The Vito Russo Test: Representation of LGBTQ+ People In Media

The Vito Russo Test: Representation of LGBTQ+ People In Media

Put your favorite movie or TV show to the Vito Russo Test


We all know that Hollywood has a big problem with representation. More often than not, the movies that we get on our local cinemas are all about white, heterosexual men going on adventures. And the majority of them limit the women to sensual sidekicks and the people of color as, more often than not, comic relief. It comes to us as no surprise that only 57.9% of the movies pass the Bechdel Test.

Sadly, women and people of color are not the only ones being misrepresented in films.

Let’s do an exercise: try to think of a movie with a gay character. Now let’s focus on them, what exactly is their function in the movie? Are their dialogues limited to sassy advice to the main character? Is their personality comprised of more than just their sexuality? Are they significant to the plot line of the story? Do they end up dead for the sake of shock value?

In 1981 the co-founder Vito Russo of GLAAD published "The Celluloid Closet", a book that, to this day, remains a foundational analysis of LGBTQ+ portrayals in Hollywood films. In it, he offers criteria to help filmmakers create multidimensional characters in order to provide more diversity in their movies. Based off of this book, the equivalent to the Bechdel test for LGBTQ+ characters was created: the Vito Russo test.

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 part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
  • That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. This means that the character is human and they have unique character traits the way the rest of the heterosexual characters do.
  • The LGBTQ+ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. The character should “matter.”

But why, you wonder, is this important? Shouldn’t we be happy that LGBTQ+ people in movies at all? The answer is no. By conforming ourselves to accept this as representation, we are encouraging the poisonous way in which society is portraying the LGBTQ+ community. If we allow queer characters in movies to serve as the punchlines, we reinforce the idea that LGBTQ+ people are not people but jokes.

Think, for example, of beloved films such as "Mean Girls," and I say beloved because it's one of my favorites. In it, Daniel Franzese -- who is gay in real life --plays Damian, who doesn't even have a last name and is described as “almost too gay to function." Other than that, we don’t get any other facts about his personality. And if we removed him from the film, would it really make a difference plot-wise? Sure, the movie would be significantly less funny and we’d all miss the iconic “she doesn’t even go here!” scene, but the plot would have continued unharmed. He's only in the film to provide comic relief, but in reality, Janis could take care of Cady's vendetta against the Plastics on her own. Plot-wise, Damian doesn’t matter, and if LGBTQ+ people don’t matter in films, how are we supposed to tell society we matter in real life?

Fortunately, not everything is lost. Particularly on TV series, we're seeing more and more LGBTQ+ characters that play important roles in the show's plot line. Think "Sense8," "Jane the Virgin" and "Shadowhunters." On the Hollywood side, we can talk Simon Pegg’s controversial decision earlier this year to reveal Hikaru Sulu is gay on the new Star Trek movie, "Star Trek Beyond."

In an interview, Pegg said that he decided against introducing a new LGBTQ+ character to avoid making them the “token gay character," but decided instead to reveal a part of Sulu’s personality, in order to create awareness that the queer people are more than just plot devices. His decision has caused controversy, particularly because George Takei, who originally played Sulu on the TV show, spoke out against this decision. Along with the fact that there was a gay kiss that apparently didn't make the final cut of the movie.

If you can’t make it to the movie theatre to watch "Star Trek Beyond" this weekend, here are some other movie recommendations that pass the Vito Russo test:

"The Imitation Game" (2014),

"Antonia’s Line" (1995)

"Carol" (2015)

"The Way He Looks" (2014)

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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