The point of Sacha Baron Cohen’s tussle with Eminem

The hilarious and high-profile stunt orchestrated by Sacha Baron Cohen and Eminem at the 2009 MTV Movie Awards was indeed staged, but it’s still stunning. 

“As publicity stunts go, it might not have been the most imaginative, but you had to admire the precision of its execution and targeting,” writes Ben Child in The Guardian.

Child’s brilliant synopsis (which was almost as good as the real thing) describes Sacha Baron Cohen “in the guise of his flamboyantly gay fashionista alter ego Brüno” making a grand high-wire entrance “in full angel costume with a gold jockstrap and bare derrière” who lands his spread-eagled buttocks in the face of Eminem, a rapper known for his anti-gay lyrics. A disgusted Eminem shouts profanities at Bruno and then storms out of the auditorium with his bodyguards.

After it happened, the blogosphere went ballistic as to whether or not the stunt was real or staged. If it wasn’t completely authentic and improvisational, perhaps it wouldn’t have been as funny, the worries went. But when the L.A. Times reported that Scott Aukerman, the head writer of the MTV Movie Awards announced on his blog that it was all an act, the stunt gained added gravitas.

If it hadn’t been staged, it would have been the usual homophobic offensiveness that thrives in popular culture. But the fact that it was planned, purposeful and practiced is what makes it so interesting. According to Child, “If Baron Cohen’s impending film Brüno, a mockumentary about the eponymous presenter for the fictitious Austrian Gay TV, has any higher purpose beyond pure entertainment, it might be the lampooning of homophobic attitudes in the US and beyond.” The idea that one of the music industry’s most vocally anti-gay artists would participate in such a stunt proves this theory true—it wasn’t Bruno’s flaming queen being mocked, it was Eminem’s homophobia. That Eminem agreed to this kind of exposure, in which a public mockery is made of his homophobia proves Baron Cohen has something wise up his sleeve.

Baron Cohen’s characters are themselves, offensive, obnoxious and absurd. But in this case he proves even the ridiculous can have a meaningful impact.