You have probably heard about the Bechdel Test, but you may not have heard about the Vito Russo Test. A similar test, but instead of looking at women in film, the Vito Russo test looks at how LGTQ characters are included in a movie. While the test itself isn’t exactly a great way to test representation, it does point out some stark realities of filmmaking in Hollywood.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of movies made in the past, and most movies today, do not pass this simple test. While a movie where a lesbian couple has a happy ending is bound to pass the test, something like The Lord of the Rings or Avengers: Endgame outright fail it. That’s not to say they’re bad movies, but when looking for LGBTQ+ representation, these two movies outright have none, and that’s where the Vito Russo test helps us find movies that do.
Who Was Vito Russo
Vito Russo was an American LGBT activist, film historian, and author. He was born in East Harlem and became appalled at the portrayal of gay people in the media at a young age. After finishing his degree at New York University, Russo joined the Gay Activists Alliance and began doing research on his best-known work: The Celluloid Closet.
The Celluloid Closet would be published in 1981, with a documentary film of the same name being released in 1995. The documentary is extremely interesting and is a series of interviews with different men and women in Hollywood. The film goes over their own experiences and how LGBT characters are treated on the big screen.
While Vito Russo was known for many things, the last thing we will cover is how he co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). This group monitors LGBT representation. GLAAD would go on to create the Vito Russo Test and name it after their co-founder, who sought to improve how LGBT characters are portrayed in film and TV.
The Vito Russo Test Criteria
The test itself has similar criteria to the Bechdel Test. To pass the test, the film being tested must pass the four following requirements:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably LGBTQ+
- That character must not be solely defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity
- The LGBTQ+ character must be involved in the plot in a way that, if they were removed, would have a significant effect on it.
- The LGBTQ+ character’s story cannot be offensive and default to stereotypes with no development
The test seems simple enough, but the majority of films do not pass it. GLAAD posts a yearly overview, and their 2022 report found that just 20.8% of films released in 2021 meet the four above requirements.
This test is a bit better at analyzing LGBTQ+ representation in a film than the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test has some shortcomings in that it doesn’t look at whether the woman is impactful in the movie or the quality of her character as it pertains to stereotypes and such. That said, the results of a Vito Russo test don’t intrinsically show whether a film is supportive of or against LGBTQ+ rights.
Both tests can still be a fun and interesting way to look at film through a different lens, though. Here are five films we found that pass the Vito Russo Test, but you’re bound to find loads more as the years go by and LGBTQ+ characters become more prevalent in media.
5 Films That Pass the Vito Russo Test
It: Chapter Two (2018)
Some fans of the killer clown movie by Stephen King were slightly upset that they changed Richie from the book and included an unknown love story between him and Eddie, but others felt it was refreshing and a good way to adapt the 1986 novel to modern times.
The second part of this horror story shows Richie having flashbacks that show how he has had a crush on his best friend, Eddie, since they were kids and has probably been living as a closeted gay man for the last few years.
Beyond that, there is a gay couple at the beginning of the movie who are attacked for their sexuality. This scene was found in the book and is a reference to the real-life murder of Charlie Howard. The director has said that including that scene was important because leaving it out “would be omitting something that is still happening to this day and is horrible.”
Star Trek: Beyond (2016)
Star Trek: Beyond features a gay couple with children. In this movie, we meet the husband of Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu and their children. While the husband and children play almost no role in the movie, they are included in it and seen at several points. It’s also nice to see a gay couple being portrayed in a film without being the butt of a joke or some sort of stereotype. They are treated just like everyone else — as it should be.
The original Hikaru Sulu is played by George Takei, who is a gay man. Takei came out in 2005 and has been a prominent frontline supporter of LGBT rights since then. The fact that his famous and beloved character now matches his orientation is a great nod from the directors. Takei wasn’t too pleased with the decision to change “Gene’s creation.”
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
A sub-plot throughout Neighbors 2 sees a fraternity brother and his relationship with another gay man. Though they’re not the main focus of the film, we do see their relationship progress and eventual marriage. They have their own issues along the way, and their story is told very naturally.
It’s particularly surprising to see in a film type where the standard bar for humor revolves around gay jokes and sorority girls kissing, but Neighbors 2 navigates around this relationship very well, and the ending is definitely appreciated.
For a film shot on an iPhone, Tangerine isn’t half bad. The movie itself focuses on two transgender sex workers and a cab driver on Christmas Eve. The film automatically passes the test since the main character fits the LGBTQ+ requirement, but it also isn’t degrading or humiliating towards transgender people or sex workers. It is a comedy and drama but refrains from simply beating down minority groups.
The gist of the plot is that Sin-Dee Rella (Cinderella, if you didn’t get it) is upset and on a warpath when she finds out that her pimp, and boyfriend, has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. The film was nominated for and won several awards and has been praised by critics for its originality and comedy.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Is it a list of movies that pass the Vito Russo test without Brokeback Mountain? This film turned people red when it was first released because of its depiction of two gay men fighting their inner urges in a society that doesn’t accept them yet. We have to watch as they fall in love over a winter on a ranch and deal with their feelings for the next several years until one of them meets an untimely demise.
Brokeback Mountain won a ton of awards after its release and is hailed as a masterpiece of drama, romance, and cinema. Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger deserve all the praise they received for their performances in a hallmark of gay cinema.
The Vito Russo test is a fun thing to apply to your favorite movies that you’ve seen or even a movie you’re in the middle of watching later on from now. Thinking about LGBTQ+ representation in media is not done often, but the work of GLAAD and other activists has definitely helped bring the conversation to the forefront. Know a movie that passes the test? Tell us in the comments, and we’ll try and squeeze it into our small, and certainly not exhaustive, list.