Movies that Advocate for Sexual Health. By Frankie Wallace.
There was a time when subjects regarding sexual health were spoken in hushed tones, swept under the rug, and treated as fodder for dirty secrets. Thankfully, in recent decades we’ve matured somewhat, recognizing that the only realistic way to tackle such issues is by being open, keeping discussions lively and practical.
One of the ways we are able to keep the dialogue at the forefront of the public consciousness is through popular culture. In recent years, movies have emerged as a vital tool in presenting information, ideas, and arguments in an enlightening and entertaining way. Films have been useful to those struggling with depression, exploring a deeper understanding of gender issues, and highlighting the struggles of minority groups. The same can be seen on the subject of sexual health.
From presenting various aspects during the HIV/AIDs crisis, to investigating the epidemic of teenage pregnancy, movies continue to prove useful sources of information and, perhaps, guidance. We’ll take a look at some examples that have made an impact upon our cultural landscape. Some classics have stood the test of time, and remain relevant to our contemporary environment.
HIV and AIDs
Historically, much of the dialogue surrounding STDs has been driven by fear, rather than fact, which was particularly evident during the HIV/AIDs crisis. However, popular culture and public figures have helped to present a more sensible, educated approach. This has been particularly important in advocating for at-risk groups, such as college students and members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially when considering the statistics of STD rates amongst college students. We only have to look at the frank discussions Jonathan van Ness of Netflix’s Queer Eye has invited regarding his own HIV diagnosis and his experiences of living with the condition to see how important inspirational figureheads who promote wellness in their communities can be.
2014’s Dallas Buyers Club has been instrumental in highlighting issues surrounding how at-risk, often marginalized groups have struggled to obtain safe, legal treatments. While the movie centers on the story of rodeo cowboy, Ron Woodroof, smuggling non-FDA approved drugs to treat HIV symptoms, it presents the wider problem of how insidious an effect bias can have. The approval of HIV/AIDS treatments was often delayed simply because its primary victims were members of the gay community.
A movie considered of perennial importance on the subject of HIV/AIDS is 1993’s Philadelphia. It is perhaps most useful as a portrait of how prejudice as a result of diagnosis can present in society as well as in the workplace. This continues to be a salient issue, as while we have become more successful at tackling the medical aspects of many STDs, we are not always so successful in dealing with the social aspects.
A crucial aspect of sexual health that continues to require focus is that of family planning. Teen pregnancy remains a prevalent issue, where a U.S. total of 194,377 babies were born to women aged 15–19 years in 2017. There also continue to be significant legislative and cultural difficulties surrounding access to abortion, putting the health and safety of women across multiple states at risk. Movie producers have shown commitment to presenting these issues on the screen, with positive results.
2007’s Juno is one of the more grounded and relatable movies to tackle teenage pregnancy. Through a humorous and intelligent script, it presents a picture of the range of emotional and practical consequences of teen pregnancy. Perhaps its most important effect is dispelling the stereotype of young women who become pregnant in high school — the title character is portrayed as intelligent and capable, but nonetheless in turmoil for that.
Often, abortion is portrayed as a dramatic, side aspect of movies (Dirty Dancing), or even outright propaganda (Unplanned). However, For Colored Girls (2010) helps to illustrate the extreme lengths some women have been forced to go in order to obtain an abortion. The dangerous, back-alley route undertaken by one of the characters goes some way to supporting just how vital it is to provide all women with sufficient resources, rather than resorting to life-threatening options.
Let’s face it, many audiences go to the movies to be moved and entertained, rather than educated. Leaving aside the fictional portrayals, some stellar work has been undertaken by documentary filmmakers in advocating for sexual health. Some with a purely scientific stance, others taking the viewer on a personal journey.
How to Survive a Plague (2012), focuses on the early years of the AIDs epidemic. Perhaps its most powerful aspect is the producer’s choice to highlight the efforts of activists and the founders of the AIDs charity, ACT UP. Amidst the glacial pace of FDA drug trials and medication approval — usually resulting from anti-gay prejudice — it was committed groups of protestors and lobbyists who put pressure on the government to develop effective pharmaceuticals. Between archival footage and interviews, it shows what can be achieved by grass-roots groups; something that continues to be relevant in today’s political and social climate.
Some filmmakers have chosen to utilize advanced yet accessible technology in order to ensure their documentaries create a greater impact. One of the pioneers of virtual reality (VR), Nonny de la Peña, created Across the Line — an immersive documentary on the subject of abortion. The film uses VR tech to put the viewer in the shoes of a woman attempting to access a safe abortion. The “patient” faces attempts to dissuade her from her decision, protests outside the clinic, and consultations with the doctor. This project aims to develop the viewer’s empathy on the subject, and presents a tangible experience for those who perhaps would not otherwise be in this position.
We are certainly taking more opportunities to discuss difficult subjects both face to face and through media. Representation of minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community in movies and TV shows is not just on the rise, but also — thankfully — improving in quality. Popular culture is a vital tool in opening a dialogue on topics surrounding sexual health. Whether a central theme or presented as part of everyday contemporary life, filmmakers can use their art as an integral source of information and debate.
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