BREAKING SOCIAL STIGMA
Has the Vito Russo Test revolutionized LGBTQ+ representation?
By Gayatari Misra
“Brokeback Mountain” and “Blue is the Warmest Colour” are among the few celebrated movies that brought same sex romance to the mainstream audience and with it, a new era of LGBTQ representation was ushered in. While there have been a lot of movies and TV shows that have attempted to be more inclusive or diverse, this inclusivity has merely remained limited to placing a gay or a bisexual character on the periphery, in such a way that their addition or removal doesn’t affect the storyline in any way whatsoever. Thus, representation hasn’t always meant positive representation.
This becomes even more difficult when trying to look at queer representation from the marginalised communities. The standard still remains that of casting a white cis gender gay or a lesbian and the heteronormative stereotypes are further reinforced through a representation that relegates the queer characters to mere ragdolls, independent of the storyline.
The Vito Russo Test has attempted to change this narrative. It has been an effort to revolutionize the way queer characters are presented and looked at in Hollywood. The test has mainly been named after the film historian and GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo, whose book The Celluloid Closet was an important yardstick to analyse LGBTQ representation in Hollywood from the 1890s to the 1980s. In order to qualify the test, a film must meet the following three things:
- A character that is identifiably gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.
- The character must be defined not just in terms of their gender or sexual identity but must possess personality traits, the same that is used to differentiate a cisgender from one another.
- The character must be placed in the plot in such a way that their removal would significantly affect the storyline.
When looked at through this lens, Hollywood has still a long way to go. However there have been few movies and shows that have been popular among the mainstream audience and has successfully able to create an impact and have further potential to transform the ways in which LGBTQ representation can be transformed in the future. Here is a list:
- Brokeback Mountain (2005)- Brokeback Mountain is important as it challenged a particular way of Western hegemonic masculinity. The film starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as lovers. The movie became an important work on sexuality and coming-out-of-the closet, one that appealed to the masses. It challenged the ideas of heteronormativity at a time when homosexuality was still looked upon as a sin and its representation as a subject of laughter and amusement. As Roughton says, Cowboys were the epitome of masculinity during that era. In a backdrop as this, having portrayed two cowboys as lovers was a huge leap in breaking across the barriers of hegemonic masculinity. Although the film did not have a very satisfying or rather positive end to it, it still remains one of the most important works in Queer Cinema.
- Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ still remains one of the most powerful works when it comes to portraying lesbian relationship on screen
Rita and Betty are lovers and also the two central characters around which the story revolves. Although the movie has very strong roots in eroticization and sexual identification but it nonetheless explores a very different way in which lesbianism has been constructed and come to be viewed within a society where heterosexuality is not the norm. Rita has been presented as a femme fatale, something that was new to Hollywood and an identity that is often portrayed in a negative light. The very idea of femme fatale has been so narrowly constructed that the way in which it’s being portrayed in this movie is ironic to how it is actually viewed in a patriarchal society.
Again, lesbianism was still a hushed topic during this era. The only lgbt representation was that of the white cisgender gay. As such this movie marked a new milestone in representing lgbt characters.
- Call Me by Your Name (2017): Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me by Your Name’ has had a rather different backdrop to it and one that has a different trajectory than how most queer relationships have come to be viewed in modern pop culture. It is aesthetically appealing and has been very popular both among the gay and the straight audience alike. The reason being, it devoid of any explicit presentation of homosexual activity. As Luca states, the idea was to garner wider recognition not just from the queer audience but also the straight audience. He wanted the heteronormative masses to not feel dissociated from the story which is why the movie lacks the hypersexual content that most queer movies seem to centre around and in doing so it conforms to both homosexual as well as heteronormative values. While this has been embraced by certain section of the queer audience, yet there’s another category who strongly feel that this movie, in conforming to a very heteronormative mainstream idea of queer love doesn’t do justice to LGBTQ representation in Cinema.
- The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012): This is another coming of age movie that resonates so strongly with the youth. Patrick who is an exuberant character on the one hand starts an affair with Brad who represents quite the opposite end of the spectrum of masculinity. The latter is the stereotypical representation of Western hegemonic masculinity. The two however come together nevertheless to start something sweet. However, the insecurities and the fear od societal expectations hovers over Brad which ultimately leads to them breaking up. Although Patrick is represented as usually the flamboyant character, he too struggles with a sense of belongingness, acceptance, the desire to be loved. Their relationship explores the difficulties of coming out and therein finding a comfort space once they do. It also explores the stereotypical representation of gays as feminine and the rampant bullying that still pervades against the gay community. This film is significant in that it does not establish Patrick as a victim but rather as the life of the party. He is that one significant point that connects everyone and without whom the other relationships wouldn’t have been established in the first place or would have no essence at all.
- Moonlight (2016)- The most incredible work till date in terms of inclusivity and diversity. Not only with respect to queer representation but also colour, race and socio economic conditions. Moonlight explores the journey of Chiron, who is the protagonist and projects his story and the challenges he faces at every step to meet societal demands. This also includes the struggle to come to terms with his identity and sexuality in an environment where he’s conditioned to the ideas of hypermasculinity. Through Chiron’s story the movie challenges some of our deep-rooted biases and prejudices with regard to the community. It explores and explains the significance of intersectional identities and the ways in which not only the individuals are affected, but also how they in turn shape and change the society they live in.
Although there have been movies which have attempted to be inclusive in terms of LGBTQ representation, this has often been achieved at the cost of relegating other forms of diversity like ethnicity, race, colour, socio-economic conditions etc. More often than not, representation for the queer community has also been limited to the genre of comedy such that they do not seem to have a significant impact with regard to how the queer community is being looked at and their mobility along the social ladder of acceptance and justice. ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine’ and ‘Modern Family’ are amongst the few television series that have actually helped bring LGBTQ representation to the forefront through powerful Queer characters. This is significant for these are shows that are popular in an American household and the nitty gritty of everydayness is very closely tied to it. As such it resonates well with an individual who wants to come out or is trying to come to terms with their identity and sexuality.
The Vito Russo Test however does not imply that a movie is devoid of any flaws. Even with queer characters being represented inclusivity often remains side-lined in terms of other aspects. Racial diversity of LGBTQ characters still remains a major cause of concern in Hollywood. Again, transgender characters are rarely casted. The standard still remains that of a white cisgender gay. Nevertheless, this test has emerged as an important yardstick in terms of which LGBTQ representation is measured and thus redefines how Queer Cinema would come to be redefined in the near future.
Gayatri is a postgraduate student in Sociology. She is an enthusiastic reader and has an inclination towards Intersectional Feminism and is particularly interested in unraveling the Gender dynamics of Mythological stories.
A full-time rescuer, foster parent, a solo traveler, and a storyteller.