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We're Not in the '80s Anymore, Toto: What Hollywood Can Do About HIV Stigma

June 1, 2013

Scott McPherson

Scott McPherson

This op-ed originally appeared on

Since HIV was discovered in 1981, a magical twister hasn't blown us all away. No farmhouses have fallen onto ruby-soled witches. And no one has mastered the art of traveling by bubble. But in the realm of the HIV epidemic, we are certainly not in Kansas anymore. We've reached the colorful land of Oz. Long gone are the stormy days of gray and gloom. We've seen extraordinary advancements in modern medicine that have allowed for those living with HIV to live full, healthy, and happy lives.

But in 2013, you wouldn't know this by looking through the Hollywood lens, where topics and stories have played a pivotal role in the progression of gay culture. As Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese once said, "Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this."

Hollywood has, since the invention of celluloid, played an important role in the advancement of our society and people's ways of thinking. Often films allow us to open our minds and learn new things we may not have once understood or felt comfortable with. They allow us to take that first step down the road of yellow brick. Successful films like Brokeback Mountain or Milk offered the everyday American, who may not have known someone who was gay, a chance to witness the life of an LGBT person and possibly gain a new level of comfort around the subject that would eventually lead to their support for marriage equality.

But when I look back at the short and recent history of films that include HIV and/or AIDS (fact: it's always both) in their plot, I find it impossible to think of a single one that has challenged our way of thinking or pushed our culture forward by bringing light to scenarios or situations that were true to today's way of living for those with HIV. One that reflects the idea that having HIV is now manageable, and daily treatment with today's medications can, and most likely will, reduce your viral load, significantly increasing the quality and length of your life.


The portrayals we've seen, while they may have been award-worthy, still pulled us further away from our goal of reducing stigma. They may have even perpetuated it. In the 1990s, we were riveted by Tom Hanks' portrayal of a man living with AIDS and his struggle for justice in Philadelphia, and gut-wrenched by the reckless behavior of a group of young friends in Kids.

More recently we felt distraught when Precious received her diagnosis after being raped by her father, and we even breathed a sigh of relief to learn that Jim Carrey was only pretending to have AIDS in I Love You, Phillip Morris. So with these constant reminders of death and sorrow, why are we surprised so many people fear a simple HIV test? Perhaps it's that no one wants to end up like Ed Harris's character in The Hours or go through what the character Judith did in Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.

Even now, 32 years after the discovery of AIDS, the incredible documentary, How to Survive a Plague, received an Oscar nomination for its powerful story about AIDS activists and their struggle to get the government's attention. Later this year, we'll see Dallas Buyers Club, set in 1986, which depicts a man's struggle for medications after he receives an AIDS diagnosis with only 30 days to live. Next year, The Normal Heart debuts on HBO and will surely require a tissue as we watch an activist attempt to raise HIV/AIDS awareness during the early 1980s.

So now I beg the important question: Where are the films that show what it's like to have HIV in 2013? That millions of lives have been restored thanks to the scientific advancements made in treatment?

The huge absence of HIV-positive representation is not just limited to film. This is also true in scripted TV. In fact, the last non-reality U.S. television series that included a main character living with HIV (and not dying from it) was Showtime's Queer as Folk -- the finale aired in 2005.

Between the lack of education that plagues our youth and the lack of awareness among so-called "low-risk populations" it's no wonder stigma is the leading perpetrator for a consistent infection rate year after year. If Scorsese's assertion that entertainment reflects how we see the world is correct, then why are we surprised that the world is still so uneducated and ill-informed about the current state of the disease? A large portion of the population still doesn't know the difference between HIV and AIDS, and Hollywood has yet to come to the rescue. In 1989, the peak of the epidemic, 150,000 people were diagnosed with AIDS in the U.S.; a number that has since dropped 80 percent. Who knew?

hiv stigma poster

One would argue there's not enough drama or suspense in a modern-day plot to include HIV, but therein lies the beauty of how easy it should be to include. For example, create a character that is, say, a smart-mouthed ass-kicking chick, that also happens to be HIV positive, and hasn't progressed to AIDS, and isn't seen on their deathbed in the final scene. It boils down to the fact that 1 million people in the U.S. have HIV and the number of films released theatrically in the past three years (documentaries excluded) that have included a character with HIV is, well, one: Judith in Temptation, which tells the world that people with HIV deserved what they got. That certainly doesn't send a positive message to easily influenced moviegoers.

