If you look back over the last hundred years, popular cinema has reflected much of the changes in society around it, but usually on a technological level rather than a social one, with CGI allowing directors to take their movies anywhere they see fit, even if it means the characters on screen aren’t nearly as evolved as the special effects surrounding them. Back in 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced what became known as the Bechdel Test, which set three standards for whether a film had good female characters. 1) There had to be two women in the film. 2) They had to speak to each other, and 3) It had to be about something other than a man. You might be amazed by how many films fail this test.
While women are arguably still taking a backseat to men over 25 years later, GLAAD is adopting their own scale for LGBT roles in films called the Russo Test, named for GLAAD founder and The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo. In their first annual Studio Responsibility Index, the foundation broke down the top 101 grossing films of 2012 and not surprisingly, they found that gay and lesbian characters are buoys in an ocean of heterosexuals, usually used as comedic fodder and played by actors who aren’t even gay.
Like the Bechdel Test, there are three rules for the Russo. 1) The film must contain a character that is identifiably gay, bisexual and/or transgender. 2) The character must not be solely defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. 3) The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Those all seem to be simple enough to follow, but relatively few wide released films last year actually passed the test. Of the 101 films reviewed, only 14 of them qualified for a total of 31 LGBT characters. Note that smaller roles and cameos were included to even get that number that high.
And one of those cameos, from MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, came from The Avengers, the biggest film of the year. But it was a fleeting moment, and it was Disney’s lone entry on this list. But if it makes them feel any better, 20th Century Fox films contained zero LGBT characters, much less any that might pass the test.
While films like Think Like a Man and That’s My Boy held their LGBT character up only to make disparaging remarks about them, Hollywood didn’t get it all wrong. Though it was produced independently, Cloud Atlas was distributed by Warner Bros. and featured a strong gay love story within one of its many plotlines. Incidentally, Warner also passed the test with Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand’s characters in Rock of Ages. Yeesh.
Probably the most popular LGBT character in cinema last year was Javier Bardem’s bisexual Silva in Sony’s Skyfall, even though he was also the most monstrous of them all. Three other films that passed the test were Paramount’s Fun Size for its hippy lesbian parents, and Universal Pictures’ The Five Year Engagement, for Lauren Weedman’s role as lesbian chef Sally, and Pitch Perfect’s Ester Dean was the only lesbian of color in major cinema last year.
Of course, independent films have always been where you go to get really strong LGBT characters, and last year was no exception. It’s worth noting that with its jock character Mitch, Focus Features’ Paranorman was the only PG film to feature a gay character last year.
With more and more TV shows writing less generic LGBT characters these days – Jeffrey Tambor playing a transgender parent for Amazon’s Transparent is a good example – it’s only a matter of time before major film studios get the message and realize that they’re shunning a large population. Just don’t expect it to happen for The Avengers: Age of Ultron.