HIV/AIDS in pop culture: How film and theatre has shaped our awareness
By: Vicky Wilson
It’s 5am and both the credits, and my tears, are rolling as I finish watching the final episode of It’s a Sin.
The layered melody in the final scene perfectly encapsulates the emotional ripples of this TV drama, which unites queer joy with the grief and tragedy of the AIDS crisis.
The intimacy of It’s a Sin reminds the viewer that the 1980s is so recent it can barely be considered history, and that AIDS remains an ongoing and often underreported pandemic today.
It also highlights just how powerful and poignant film can be in addressing social issues.
Image credit: Red Production Company, 2021
Back in school while playing tag, I vividly remember my classmates making crude jokes about AIDS whenever someone tapped them. We simply were not educated on what AIDS is, and how serious it is.
Though I believe these jokes stemmed from childish ignorance rather than malice, they were unacceptable, and a clear symptom of the failures of mainstream society and the media to address AIDS.
On reflection, this got me wondering: how did film and theatre sculpt people’s attitudes to the AIDS epidemic during the peak of the crisis in America?
Activism during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in America centred around not only the virus itself, but the stigma and homophobic attitudes inflamed by the media and society at large.
Right-wing Christian groups presented AIDS as a ‘punishment from God’ for homosexuality, promiscuity and drug use, while the public belief that AIDS was spread through casual sexual contact sparked fear of high-risk groups.
As the Reagan administration neglected people with AIDS – failing to address the crisis until 1987 when 40,000 people had died – art, film, and theatre were salient in sculpting attitudes to AIDS.
Many activists and artists used theatre and film to reach mainstream audiences, destigmatise AIDS, expose government ignorance and educate viewers.
Often, however, mainstream television media of the time actually reinforced homophobic stereotypes under a facade of awareness-raising, and depicted AIDS as a dirty gay disease.
During the 1980s, mainstream art often destigmatised AIDS by employing a moderate approach, simplifying the crisis and making it palatable for straight conservative audiences. This meant it had reach outside of activist circles and did not merely preach to an echo chamber.
Larry Kramer’s heavily marketed 1985 show ‘The Normal Heart’ used its visibility as a high budget production to fight AIDS stigma in “ways radical performances in marginal venues could not”, according to scholar Jacob Juntunen.
The play is reasonably centrist. Kramer situates the homosexual relationship in his play within a heterosexual family structure to make it relatable for straight audiences. The original play condemns promiscuity, suggests there is no such thing as safe sex, and fails to recognise that it was governmental silence that caused the epidemic – not gay sex.
By appealing to the mainstream and garnering media attention, ‘The Normal Heart’ was pivotal in changing public, media and government attitudes to the AIDS crisis. The play’s success continues today with its recent theatre productions and 2014 film adaptation.
Though art and theatre can have a wide reach, it is limited in how far it can dismantle homophobia as it often cuts complex issues into bitesize pieces to be palatable for mainstream audiences.
By contrast, films in the 1980s tended to blatantly reinforce harmful homophobic stereotypes about people with AIDS.
In his journal article ‘AIDS and the Arts’, Ronald Paul Hill argues that television media of this era sometimes used a façade of raising acceptance to “reinforce the developing societal distinction between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ victims”.
ABC’s TV movie The Ryan White Story encouraged empathy with ‘innocent’ people with AIDS by sympathetically portraying the isolation of an infected haemophiliac child, while NBC’s series Midnight Caller depicts a ‘guilty’ bisexual man with AIDS as vicious, sex-hungry and inhumane as he knowingly infects women.
These days, popular shows such as Pose and It’s a Sin are sparking meaningful and necessary conversations about AIDS.
Pose emotively portrays the death and sickness looming over the queer community during the height of the AIDS epidemic, through its rich characterisation and poignant scenes based on historical events. For example, in season three, Pose recreates ACT UP gay rights activism, and in season two, it depicts a ‘die in’ based off the protests at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 supporting safer sex education, condom access and reproductive rights.
Another example is the first season of How to Get Away With Murder, where Oliver discovers he is HIV positive; we follow his storyline as he struggles to break the news to his family and faces new barriers in his dating life.
This series succeeds where others have failed, as HIV is not a major plot point, and Oliver’s character is not defined by his HIV diagnosis. Conrad Ricamora, the actor who plays Oliver, says the show “is allowing people to see characters and a person living with HIV that is thriving and it’s not about them having a crisis”.
Notably, contemporary films and television shows about AIDS are more personal, subtle, respectful and intersectional. But there remains a chronic lack of mainstream media and education discussing AIDS; representation remains sparse and often fails to offer a diverse depiction.
Film and theatre still have a long way to go to pull back the curtain on HIV and AIDS, even today.
Just like ‘The Normal Heart’ could have destigmatised AIDS further by taking a more radical stance, It’s a Sin has been criticised for having blind spots. The show has been accused of pushing its characters of colour to the sidelines and ignoring the women affected by AIDS.
This illuminates how even today’s seemingly progressive shows about AIDS need to maintain a more intersectional approach.
While we still have a long way to go to create an equal society and educate people about AIDS, the legacy of ‘The Normal Heart’ and the popularity of It’s a Sin and Pose highlight the continuing salience and success of AIDS film and theatre, over 40 years on.
Vicky Wilson studies English and History at the University of Birmingham. She is the Editor of the academic journal URISE, and loves writing for Redbrick paper in her free time. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her at a roller disco or bouldering in the Peak District.
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