To Be Gay in Alabama: Sacha Baron Cohen in the Heart of Dixie

Seriously, what is it with Sacha Baron Cohen, homosexuality, and the state of Alabama?

Seriously, what is it with Sacha Baron Cohen, homosexuality, and the state of Alabama?

Exhibit A: Season 1, Episode 6 of Da Ali G show, in which Baron Cohen’s flamboyantly gay character Brüno attends a football game at the University of Alabama. Location: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Original air date: March 28, 2003.

Exhibit B: The ending of Talladega Nights, in which Baron Cohen’s flamboyantly gay character Jean Girard gets a big kiss from Will Ferrel. Location: Talladega Speedway, Lincoln, Alabama. Theatrical release date: August 4, 2006.

Exhibit C: A large portion of the Bruno feature film, in which Baron Cohen’s flamboyantly gay character Brüno attempts to be cured of his homosexuality by visiting with pastors, training with the army, and learning martial arts. Location: Anniston, Alabama (at least for the army scene). Theatrical release date: July 10, 2009.


Granted, Baron Cohen has made satire hash out of other locations in the Deep South, but Alabama seems to be his go-to place for juxtaposing homosexuality against Middle America.

Is this “fair”? Is Alabama really that unfriendly of a place for gays? Well, Out magazine once listed Alabama as the least gay-friendly state in the nation, and this analysis on Five Thirty Eight places Alabama at next-to-last (another example of Thank God for Mississippi, it would appear). But I doubt Baron Cohen had to consult studies or surveys to find a place in the United States that is particularly intolerant of homosexuality. More importantly, Baron Cohen probably didn’t have to consult studies or surveys to find a place in the United States that other parts of the country (and the world) would instantly recognize as being intolerant of homosexuality. In other words, for many observers, not just for Sacha Baron Cohen, Alabama is the go-to place for intolerance of all sorts.

This has always bothered me. As some of you may remember from a previous article, I grew up in the aforementioned state of Alabama and, though I was on the receiving end of a fair deal of racism growing up, I still reluctantly defend its people when others attempt to apply the most extreme stereotypes to the state or, as in the case of Baron Cohen, repeatedly use Alabama as a go-to place for intolerance. And I do this all without defending the intolerant and bigoted actions and expressions of those Alabamians depicted in Borat and Bruno.

alabamaThat’s my take on this. I’m obviously biased, so I want to take this opportunity to hear from you, the readers, who come from a wide range of places both within the United States and elsewhere, on this idea of a “go-to place for intolerance” in general, as well as your specific impressions on the state of Alabama and whether it’s worthy of the repeated mocking at the hands of Sacha Baron Cohen and others. Am I being too sensitive? Do you or people around you get the impression from various portrayals in the popular culture that all of Alabama and the Deep South is a cesspool of bigotry?

And be honest. If you’ve lived your whole life thinking that Alabama is overrun by gun toting anti-Semites, I want to hear that too, but more importantly, I want to hear how you got that impression, especially if it came from pop culture.

9 Comments on “To Be Gay in Alabama: Sacha Baron Cohen in the Heart of Dixie”

  1. Gab #

    I was probably too young to see it at the time, but I watched “Mississippi Burning” with my mom when I was… well… I wasn’t even ten yet. She made lots of effort to point out how even though the majority of the whites in the film were intolerably intolerable, not everyone was like that, so I shouldn’t assume all of Mississippi is comprised of racists and jerkwads. That became a catalyst for my thinking about the South in general (and other groups, places, etc. that get stereotyped or labeled in one large lump sum), so whenever I *do* see the stereotypes, hear the generalizations, I’m quick to bring up a counter-example or argue against whatever I had heard, even if it’s just something in my head (like when I’m watching a movie). And I think that was my mom’s goal in showing it to me in the first place. (She did something similar with “Shindler’s List,” too…)

    And no, it isn’t just Americans that see the South as a cesspool of intolerance. There was a special “Top Gear” where the guys came across the pond and drove through the South, doing everything they could to incite anger and beef up the stereotypes- they got shot at, at one point, and while it was funny, the fact that 1) they had the leading to the reaction and 2) the reaction actually happened are kind of self-feeding. The stereotype they tested wouldn’t exist if people didn’t react that way, but people wouldn’t react that way if they weren’t tested. On the international level, this kind of troubles me because when people from other countries think of American “accents,” they fall back on Southern ones. So if they stereotype the South as being homophobic and bigoted, does this mean they’re stereotyping *all* of the United States in this way when they pick up a drawl, too?

