shopping Superstitions

It’s the boss-bossiest time of the year, when Americans getting ready to open up their wallets to buy Christmas presents are lectured by illiterate halfwits about where and how to spend their money. The usual demands: Buy local, or buy from small businesses. This is pure nonsense, and you should feel free to ... Read More
Economy & Business

Shopping Superstitions

It’s the boss-bossiest time of the year, when Americans getting ready to open up their wallets to buy Christmas presents are lectured by illiterate halfwits about where and how to spend their money. The usual demands: Buy local, or buy from small businesses. This is pure nonsense, and you should feel free to ... Read More
Film & TV

Bowing Down to Obama

‘How can we miss you when you won’t go away?” political podcaster Yvette Carnell joked two years ago when Barack Obama began his comeback tour by making sideline pronouncements about the state of the nation after his brief retirement. Now the comeback is official, with two new Kool-Aid-drinker Obama ... Read More
Film & TV

Bowing Down to Obama

‘How can we miss you when you won’t go away?” political podcaster Yvette Carnell joked two years ago when Barack Obama began his comeback tour by making sideline pronouncements about the state of the nation after his brief retirement. Now the comeback is official, with two new Kool-Aid-drinker Obama ... Read More
Culture

On Being Grateful

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range ... Read More
Culture

On Being Grateful

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range ... Read More
U.S.

Gratitude: What We Owe to Our Country

Editor’s Note: The following essay by National Review founder William F. Buckley comes from the first chapter of his 1990 book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. I have always thought Anatole France’s story of the juggler to be one of enduring moral resonance. This is the arresting and ... Read More
U.S.

Gratitude: What We Owe to Our Country

Editor’s Note: The following essay by National Review founder William F. Buckley comes from the first chapter of his 1990 book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. I have always thought Anatole France’s story of the juggler to be one of enduring moral resonance. This is the arresting and ... Read More