Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat

The Agony and Ecstasy of Watching "Borat" When Your Brain Breaks

You've certainly said "my wife!" in a Borat voice, but have you actually watched the movie? Perhaps now is the time.

by Sophie Kemp
Mar 22 2020, 9:30am

Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat

As is a rite of passage, I lost my mind when I was 19. Not in like, a cute way. I don’t mean that I suddenly became a party girl, or decided to get into making bad performance art. I basically felt like my brain was falling out of my ears at all times. I completely stopped sleeping but could not get out of bed, and was constantly twitching, hallucinating, or dissociating as a side effect from taking a lot of sleeping pills. I would be sitting in what I will refer to as “Statistics for Artists,” and would feel like I was on Mars. I’d go out to the burger spot on campus with my friends and would sit in silence the entire time because I didn’t know if anything was real.

What I’m trying to say is that it was the worst year of my entire life by far, and even though this happened to me over five years ago it still haunts me in almost every aspect of my life. Every time I get less than six hours of sleep I start to wonder if I will go back to that period of time when I would do stuff like, lie down on a snowbank for 45 minutes because “the cold felt good,” or if I will take my bed off of its metal risers because “I feel safer on the ground.” Eventually, I forced myself to develop coping skills that fell into two categories: superficial self care and literally rewiring my brain. In a few months, my head cleared out. I moved to D.C. for the summer to do an internship in public radio and started working with a new therapist. My life felt normal again. In fact it felt better than normal. I felt really good.

One of the lasting pieces of media that I associate with the end of the bad time was watching the movie Borat in my blue bathrobe while lying on my twin sized bed in the vegan housing cooperative I was living in at the time. Borat is objectively a great movie, but it is also a very fucked up movie. For starters, it is about the least politically correct film you could possibly watch. The movie is a mockumentary about a man named Borat Sagdiyev who goes on a wild and crazy journey to U.S.A. on behalf of the Kazakh Ministry of Information. He is supposed to embark on what appears to be a press tour, and the movie starts with Borat navigating New York and meeting some "feminists." The film quickly devolves and spirals out of control when Borat realizes it his destiny to meet and fall and love with (read: abduct) Pamela Anderson. Sacha Baron Cohen is in character as Borat, but pretty much everyone else in the movie is not an actor and was extremely not in on the joke. As a result, there is ample misogyny, racism, classism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. I cannot stress enough that Borat is not an easy movie to watch if you understandably cannot stomach the above. Like shows such as Family Guy and South Park, literally the whole point of the movie is to be offensive. The thing is though, Borat is actually really smart, way smarter than any nihilistic, vaguely Trumpian cartoon starring a school-aged menace named Cartman. It's one of those movies that turns the lens back on society and makes you realize that literally everyone is an immoral asshole. The film is very much a mirror to American society in the aughts. The thesis of Borat is simple: how do you explain and sell American patriotism to an outsider you perceive to be a moron? What do you say when you let your guard down like that? The answer is basically that, well, people say wildly abhorrent things and that evangelized American patriotism can skew evil. But maybe you have not seen Borat , (yet!) and that's fine, but you almost definitely have interacted with Borat memes.

For instance, I am certain you have come into contact with someone saying “my wife!,” but you really should see the movie. The "My wife," meme was great for Borat visibility. To start, saying "my wife!" in a Borat voice is hilarious. Many of my friends are "my wife," and I am theirs. It's also a great meme because it forced the movie Borat to re-enter the zeitgeist. I felt very lonely being a female Borat lover in 2016, but I don't feel that way now, and I'm happy that people can share in the solace of repeat Borat viewings as a form of "self care." I would liken the experience of repeat viewings of the movie Borat to repeat viewings of the show The Office. You become cozy with the film’s cast of characters after a while. When Borat and his partner-in-crime Azamat fight naked in a hotel, for example, on viewing number five you begin to say stuff like “ah, old chaps at it again!” Eventually, watching Borat learn what “not” jokes are or go to the rodeo and sing the Kazakh national anthem starts to feel like home. It feels like watching a mukbang video or listening to “The Daily.” It begins to just become background noise.

In effect, it’s really good to watch if you feel like you have no control over your life or your brain. In the years that have followed since I went off of the metaphorical deep end, I’ve watched Borat in scenarios such as “being mad at an ex boyfriend,” “writing my senior capstone in college about a different ex boyfriend,” and “being mad at my parents while on spring break.” I am absolutely positive I will watch the movie Borat in the next few weeks. Not to be dramatic but it feels like the world is falling apart, and I know that the only superficial thing that can calm me down is knowing that Borat’s wife was killed by a bear in the movie Borat. Maybe you will find solace in this movie, too. Sometimes, it is the most objectively fucked up forms of media that make us feel the most like ourselves. At least it feels that way to me.

Sasha Baron Cohen