    Anyhoo, I think it all has a deep historical basis, going back to colonial times. It’s more easily understood in the context of the Civil War because the lines were literally drawn, but the cultural, social, and economic differences between the North and the South have been going on for ages; and the eye of history makes the South look like it’s always at least a little behind. A pop culture example is in the John Adams book/miniseries (HIIIIIGHLY recommend both). The Adamses, a Northern family, were VERY uncomfortable with how the White House had been built by slaves, but it was totally okay with the Washingtons, a Southern family. So I guess what I’m saying is that since “historically” the South has had it “wrong,” it becomes the butt of many jokes about progressiveness and the scapegoat when there is a desire to cite bigotry or violence in America today. Is this fair? Most likely no, especially since even saying “the South” itself sort of undermines any diversity (even if it’s limited); but the English language, at least, doesn’t really have the words necessary to avoid speaking in broad terms without adding tons of extra modifiers and such to statements. To play Devil’s Advocate a little, every region in the U.S. gets stereotyped. But to counter that, I don’t think there’s any denying how the labels and presumptions about the South are the most negative.


  2. Matt #

    Yes, as a kid born in South Carolina, who lived in Georgia for most of his life, it really irks me to see both of my home states portrayed the way they are. Granted, like you mention, racist/homophobic people do exist in the South, but that’s all that exists in culture. One particular offender that bothers me is Family Guy. But, one-dimensional stereotypes are pretty much the name of the game on Family Guy these days, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.


  3. Saint #

    I was born and raised in Lexington, SC, and my experience is that the rural south is exactly as violent and terrifying as everyone thinks it is. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, Philly and Chicago, and nowhere did I fear for my life like I did in South Carolina.


  4. TheGryphon #

    As a life-long Mississippi resident (go dawgs), I have to say that most people have the wrong idea. Maybe I just live in a reasonably sane place, a university town, but there are a fair number of “out” gays here, and they don’t seem any more oppressed than, say, the average Indian (Asian Indian, not Native American) student. Besides which, there are lots of buys (and girls, I assume) on the “Down Low”. I really don’t think attitudes here or in Alabama are that different from most of America, at least in the under 40 crowd. Race and sexual orientation may be the things that get the older generation excited, but it leaves most of us cold.


  5. Hazbaz #

    Sasha Baron Cohen is from the UK, and over here the general perception of the Southern states is that they all kind of blur together into the Hicksville stereotype exacerbated by things like Bruno.
    Whether this image is warrented or not, my guess is that Baron Cohen’s main motivation is to provide comedy, and it may be that he got such powerful reactions from Alabamans the first time he tried his schtick there, and that is why he has returned time and again. I don’t think this has anything to do with Alabama in particular.


  6. bitttergradstudent #

    I always thought this concept is a way for people in other places to pretend that racism doesn’t exist where THEY live. “See! We’re not Alabama! Ergo, we’re not racist HERE!” You see this dynamic in the North and in California a lot, I think (at least from what I’ve noticed while living in the midwest and interacting with people from CA).


  7. Marmaduke #

    I spent my middle and high school years in a very small ‘hick’ town in rural Pennsylvania. I believe some people actually described it as ‘Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle’ or something to that effect. And sure the place was small ( you could drive through it in literally 10 minutes if you hit all the streetlights at red), and yeah the high school wasn’t exactly churning out engineers and physicists, and I’ll even go so far as to admitting that I never liked the place all that much myself, but I still get bothered by comments people from larger cities make and I find the need to defend it against pretty valid points. I think what I’m trying to say here is that despite the truth in what some these stereotypes portray it’s natural to feel defensive when people make these assumptions. It’s similar to the feeling you get when a stranger makes fun of your brother for something you’ve always teased him about. That person doesn’t know your brother and therefore doesn’t have the priviledge to do so. Hopefully I explained that better than I think I did.

