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The Time of ‘My Wife’

Led by Maria Bakalova’s star turn as Borat’s daughter Tutar, the franchise that sparked a million wife jokes reveals a surprising feminist streak — and atones for the original

Borat is almost surely the genesis of the “Wife Guy” meme. From the character’s first appearances in Da Ali G Show in the early aughts, through the mega-success of Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 feature mockumentary, the fictional, bumbling Kazakh reporter shoehorned inappropriate references to “mah wiiife” into his segments and interviews whenever possible. Most often, the gag is this: Borat attempts to relate across cultures by bringing up his spouse, but invariably says something vulgar or cruel about her. She’s equal parts nagging shrew and revolting whore. Most of all, though, she is his subordinate, if not property. He scoffs at the idea of her agency.

One provocation of the Borat franchise is how it invites the primary targets — all Americans — to politely roll with his misogyny and xenophobia. The wife bits were almost too easy in this regard, since she remained a (mostly) offscreen punching bag, unable to defend herself or instill a sense of shame in the other party. These appalling anecdotes also happened to align with the ugly trope in Western humor of just plain hating your wife as a natural condition of matrimony. (“Take my wife, please!”) This could well have contributed to “my wife” becoming the film’s signature catchphrase, the words essential to any impression of Borat. He’s identified through the language of marriage.

For 2020’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Cohen has to reinvent the wheel somewhat to deliver his combination of stunts and satire. Noticeably absent are the allusions to Borat’s wife. In fact, there’s but a single mention of her, in the very beginning — right before he discovers he has a semi-feral 15-year-old daughter, Tutar, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. This revelation (“You’re the oldest unmarried woman in Kazakhstan!” Borat exclaims) and newfound relationship are what give the sequel its gender-focused arc, as Borat and Tutar are soon on a mission to marry her off to a new “owner” in the U.S., their preference being any eligible member of President Trump’s inner circle, allegedly in order to strengthen the U.S.-Kazakh alliance. In a way, Cohen has given up the original wife-insulting material to tell a story about how a woman becomes a wife, and the indignities she faces on that path.

In its broader moments, the movie shows us how “patriarchal complicity” — Hollywood Reporter critic Inkoo Kang’s phrase — allows for the open abuse and depersonalization of women. We see a man help Borat seal Tutar up in a crate against her will; later, another sells him a cage to keep her in. What’s fascinating, though, is how this mistreatment starts to meld with Tutar’s project of preparing herself to be the next “Queen Melania,” the happiest wife in the world, said to occupy a beautiful golden cage. She meets a sugar baby influencer who instructs her to be submissive, even weak. She has a complete makeover, then a consultation with a cosmetic surgeon who explains how he’ll reshape her nose and augment her breasts (and readily admits he would have sex with her, were her father not present).

In a scene that recalls the first Borat’s raunchy forays into genteel Southern society, she receives lewd praise at a debutante ball from an older man while enduring icy glares from the other young women, then ruins the event with a “fertility dance” that exposes her unshaved armpits and bloody underwear.

All the while, Tutar refers to a Kazakh “daughter owner’s manual” that conveys the need to repress women in every way: They are to remain captive and feel no pleasure, especially not the kind you give yourself. Subsequent Moviefilm’s stealthiest joke is that this exaggeratedly barbaric indoctrination, from which Tutar eventually breaks loose, has strong parallels in the marriage-industrial complex of the supposedly liberal, feminist, enlightened U.S. (where, incidentally, she’s told by an anti-abortion pastor that she cannot terminate a pregnancy even though he’s led to believe it’s the result of incest with her dad). At one point she disgusts a room of Republican women, all of them previously eager to stress their freedom and independence, by speaking about masturbation. In America, as in her little book, she receives countless signals that she’s violating gender norms, “unladylike” — which will keep her from landing a husband.

It won’t surprise you that Tutar’s journey does come to an end without a wedding. Instead, she embarks on a journalism career, in her father’s footsteps. It’s a winning rejection of the cliché, still dominant in our culture if not always its media, that “happily ever after” includes a formal set of vows and recognition of marriage by the state. But more important than Tutar choosing to get hitched or not — and we can all be grateful the prank on Rudy Giuliani didn’t go that far — is her realization, aided in part by a kind babysitter, that she needn’t conform to a brutal standard of femininity to please or attract a man. It turns out this demolition of the process by which a woman is trained to serve desire is way better than the false “girlboss” empowerment, whereby women are meant to self-actualize through financial domination while they continue to be demeaned as less than men (and faithfully replicate the toxicity of prior male leadership).

Who would have guessed it? Subsequent Moviefilm functions as, among other things, atonement for the wife-bashing of the original, with the mustachioed interloper finally confronting the injustice of gender roles alongside his teen daughter. Of course Cohen dropped the usual wife schtick this time, because the narrative explodes the lie of a woman as the one-dimensional butt of any joke, the sad appendage of a man growing increasingly irritated with her by the day. And once she’s released from that duty, she delivers a wonderful comedic performance all her own — something the boys who liked to yell “mah wiiife” could never hope to pull off.