Hollywood and the LGBT community: What the Russo Test tells us about award-winning films

Divya Chandy

Nov,22 2017 17:45 31 IST

Movies have always enjoyed a central role in society since their introduction in mainstream media. They have been used as a medium to display creativity and spread the creator’s vision. Starting from influencing fashion trends to the ideals and mannerisms of many, movies have a strong presence within the populace. Motion pictures give the individual a way to understand and perceive the world, creating a way to meet their need for a meaningful experience.  This link is not one-way; society influences the content of movies as the creators try to interpret what the masses want. Hence, given this strong association, it is possible to understand the pulse of the people by analysing movies – this is particularly important when discussing changing social dynamics related to sex, sexuality, and gender.

Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age tale of a young, African-American, gay man, won three Oscars this year.

Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age tale of a young, African-American, gay man, won three Oscars this year.

One tool that can help in this endeavour is the Vito Russo Test. It has the rubrics necessary to analyse and interpret the representation of the LGBT+ community in media. The Russo test was created in 2013 by GLAAD (Gay and Lesbians Alliance Against Defamation) to monitor mainstream media to further the cause of acceptance and equality of the LGBT+ community. Like the Bechdel Test, the Russo Test provides parameters by which one can interpret the current tolerance level in society in its representation of the LGBT+ community in media. To pass the test, the movie must contain a character that is identifiably part of the LGBT+ community; the said character(s) should not be predominately defined by their sexual orientation – they must have unique characteristics that are commonly used to differentiate between straight characters; and the character must be tied to the plot in some way, such that they are integral and their removal will cause a hole in the plotline. These guidelines thus ensure that an LGBT+ character, if present, is fleshed out and multidimensional. This helps combat the unilateral stereotypical presentation that seems to be popular; for example Damian Leigh from Mean Girls and George Downes in My Best Friends Wedding. The test helps pave new ways of acceptance.

The motion pictures often nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award are a mix of commercially successful and critically acclaimed movies, thus providing a balance between mainstream production values and unconventional subject areas. We took the nominees for best movie for the past three years (2015-2017) and checked them against criteria specified in the Russo Test. From the vast population of movies present, this sample yielded 25 movies. The selected movies were then divided according to year of nomination and viewed over a month, screening for parameters considered in the Russo test.

The Test

Out of the 25 movies that were reviewed, only two passed the Russo Test in all the aspects. The two movies that passed by clearing all three criteria were Moonlight (2017) and The Imitation Game (2015). Moonlight, which went on to win the Best Picture award tells the story of an adolescent boy and his growth into adulthood, facing problems of race and class, while being identifiably gay. In The Imitation Game, we see the story of Alan Turing, the gay mathematician and scientist who joins the cryptography team to decipher the enigma code and aid in the war efforts of Great Britain during the World War II. One other movie cleared two parameters but failed in one:Spotlight (2016). Although it passes the first two components it fails the last. The almost forgettable identifiably gay character (who is shown to be a victim of abuse at the hands of the church) is not essential to the plot and could easily be replaced. It should be noted however that the results of the test allow for a certain degree of subjectivity.

monk prayogshala

Although the test was run with a small sample of only English feature films nominated for an Academy Award the results reflect attitudes toward diversity in sexuality. The results tell a story of a broader picture – this is not even to say much about closeted depictions of sexuality in Indian cinema. Even in a specific sample, the under-representation of the LGBT+ community is apparent. This lack of visibility makes its way into the masses as well. When one community is not given its share, society as a whole suffers. The inclusion of the LGBT+ community especially in emerging countries have shown a positive relationship with the economy. An environment where the individual can be themselves and not spend effort and time in pretending to be someone else is an environment where greater productivity can be achieved.

Divya Chandy is research assistant at the Department of Economics at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai