There’s the Bechdel Test and then there’s the Vito Russo Test. Where the Bechdel Test evaluates the portrayal of women in film, the Vito Russo Test examines the representation of the LGBTQ community in movies. The test was applied to the movies from this year’s summer box office season and the results did not indicate a pass with flying colors. In fact, they barely left the ground.
Named after the GLAAD co-founder, film historian and author of The Celluloid Closet, the Vito Russo Test aims to help guide more multi-dimensional LGBTQ characters while also providing a barometer for proper representation. With it, GLAAD hopes to set a standard for LGBTQ portrayals in film. The test includes the following criteria:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- The character must be integral to the plot in a way where their removal would have a significant effect on the movie. In other words, they are not the “sassy gay friend”, the constant punchline of a joke or an object of tokenism to add color.
In May, GLAAD released its fifth annual Studio Responsibility Index that looked back at the 125 films released by the seven major studios in the U.S. during the 2016 calendar year. Out of those, 23 included characters who were identifiably LGBTQ. To add to that, nearly half of those characters were on screen for less than a minute. When the films were put through the Vito Russo Test, only 9 of those films passed.
GLAAD then took a snapshot of the summer box office season, putting 25 major studio films released between June 1 and September 1 through the Vito Russo trials. Some films may have been LGBTQ-friendly and left the door open for queer characters to be featured in future installments, but only two films passed: Sony’s Rough Night and Lionsgate’s Hazlo Como Hombre.
Rough Night wasn’t exactly a runaway hit when it comes to raunchy comedies, but when it came to LGBTQ characters it gave notable non-stereotypical portrayals. Ilana Glazer and Zoe Kravitz played the characters of Frankie and Blair, respectively, former college girlfriends who broke up and then reunited for their friend’s bachelorette party trip. While on the trip, they reconnect and realize they are still in love. It’s refreshing, stays away from tokenism, avoids tropes, and is a relationship that isn’t played out for the male gaze.
Although filled with homophobic language that serves as a punchline, the Spanish-language film Hazlo Como Hombre (Do It Like an Hombre) passed the Vito Russo test. In it, Mauricio Ochmann plays Raul, a man who goes into a gay panic when his best friend Santiago comes out and breaks off his engagement to Raul’s sister. The comedy is filled with LGBTQ jokes about Raul being grossed out about Santiago’s orientation. With riffs on anal sex, dropping the soap in the shower, and conversion therapy, the movie seems like it is in the wrong decade — but it miraculously passed the test. Homophobia and all.
Also included in GLAAD’s summer film study were Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, Cars 3, Girls Trip, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, All Eyez on Me, Despicable Me 3, The House, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk and a whole list of other movies that included elements of diversity and inclusion, but didn’t satisfy the Vito Russo Test.
Two movies in particular — both of the comic book world — leaned into the test, but didn’t quite hit the mark. Spider-Man: Homecoming made headlines for having a fair share of people of color in lead and supporting roles. As socially aware and diverse as it was, there were no characters that identified as LGBTQ. However, there may be one LGBTQ character in the movie during a scene when Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) is playing “F*ck Marry Kill” with a group of friends. It is suggested that during the game, her friend (J.J. Totah) might be of the LGBTQ persuasion, but he is barely on screen. This might be a set up to the sequel to the film where he may have a bigger role. That said, the Marvel Cinematic Universe may be opening itself up to be Vito Russo-friendly with their future movies.
Fans are aware that there are many LGBTQ heroes on the pages of the actual Marvel comics. In the highly anticipated Thor:Ragnarok, there is a character named Krog who, in the Hulk comics, dates Thor’s friend Hiroim. Both are men. We’ll have to wait until November to see if this same-sex relationship will appear onscreen. Another storyline that can put the MCU on the good side of the Vito Russo Test is the upcoming Black Panther. In footage screened for press, there was one scene that suggests a romantic relationship between two women. One of the characters, Ayo, is featured in the comic book World of Wakanda which centers on her relationship with another member of the Dora Milaje, the all-female group of bodyguards that protects the King. Even so, Marvel went on record saying that the storyline was not based on the World of Wakanda book, which has since been canceled. If this is true, this may have been a missed opportunity for the MCU.
The record-breaking comic book blockbuster Wonder Woman is definitely LGBTQ-friendly seeing that the comics’ current run has the Amazonian Princess identifying as bisexual, according to writer Greg Rucka. Still, as LGBTQ-suggestive as the movie is, it does not pass the Vito Russo Test. As soon as the movie was released, there was no shortage of lesbian jokes about Princess Diana’s Amazonian island of Themyscira, which was built by women for women. People either crack jokes about it or women see it as a man-less utopia where everything is perfect. Joking aside, the movie hints at relationships between women on the island but never commits to having a character as gay. Again, this may be a foundation to build on for a more fleshed out LGBTQ story for the sequel.
Like the Bechdel Test, the Vito Russo Test encourages multi-dimensional representation of a marginalized group. It isn’t necessarily a device to police Hollywood with orders to include LGBTQ characters in all movies. Rather, it is a guide for how to portray them without falling into tropes and stereotypes. Furthermore, it helps expand the LGBTQ narrative to reflect the real world and diversify cinema. We’ve seen it in the past decade with films like Moonlight, The Handmaiden, A Single Man, The Kids Are All Right, The Imitation Game, Tangerine, and Carol. Even so, those movies don’t reach the masses like comic book blockbusters and rom-coms. The Vito Russo Test and GLAAD hope to make mult-dimensional LGBTQ portrayals less niche and part of mainstream cinema.