Six percent is, no matter what the grading curve, a failing grade. And that’s the score given to Hollywood for its portrayals (or lack thereof) of gay characters in studio-produced films.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy group GLAAD has just released its first-ever annual Studio Responsibility Index report, a look at the way movies portray LGBT characters. The study counted characters in every 2012 major-studio release—101 movies in all—and then took a look at the quality of those roles. And, of those movies, only six passed muster as LGBT-friendly.
Only 14 of the 101 movies contained any characters at all who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. (There were no transgender characters.) Both Disney and Fox received “failing” grades for releasing one and zero movies , respectively, featuring a gay character; Warner Brothers, Paramount, Sony Columbia and Universal received “adequate” grades of 2, 3, 4 and 4.
While 14% might seem like a decent score—when taking into account the widely-cited and perhaps over-inflated statistic that 10% of the population—it’s actually dismal, given it takes but one LGBT character, even in a minor role, to be tallied as a “yes.” In other words, if every studio movie this year had a cast of only 20 actors, the percentage of gay characters (rather than movies that involve one) would be less than a tenth of a percent.
Take a deeper look at who those characters are and things start to get even murkier. Disney’s sole gay character was a news anchor in The Avengers – a role that GLAAD found “so brief it was likely missed by many viewers“; in other movie (like, Ted), more substantial LGBT portrayals were characters that were often the subject of ridicule.
Which is where the Vito Russo Test comes in.
Named after the author of the groundbreaking 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, the Russo Test allows GLAAD to add a qualitative component to their reearch. In order for a movie to pass the test, it must involve an LGBT character who is not “solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity” and who is important enough to the plot that it would affect the story to remove the character. The standard is modeled on the Bechdel Test, a decades-old standard used to assess how a movie treats female characters. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must involve two women who talk to each other about something other than a man; Alison Bechdel, the criteria’s creator, has given her blessing to the Russo test, according to GLAAD.
The organization hopes they’re not the only ones who will be using the test. The group has been conducting a similar survey of television characters since 1996 and has found that the hard data, as opposed to general impressions of characters, has worked wonders. Matt Kane, GLAAD’s associate director of entertainment media, says that TV networks have often been surprised by the numbers and that, in the decades since the character cataloging began, there’s been notable improvement in the depiction of gay characters on TV. If all goes according to plan with the movie version of the survey, Hollywood studios will start to take their failing scores into account.
The effect, Kane says, is worth the time put into watching all those movies. “Speaking personally as a gay man who grew up very hungry for images he could relate to, I can tell you that when you don’t see yourself reflected in the movies that you love it’s a very alienating experience,” he says. “And it also brings about social change.”
The idea is that, as Vice President Joe Biden has pointed out, relating to a gay character on TV—Will of Will & Grace fame, specifically—increases tolerance. That’s even more important for movies, Kane adds, because many Hollywood pictures have a global audience.
And if studios are looking for an action movie with a gay superhero—still an unlikely prospect but one that would be sure to pass the Russo Test—it won’t be hard to come up with an idea. Though he later said it wouldn’t make sense within his own storyline, actor Andrew Garfield has already suggested an idea: Spider-Man.