    But in regards to these stereotypes I think it’s less about thinking that EVERYONE who lives in Alabama is an unsophisticated racist and more about how much the unsophisticated racists that live in Alabama (as much of a minority as they may or may not be) can affect one’s lifestyle there. This is just from my outsider’s perspective so feel free to correct. But the way I see it Alabama’s population is so much smaller than a lot of the places I’m used to going and hearing about so even if they have the same amount of racists as other states I think their actions would stand out more and I also feel like they’d get away with things more easily. So while most people in Alabama aren’t racist, those that are can go about with their agenda with little or no reparcussions as long as they stay out of everyone’s way. That’s just how I view most of the southern states as far as racism goes.

    But with the media I really couldn’t give you a specific area from which my stereotypes about Alabama evolved. They’re everywhere! Maybe the typical “Ah’m from Aylahbayma’ sounded a lot more catchy than the other go-to states for that kind of comedy and so people just kept using it till it became synonymous with intolerance.

    I’ll end my ramblings with a little piece from Kanye West’s New Work Out Plan:

    My name is Alamae from Mobille, Alabama
    and I just want to say since listenin’ to Kanye’s workout tape
    I been able to date outside the family, I got a double wide
    And I rode a plane.


  8. O'Brian McGinnis #

    Hey there. I stumbled upon this site somehow. I am a gay 23 year old man that was born and raised right outside of Mobile, Alabama. My parents closed on our house the night before I was born. I am also a May ’09 graduate from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama which is about 3 hours north of my hometown. Just wanted to give a little bit about myself.

    About the topic of being gay in Alabama. I feel people’s misconception of the South, particularly Alabama, is that everyone here is behind the times and ignorant. While this stereotype is true for some, it is not true for most. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I have not had my moments where I have heard slurs thrown around in my direction, but I have also heard them when visiting NYC.

    The people here in Alabama are, simply put, hard working people. I feel this is where this stereotype plays in. People work hard to provide for their families here so they don’t care too much for material as much as the substance of a person, their family and quite frankly, their college football team. In order to address the problem, one must take a look at the people.

    Residents here do not necessarily take the time to observe the latest trends and the latest issues that used to be taboo. This is not a bad thing. I see it as ideas transferring from older generations to younger. It is kind of like a liberal/conservative parent expressing their views to their children and the children take on the ideals of their parents.

    I am starting to see a different trend arise from my generation though. They may take on these ideas of previous generations, but they are also not afraid to challenge what they have been taught. For instance, one of my best friends from college loves me and accepts my being gay, but she does not agree with homosexuality or the homosexuality of others. Who am I to blame her for her beliefs when honestly, that would be hypocritical of me. For me not to accept her views would be like me getting mad at her for not agreeing with mine. A sense of understanding is starting to take shape here in the South, particularly Alabama, with college aged people.

    Alabama has it’s fair share of different type of gay men and women. I grew up playing baseball for 8 years. When I got to high school, I was in the band and I also cheered for an All-Star squad. I recieved my B.A. in Communications with a concentration in advertising. I paint and I also make jewelry. I absolutely love Alabama football (Roll Tide) and want to see SEC teams win over non-SEC teams. I drink beer and do not like wine. I like the theatre and I danced for two years in college. I think you catch my drift.

    As far as Cohen’s films are concerned, I dislike them tremendously. He provokes these people too far while being disrespectful to them first. In no way do I feel that getting back at someone is validated because they started it, but we all know that it does happen. I am speaking of Borat because I can’t bring myself to see Bruno. I have watched the clip of him at The University of Alabama’s game. I am offended by the comments of the fans, but I am also offended by him.

    I don’t know why he feels that Alabama is the harbor or hate. I have seen it happen here but then again, I have also been recieved and welcomed by so many people who know me for who I am and love me regardless. I feel that in order for this situation to get better, the issues need to be addressed in a different manner than Cohen has tried to address them. It is a serious topic that does not need to be turned into comedy. That is how I feel those who are bigots find it okay to continue with those actions.


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