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What is the Vito Russo Test and Why Does it Matter to LGBT Film?

Most folks have heard of the Bechdel Test, a three-point media test created in 1985 by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her famous strip Dykes to Watch For. It has three criteria:

  1. A film or TV show has at least two women…
  2. … who talk to each other…
  3. … about something other than a man.

The test isn’t a way to determine how “feminist” a piece of media is. Rather, it’s just a way to get people thinking about the roles women play in TV and film. So while only 53 percent of 1,794 mainstream films released between 1970 and 2013 pass the Bechdel test, the test can fail films even if they have strong female leads (like Gravity).

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Alison Bechdel explains the “Bechdel Test” in her 1985 comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”.

So if the Bechdel Test is a way to think about women’s roles in film, then the Vito Russo Test is a way to reconsider queer roles in film. The test is named after the activist and historian who literally wrote the book on LGBT film, The Celluloid Closet. Russo’s 1981 chronicle of LGBT depictions in film was later adapted into an award-winning 1995 documentary of the same name, and it covers the transition of LGBT characters from “sissies” in early black-and-white films, to “gay-encoded” characters during the censorious Hays Code days, to villainous depictions which continued into the ’90s.

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Though we have more complex depictions LGBT life in contemporary film, many films still use LGBT characters as comic relief or one-dimension sidekicks rather than as lead or complex characters. The Vito Russo Test examines this tendency with its three criteria:

  1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
  2. The character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  3. The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.

GLAAD came up with this test in 2013 and Russo might have approved, though we’ll never know because he died of AIDS in 1990. Nevertheless, GLAAD’s recent report found that only 36 percent of 126 releases from the major studios in 2015 passed this test.

GLAAD’s larger aim is to illustrate the damaging and violent effects of marginalizing LGBT characters in film. When we’re reduced to punchlines or punching bags (as seen in GLAAD’s 2015 video above), it reinforces the idea that we’re less than human and easy targets for ridicule and violence.

The same sort of dehumanization occurs in Asian roles with Asians being stereotyped as unsexy nerds; the depiction of Asians as undesirable bookworms ends up in the Asian roles being scarce, one-dimensional and altogether erased as “bigger name” White actors get asked to play Far Eastern characters.

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GLAAD’s hashtag #HollywoodMustDoBetter and their recommendations to major film studios include this revolutionary idea:

“Films must do better to include LGBT characters in roles directly tied to plot and which reflect the wide diversity of our community, including people of color, those living with disabilities, and a variety of geographical and ideological backgrounds.”

Imagine seeing a disabled, rural, conservative queer person in a lead role. Studio execs would probably find such a character “alienating” or “unmarketable”, but audiences could see it “groundbreaking” and “refreshingly new” — both worthwhile acclaims for film and art in general.