Taking inspiration from the Bechdel Test, which examines the way women characters are portrayed and situated within a narrative, GLAAD developed its own set of criteria to analyze how LGBTQ characters are included in 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 the bedrock for analysis of early LGBTQ portrayals in Hollywood film. These criteria can help filmmakers create more multidimensional characters while providing a barometer for LGBTQ film representation. This test represents an expectation and standard, providing a roadmap for a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films to reach and ultimately exceed.
More films need to include substantial LGBTQ characters that pass this simple test. However, as several of the films tracked this year prove, passing this test does not guarantee that a film is free of problems, offensive in its portrayals or tropes. Some examples of films which have passed the test, but which still contain offensive content include previous releases Zoolander 2, Hazlo Como Hombre, CHiPS and this year’s The Gentlemen. All of these films included LGBTQ characters tied to the film’s plot, but whose stories were objectionable. Passing the Vito Russo Test is a first step, rather than the finish line.
For a film to pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer.
- 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/cisgender characters from one another).
- The LGBTQ character must be tied to the plot in such a way that the character’s removal would have a significant effect, meaning the character is not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or set up a punchline. The character must matter.