The Kieren Test

A new barometer for LGBT representation.

Clockwise from top left: Sense8, The Fall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Black Mirror, Penny Dreadful, Hannibal. Centre: How to Get Away With Murder.

I wrote a post a month ago about my frustration with superhero shows, and the way the CW forces straightness on its lead characters. For years it’s bothered me that there’s a glass ceiling with queer representation on TV: while most shows are now comfortable enough with LGBT characters, most are confined to secondary roles, included tokenistically while the lead characters are kept carefully heteronormative. In film, Star Trek Beyond’s Sulu was a good example, arbitrarily husbanded while Kirk and Spock—in spite of decades of ho yay—remained unintimate.

There are a lot of stories that do handle queerness well, and for a while I’ve been trying to put my finger on why they succeed—to create something like a Bechdel test for LGBT characters. (GLAAD has one already, but theirs doesn’t quite work for me: a lot of the stories that pass still suffer from the queer glass ceiling.) Last night, I realised what my criteria were.

1. The story must feature a queer person
2. in the most prominent role
3. and not have a queer-centric premise.

Point one is self-explanatory for the most part: the character must be LGBT or in some other sense non-heteronormative, and the viewer must know. There’s room for disagreement about how explicit it need be: I like stories where oblivious straight people can tell, but any canonical queer character counts, including via Word of God.

Point two can mean individually or jointly: the character can be the story’s main protagonist, or be part of an ensemble whose members are all equally central. What matters is that they’re not less prominent than anyone else. Kelly and Yorkie from San Junipero count; Nomi and Lito from Sense8 both count; Willow and Tara from Buffy don’t count.

Point three requires the story not be about the LGBT community: while queer themes are welcome, it must be possible to précis the story in fifteen words without mentioning characters being queer. Rocky Horror and The Fosters both count; Cucumber and The L Word don’t.

Just as the Bechdel test isn’t the sole determinant of whether a story is feminist, there are good depictions of queer people that fail my test and bad ones that pass it—but it’s remarkable how low the overall success rate is. Supergirl, Arrow and The Flash all fail, whereas Legends of Tomorrow passes; Glee passes while Priscilla fails. As far as I’m aware, no major Hollywood film from this year passes, with one exception: Ghostbusters.

When I was thinking about a name for the test, my thoughts ran to a lot of stories I’d admired, but in particular to Dominic Mitchell’s short-lived zombie show In The Flesh. I’ve written about why I love it in the past, but one reason for its place in my heart is that while undead teenager Kieren Walker is explicitly queer and the hero—and while the series mines this constantly to subvert horror conventions—his story is richer and more complex than that. Kieren gets to be the protagonist, and to have the texture of a real person.

If my test needs a name, make it the Kieren Walker test—the Kieren test, for short—and if you like it, tell someone. It might catch on.

An incomplete list of films and series that pass the Kieren test

Babylon 5. Class. The Fall. The Fosters. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Glee. Hannibal. The History Boys. The Hours. House of Cards. How to Get Away With Murder. In The Flesh. Legends of Tomorrow. Orange is the New Black. Orphan Black. Penny Dreadful. RENT. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. San Junipero. Sense8. Skins. Steven Universe. Torchwood.

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