August 25, 2013

Queer Issue: A Queer Film Critic Responds to the GLAAD "Vitto Russo Test".

My short response: NO!

Slightly expanded response: NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! DIE, MOMMIE, RUSSO TEST! DIE!

Okay, I expect someone out there will want some of those pesky little things called "reasons" from me.

First, here is what GLAAD has put forth as the Vitto Russo Test:

The Vito Russo Test criteria:

1) The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT).

2) That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is 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.

Nothing could be a bigger insult to Vitto Russo's legacy then to have his name attached to such a simplistic set of standards. You know what films meet this standard? Some of the most homophobic and transphobic crap ever to grace the silver screen like Silence of the Lambs. After all, Buffalo Bill is explicitely trans, important to the plot, and is not solely defined by the fact that he cross dresses. What doesn't meet the criteria? A small fortune of films that I consider to be some of the most pro-queer films around. ParaNorman's Mitch, is not all that important to the plot and his sexuality, while important thematically, is set up as a punchline. Does that mean that his is no longer significant for being the first explicitly out gay character in a mainstream film aimed at children?

For those who do not know who Vitto Russo is, you should be deeply, deeply ashamed of yourselves... I mean, you should know that he is the earliest and most prominent queer film critic who wrote The Celluloid Closet. For those who are both ignorant and lazy, you can easily correct your ignorance by watching the documentary, The Celluloid Closet which was based on his work.

In his book, Russo analyzed hundreds of depictions of LGBTQ characters throughout the history of cinema. The breadth and depth of his work is extraordinary, and while I do not always agree with his conclusions, the significance of his contributions to the field of queer film criticism is undeniable.

In short, the major problem with the Vitto Russo Test that GLAAD is proposing is that it is way too simplistic to bear the name Vitto Russo. Not to mention that it is too culturally and historically ignorant to be allowed to live.

Yes, I do want more LGBTQ characters in films obviously. And yes, I would like them to be more explicit as opposed to subtextually queer. And yes, it would be nice for them to matter in some fashion.

But there is an entire breadth of films that fall outside GLAAD's criteria that I find interesting and noteworthy. Does the fact that Little Horse serve no function to the plot of Little Big Man mean that the film fails, even though the character is used to highlight the films' anti-war themes? What of the The Great Gatsby where there is not a single explicit LGBTQ character, but reading the narrator as being romantically and sexually attracted to Mr. Gatsby adds layers of depth to both the characters motivation and thematic content? Are they failures of cinema because they don't meet every point on GLAAD's litmus test?

When I review queer films, I do have a set of criteria, yes, that I think about in regards to the film. If I were to write it down, it might go a little as follows:

1) Are the characters explicit or are there any that can be read as subtextually LGBTQ?

2) What is the cultural setting in which this film is being made? Who is the film being made for? (Straight, General, LGBTQ or some segment therein?) How do the queer characters fit into it all?

3) What are these characters importance to the plot or thematic elements?

4) Are the LGBTQ characters intended to positive or otherwise sympathetic? Are they complex and well developed or do they simply rely on caricatures and stereotypes?

With the exception of #4, none of these are really pass/fail. Nor are they they only ones that I ask, these are just the most common. Another example would be if the characters die or kill themselves, what is the reason for doing so and how does it serve the story?

It is also important to emphasize that Vitto Russo understood that it is not worth analyzing singular films without considering the importance of historical trends. There is arguably not a whole lot wrong with a single film that portrays a transgender person as a serial killer. There is enormous harm done to the trans* community though when there is enough films with transgender serial killers that they become their own sub-genre. There is nothing wrong with a film having a gay or lesbian character committing suicide or otherwise getting killed off. There is a whole lot wrong when death becomes the predominant fate of gay and lesbian character. There is nothing wrong with presenting a bisexual character who cheats or is other-wise non-monogamous. It becomes very wrong though, when every bisexual character tries to have sex with every other character in a given story.

Ultimately, there are a lot of things we need more of regarding queer cinema and GLAAD's proposal does not address them. Hollywood should not forget that people of color are also LGBTQ. That there are disabled queers. That there have been and continue to be people dealing with HIV and AIDS. That people from every background, class, gender, and profession can also be gender and sexual minorities. That historical figures should not be straitened out to fit what is a political narrative that erases the contributions of LGBTQ individuals to society.

In short, the Vitto Russo Test is too small, too narrow, and too straight to be queer. No matter what our parents say, we should never stop being vampire slayers or mutants. Where is the acknowledgment in this test for intersex monarchs or the asexual cannibals who ate Raoul? Where are those who were born in flames or poverty? Should we not want to see them on screen as well? Ultimately, we are too big, too diverse to have any room in our birdcage for for this test.

So whether we be pariahs or watermelon women who live on Gun Hill Road or Brokeback Mountain, we should reject every every angry inch (or 20 centimeters) of the Vitto Russo Test.

1 comment:

  1. I just learned about the existence of the Russo test (a few minutes after I learned about the existence of the Bechdel test). One problem with the Russo test, regarding item #2, is that, almost by definition, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and (possibly with some exceptions), transgender people define THEMSELVES predominantly by their sexual orientation or gender identity. So according to the Russo test, a filmmaker must make clear that a character is LGBT/LGBTQ (which means that those traits of the character must be DEFINED somehow by the movie), then the movie must further have that character defined predominantly by something other than what (I would argue) the character in real-life would define himself or herself by.


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