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 gets 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.
However, as several past tracked films prove, simply including significant LGBTQ characters does not guarantee that a film is free of problems or tropes and inoffensive in its portrayals. Some examples of films that have passed the Vito Russo Test in prior years but still contain offensive content include Zoolander 2, Hazlo Como Hombre, CHiPS, and The Gentlemen. All of these films included significant LGBTQ characters intrinsically tied to the film’s plot, but whose stories were objectionable.
As we have seen the industry change in recent years with more LGBTQ characters appearing on screen, it is clear that it is time for us too to change and update our test. In the vein of constant evolution, this year we have introduced a fourth point in the Vito Russo Test.
This test remains an evaluation of the minimal representation expected,and also provides a roadmap for a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films to reach and ultimately exceed. 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.
- The LGBTQ character’s story must not be outwardly offensive (avoids defaulting to well-known tropes or stereotypes with no further development). In films with multiple LGBTQ characters, at least one character must pass this point for the film to pass the test.