Brno reignites the pinkface debate

As gay-themed films Brno and Humpday hit theaters, TONY weighs in on the drama behind the comedy.

What’s been happening?
Brno—in which a straight Sacha Baron Cohen plays a flamingly gay Austrian fashion reporter—is the latest film to be accused of making fun of the queer community, drawing the accusation of being pinkface. The epithet is a recent addition to the cinematic lexicon: simply put, it’s a riff on the term blackface. It carries the same pejorative connotations but applies to straight actors taking on gay roles. Blackface has long gone the way of anti-miscegenation laws, yet Prop 8 is still with us. Is being gay the new black?

As reported in various news sources, including The New York Times, the Huffington Post and Hollywood blog The Wrap, Brno has been courting controversy since early previews and press screenings. As with his previous smash, Borat, Baron Cohen has gotten no small amount of flack for his satirical work; then, it was for anti-Semitism.


Last month, The Wrap reported that gay celebrities at an event honoring Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black compared Baron Cohen’s flouncy depiction of a homosexual to a white person appearing in blackface. Black himself should be familiar with the pinkface debate: It surfaced after last year’s release of Milk, when Gus Van Sant cast Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S. Van Sant (a director noted for being out and proud) was forced to defend his choice of a heterosexual lead; he said he’d considered gay actors, but that there were “not that many of box-office stature.”

Brokeback Mountain

When a straight actor like Penn is let off the hook for portraying a gay character, it’s often referred to as 'gay for pay.’ Without it, we wouldn’t have the likes of Desert Hearts, Bound, High Art, Mulholland Drive, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain or My Beautiful Laundrette. The argument against Brno—that only gay actors can play gay characters—is absurd; by that logic, only straight actors could play straight characters. Where would that leave that hot mess from Top Gun? (We’re referring to Kelly McGillis, who recently came out.) Should Baron Cohen only play straight, British characters? Of course not. That’s why it’s called acting, people.

Straight guilt
Even so, any good, liberal heterosexual might feel a twinge of guilt from laughing at the mincing Baron Cohen. It’s a golden rule of comedy that you’re given more license to send up your own ethnic group or sexual orientation than those of others. Thus, when Brno refers to one of his favorite body parts as his “Auschwitz,” the Jewish Baron Cohen’s on much firmer ground (one could argue) than when he launches a dildo machine toward someone’s butt. Which isn’t to say he shouldn’t push the envelope: The genius of Baron Cohen is that he breaks taboos precisely by pretending to be something—a lowbrow, tracksuited interviewer, a gay fashionista—that he’s not. This is why he’s so open to criticism and, paradoxically, so hugely successful.


I Love You Man

Do goofy bromances count as antigay too?
Like Brno, Humpday—a movie about two straight friends who decide to have sex for a porn-film festival—came up against similar charges of homophobia from audiences when it premiered at Sundance (as noted on Spoutblog and indieWIRE. The backlash is perplexing, given that its two gay supporting characters, Monica (director Lynn Shelton) and Lily (Trina Willard), come across as effortlessly cool. While this alone isn’t enough to exonerate the film from charges of homophobia, the fact is that the heterosexuals, not the gay characters, are the ones who are made to look ridiculous. Ovulation is the cue to initiate wobbly, animal-like sex for married, wanna-be breeder Anna (Alycia Delmore), while Ben (Mark Duplass) admits that his biggest fear is to have sex with another man. That’s right: not cancer, not nuclear holocaust, but gay sex. This anxiety, though, is nothing new in the bromance genre; just look at I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or I Love You, Man. The makers of Chuck actually went as far as to consult GLAAD and the gay community, as did those involved with Brno’s production. Even after consulting GLAAD, though, Chuck is still a big, steaming pile of homophobic nonsense. But that’s what happens with a First Amendment that’s worth protecting; putting films in the hands of social and political groups comes with inherent dangers of going too far into groupthink.

What now?
Curious? Bicurious? Omnicurious? Check out Vito Russo’s excellent book The Celluloid Closet, which documents gay Hollywood from the unspoken homochemistry of films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ben-Hur (to think that Charlton Heston had no idea!) to the bowdlerized lesbian love scene in The Color Purple. The depiction of gay characters and gay-themed subject matter in movies has been subject to open (and closeted) debate since Hollywood’s day one. As for Brno, let’s just hope that folks in Peoria recognize satire when they see it. It’s hard to miss in those yellow lederhosen.


Read our Q&A with Brno here.

Read TONY’s reviews of Brno and Humpday.

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