Taking inspiration from the “Bechdel Test,” which examines the way female characters are portrayed and situated within a narrative, GLAAD developed its own set of criteria to analyze how LGBT characters are included within a film. The Vito Russo Test takes its name from celebrated film historian and GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo, whose book The Celluloid Closet remains a foundational analysis of LGBT portrayals in Hollywood film. These criteria can help guide filmmakers to create more multidimensional characters while also providing a barometer for representation on a wide scale. This test represents a standard GLAAD expects a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films to reach in the future.
To pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. they are comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight/non-transgender characters from one another).
- The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect, meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character must matter.
Only 8 of the 22 (36%) inclusive major studio films passed the Vito Russo Test this year, the lowest percentage in this study’s history, compared to 11 of 20 (55%) inclusive films released in 2014, 7 of 17 (41%) in 2013, and 6 out of 14 (43%) inclusive films released in 2012. This is a significant drop from the previous year when just over half of the inclusive films passed. There is clearly much room for industry improvement. More films need to include substantial LGBT characters that pass this simple test. However, as several of the films tracked prove, passing this test in no way guarantees that a film is not problematic or offensive in its portrayal of LGBT people.