In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced the world to a new idea for how to evaluate movies. Credited to her friend Liz Wallace, the idea, now known as the Bechdel Test, was first published in Bechdel’s syndicated comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. It contains two tenets: for a movie to pass, the needs to have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
The Bechdel Test may not be a perfect metric for judging whether a film is good or not–The Godfather isn’t any less of a masterpiece for being about men and masculinity–but it’s a powerful expression of rage and frustration at the marginalization of women in mainstream movies, which may be even more dramatic now than it was in 1985.
Now, GLAAD is proposing a complimentary test for movies to evaluate how well they depict LGBT characters. Dubbed the Russo test after Vito Russo, the film historian who co-founded GLAAD, and whose book The Celluloid Closet played an enormous role in shaping my (and I think many other people’s) approach to criticism, GLAAD’s test is a little bit more verbose than Bechdel’s. The organization suggests that movies be evaluated on three grounds:
1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
2. That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another.
3. 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 should matter.
Not every movie is going to meet these qualifications, but I think we can agree that we’d better off in a media environment with a greater variety of stories, some of which pass the Russo test.
GLAAD’s proposal comes in the midst of a larger project, an evaluation of LGBT characters in the 101 top-grossing film of 2012 produced by the Big Six movie studios. The conclusions of the report are not optimistic, especially not in comparison to GLAAD’s census of LGBT characters on television. “As television has become increasingly inclusive – including a record high percentage of LGBT characters in the 2012-2013 broadcast season – the film industry is lagging behind,” the report’s authors wrote. “Though indie film still produces some of the most groundbreaking LGBT stories, major film studios appear reluctant to include LGBT characters in significant roles or franchises.”
That’s putting it gently. 14 of those 101 films included a total of 31 gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters, but none had transgender characters. Even the 31 figure is generous, given that GLAAD counted fleeting cameos, like the appearance of MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, who is out but not a marquee name, in The Avengers. And in keeping with larger and relatively conservative media trends, those characters are mostly white, and mostly gay men. 55.6 percent of those 14 movies had gay male characters, and 26 of the 31 characters were white. Just 4 of those characters were African-American. Assuming you can just tell stories about affluent white gay men and be done with your project of diversifying. If you stay in that enclave, you’re missing jokes, character interactions, and whole vast preserves of stories you could be telling.
Interestingly, though, the films that are already invested in expanding the imagination in some ways proved to be some of the worst at extending that sense of the possible to their characters though. As the report explains “The most common place to find LGBT characters in the major studios’ 2012 releases were in comedies, where 9 of the 24 comedies released (37.5%) were inclusive. By comparison, 34 genre films (action, sci-fi, fantasy,
etc) made up the majority of the 2012 releases, though only 3 (8.8%) of those contained any LGBT characters…There were no LGBT characters in any animated or family-oriented films from the Big Six.”
And whether or not GLAAD recognizes it, the story the report is telling isn’t just about the specific decisions whether or not to include LGBT characters in individual films. It’s a look at the consequences of media consolidation. The studios the report examines were responsible for 76.4 percent of U.S. theatrical releases in 2012, which means their priorities have an enormous impact on what’s available in the marketplace. And the international market and its demands play no small role in these dynamics either. The report notes that:
The movies we make are also some of our most wide-reaching cultural exports; accessible and marketed to nearly every person in the United States, but also to billions more overseas. They carry our values with them, even if just in subtext, which is why some of the most restrictive nations ban Hollywood films outright for fear that they will affect a populace’s thinking if they watch them. Meanwhile, other nations (and some of the same) are actively enforcing or attempting to pass laws censoring any media that even acknowledges the existence of LGBT people. It’s important that Hollywood not be indirectly complicit in similar self-censorship, but we must also emphasize the tremendous potential for good that these films can have.
Shame’s worked well in the television space, where the tastes of American viewers (not to mention American governments) are still of paramount concern to studios and networks. Whether it can function as effectively in an environment where overseas tastes and values may become more important than the American ones within GLAAD operates remains an open question. The Russo Test is a good tool. But it may require more adherents who agree with its general principals before it can be an effective tool for bringing about a more inclusive media environment.