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The Gay Bechdel Test: Why Hollywood Needs to Expand Its Representation of LGBT Characters

For years, I’ve enjoyed putting popular films through the Bechdel Test. Named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test was introduced in her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. Named “The Rule,” what became known as the Bechdel Test had three requirements: a film had to feature two named female characters, those characters had to speak to each other, and the subject of conversation had to be about something other than a man. Sounds pretty simple, right? It’s pretty astonishing how many movies fail the pretty easy test — especially in 2013. (A website that keeps track of movie releases and whether they pass the test already lists at least 38 films from 2013; only 21 pass the Bechdel test.) It got me thinking: could there be a similar test about gay characters, and how many movies would actually pass it?

The Gay Test (which, regrettably, I will not call “The Coates Test” following Alison Bechdel’s lead), would have similarly few requirements, but they’re particularly tough to beat: to pass, a film must include two gay characters who interact in some way, do not offer sassy advice to the protagonist, and are not dead by the end credits. While the main plot of any film subjected to the test preferably would not be specifically “gay-themed,” I’ll allow it, if only because films described as such are pretty much the only ones that come close to passing.

Let’s do a quick run-through of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees. Any gay protagonists? Nope. (Sorry, Abraham Lincoln doesn’t count.) How about in 2012? No way. In 2011? Well, there was Black Swan, which featured a lesbian sex scene that was possibly a figment of the protagonist’s imagination (something must be said for the connection between her mental stability and her dabbling in lesbianism). In 2010? Not a chance. 2009? Bingo: Milk! Of course, the main character dies, but there are a handful of other gay guys (and women!) who actually do important things like fighting for equal rights rather than helping their gal-pals out with their dating advice, or dying.

But even going back ten years in Oscar history shows that only four other Best Pictures nominees featured gay protagonists, and only two could pass a test with the requirements mentioned above. In Brokeback Mountain, one of the two gay protagonists is murdered; in The Hours, the only gay male character kills himself before AIDS does it for him (although there are a few lesbians). Capote and Little Miss Sunshine both feature gay men as the protagonists, but they rarely have the opportunity to interact with other gay men. Five Best Picture-nominated films in the last ten years doesn’t speak highly of the most artistic cinematic efforts; it seems pretty pointless to search for gay characters among the highest-grossing films during the same period.

Of course, the notion that every movie must predominately feature LGBT characters is pretty silly. Since nearly every gay character suddenly becomes politicized, it’s difficult to imagine any summer blockbusters, seemingly providing escapist entertainment, featuring a politically correct treatment of minority groups. At the same time, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to see a little more representation, which is why the Bechdel test provides a good model for calling out the homogenous cinematic culture that privileges straight white males over all other audiences.

One strong argument for more positive and frequent representations of gay characters is the reduction of hate-fueled attacks on those in the LGBT communities. The inclusion of non-politicized characters in mainstream films can only further the notion that LGBT characters are members of society in the same way as their straight peers. One wonders if the recent string of hate-fueled attacks in New York City in recent weeks — two of which occurred blocks from where the 1969 Stonewall riots took place, one resulting in the death of a gay man — would be such a regular occurrence if non-heterosexuals were portrayed in a more sympathetic light in film and television.

It seems increasingly difficult to get straight people to pay attention to “gay-themed” media; that’s not just a broad qualifier, but a red flag to heterosexual audiences that seemingly reads, “This will not interest you.” To include more diversity in media that cater to broad audiences can’t possibly hurt, but until that shift happens, plenty of underrepresented communities will continue to struggle for basic equality and tolerance from those that represent the mainstream.

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