HIV & AIDS In The LGBTQ Community Highlighted In Films. By Frankie Wallace.
As incredible as it may seem, the AIDS epidemic in the United States is now in its fourth decade. Despite nearly 40 years of research, outreach, and activism, however, Hollywood’s track record of representing people with HIV and AIDS remains spotty at best. Read on to learn more about what Hollywood is doing right, what it’s doing wrong, and why it matters.
Where Hollywood is Getting It Wrong
The first question when we’re looking at Hollywood’s portrayals of people with HIV/AIDS is: where are they? The fact of the matter is, film studios still seem pretty squeamish about addressing the AIDS epidemic and this usually parallels a reticence about depicting LGBTQ characters as well. In fact, according to a recent study by GLAAD, of the 109 major films released in 2017, only 14 featured a major LGBTQ character. That’s a nearly 6% decrease from the previous year.
Not only this, but the same study found that some of the most anticipated and highest-grossing films, such as Thor: Ragnarok, missed valuable opportunities inherent within the storylines themselves to more effectively develop gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer characters, as with the bisexual, gender-fluid Valkyries in the Thor mythos. Maybe even worse, the study found, was the reemergence of destructive stereotypes, like the offensive gay humor in Zoolander 2.
Where Hollywood Gets It Right
Even though there’s a lot to lament about Hollywood’s representations of both the LGBTQ community and the communities of people, gay, straight, bi, and asexual, living with HIV and AIDS, there’s also a lot to celebrate. If the film industry has missed its chance with Thor and the Valkyries, there are other superheroes with which it hasn’t, like Josh, a gay superhero living with HIV, who is the subject of Elias Ribeiro and Kristian Johns’ new film short.
There is also a rising generation of young Hollywood actors and filmmakers who belong to the LGBTQ community and who are seeking to tell the stories of that community, from the inside, and without resorting to the victim/hero/villain stereotypes that so often plague these narratives. Among the most promising of these new voices is that of Jonathan Groff, who in recent years has parlayed his extraordinary success on the mainstream smash, Glee, into an important career writing, producing, and starring in short and long-form films centering on gay and bisexual lead characters living ordinary lives.
Of course, the story of the “ordinary life” of a gay person living with HIV is by no means standard Hollywood fare. Even where these LGBTQ characters are depicted with insight and sensitivity, as real human beings who love and are loved, who have flaws and make mistakes, the central focus is still often the characters’ efforts to fight not only their disease but the brutal prejudices of an unjust society. This is, in fact, the essential plotline of even some of Hollywood’s best films about HIV, from Angels in America and The Normal Heart, to the Academy Award-winning, Dallas Buyer’s Club and Philadelphia.
Why Does It Matter?
The answer is simple: how Hollywood tells the stories of people living with HIV and AIDS matters because stories matter. Stories are how we learn about and communicate our understanding of the world. Stories are our first teaching tools. Through them, we learn about ourselves and others. And when you are dealing with historically marginalized and stigmatized populations, then how these populations are represented in popular media becomes particularly important. For vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, the uninsured, and the addicted, a lack of reliable access to healthcare coincides with an increased risk of communicable disease, including sexually transmitted infections. Excluding them from the stories we tell only serves to perpetuate societal neglect, fear, and stigmatization.
And when it comes to people living with HIV and AIDS, the general silence or, worse, the misrepresentation of these communities can have life-altering, even life-threatening effects. When you don’t see stories of people living well with HIV and AIDS, you may think of a diagnosis as an automatic death sentence—or worse, a slow, painful decay into nothingness. This can make the people who are most at risk for HIV infection too afraid to be tested, to speak to their healthcare provider about sexual health and disease prevention, or to seek out the new, life-saving treatments that can not only prolong life but also prevent transmission.
Representations of people living with HIV and AIDS in film are still not what they could or should be. When these communities are depicted at all, it is all too often in the form of a familiar victim, hero, or villain narrative. But the realities of life with HIV and AIDS have changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to the advent of therapies to extend longevity and quality of life, and to the influence of advocacy groups working to end the stigma of diagnosis. Here’s hoping that Hollywood will soon catch up with the facts.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.