Luckily for stigma, there is a small saving grace in the world of reality television. Reality series (as in real life ... mostly) are the only mainstream medium truly depicting HIV-positive people as they are today: living normal healthy lives, thriving even. Role models like Project Runway All-Stars winner Mondo Guerra and The Voice runner-up Jamar Rogers bring awareness to what it's like to live with and conquer HIV today to viewers across the country. It's a start, but it's not enough. We may be over the rainbow when it comes to actuality, but in Hollywood we're still farm girls stuck in a stormy AIDS-ridden world of gray. Until there is a true spectrum of positive HIV-positive representation across all forms of media, you can be sure that HIV stigma is one thing we won't see fade to black.

Scott McPherson is the founder and vice president of The Stigma Project, a grassroots organization using social media and advertising to reduce the stigma around HIV and AIDS.

More From This Resource Center

Undetectable Viral Load and HIV Prevention: What Do Gay and Bi Men Need to Know?

Do HIV-Negative Gay Men Need Condoms if They're on PrEP? Here's What I Tell My Patients

This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More on HIV in Films

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Javier (South Florida) Wed., Jul. 3, 2013 at 10:41 am UTC
I was diagnosed in 1986 with the W_____ test the one that would read that I had some kind of contact with the virus. However, in my country that second test that would confirm it didn't exist. Then in 1990 I was diagnosed +HIV. I thought I was going to die sometime soon. I already new of friends and people that had died already by the disease. I guess I was lucky and stayed healthy till 95 and in 96 is when my family new and I started the treatment because of their support.
I do agree with you I feel everything about HIV is not portrayed in Hollywood or on TV. It's been hard being a survivor for so long with the side effects I went through. However, today after 27 years I'm undetectable and my T count was 1088 this for the first time I was surprised.
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Comment by: survivor (ireland) Thu., Jun. 20, 2013 at 1:10 pm UTC
well true about it should be portrayed as it is now and not as it was but this in turn could increase the number who practice unsafe sex and put themselves at risk of been infected! this is probably part of the reason they don't want to show that people live normal existences with hiv! I am one of those people, but also I believe stigma is always going to be there regardless, its like racism, its only a minority of people are this narrowminded these days! I come from a catholic background were been gay could be regarded as moral sin, but most people know my hiv status and my sexual orientation and rarely do I feel like I am shunned, most people are too busy concentrating on their own lives to worry about such trivial matters in another persons life!
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Comment by: Dooder (Cincinnati, OH) Tue., Jun. 18, 2013 at 10:29 pm UTC
I agree with you completely Scott. We have come a long way and, while it is always good to remember the past, it feels as if we are at a point where others are ignorant of the wonderful advances that have come along over the more recent year! As a mid-20s MSM, I didn't see the deeply grim side of the AIDS epidemic. HIV is not the plague it once was. In fact, I heard from a doctor that they themselves would rather have HIV than diabetes since it is now so manageable!
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Comment by: Scott (Cincinnti) Tue., Jun. 18, 2013 at 8:06 pm UTC
What a great article!!!
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Comment by: Scott McPherson (Los Angeles, CA) Fri., Jun. 14, 2013 at 10:10 pm UTC
I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at with your confusing (albeit rude) comment. My organization does everything in it's power to show what HIV is like TODAY and not in 1984. But we also have the dignity and respect to remember that HIV wasn't always just a "chronic manageable disease," it was a deadly virus. Therefore we have a History section of our site that pays tribute to just a few of the many heroes and difficulties faced during the epidemic. But it IS different now and if you browsed any other part of our website, you'd see that's exactly what we are portraying. May I suggest you do a little more digging before leaving snide comments under an article thats actually written in the hopes for positive change. I may have been born a couple years after AIDS was discovered, but that doesn't mean I know nothing about it. Thank you.
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Comment by: JJ (New York City) Tue., Jun. 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm UTC
As an original participant in the MACS study ( I suggest you google it ) I feel you need to educate yourself a little bit better with the history of Aids and not just the obvious and constantly re-written things that are rehashed history "themes". Your article suggests its not all doom and gloom, yet on your web site here, which that article led me to, clearly leave the impression that its just Act Up, The Quilt. and the first Aids walk and candlelight marches that is our history. That is a page you may want to begin your positive message with. Thats where maybe you can put a picture of your HIVpositive smouth mouthed chic being all cheerful underneath the Act Up, Quilt and candles. Begin your campaign at your own home page. You want the media to do something, start there with your own advice. thank you
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