World AIDS Day: How are TV and Film Addressing the Epidemic?

On World AIDS Day, we commemorate those who have been lost to the epidemic while also showing unity in continued efforts to fight it and recognizing the ways it has reshaped our world.  Much of that has been reflected in the art and mass media produced about HIV/AIDS, though attention to the epidemic in the media hasn’t always remained consistent.

Ask anyone to name a movie about AIDS, and they’ll most likely say Philadelphia (1993).  The film won an Oscar for Tom Hank’s performance as a gay lawyer suing his former firm for firing him after learning he had AIDS, and it is cited by many as a catalyst for more mainstream attention to the human tragedy inflicted by the epidemic. 

While it might be the most famous, Philadelphia was hardly the only great film that addresses the issue.  Several years earlier, Longtime Companion (1989) poignantly dramatized the intense devastation the epidemic wrought on communities of gay men, while Parting Glances (1986) was one of the first to incorporate a character living with AIDS into its storyline.  You can learn more about these films and others here.

There have been only a handful of scripted films that directly addressed the epidemic in the last few years though, and fewer still that received any mainstream attention.  3 Needles (2005) told three different stories of how AIDS impacted communities around the world and featured stars like Lucy Liu and Chloe Sevigny. The Hours (2002) and A Home at The End of the World (2004) both featured characters dealing with AIDS, and more recently, the Oscar-nominated film Precious (2009) centered around an HIV-positive teenager.

Representations on television as well haven’t been common in recent years, though there have been some notable ones.  The long-running NBC medical drama ER featured HIV-positive doctor Jeanie Boulet for several seasons, while Showtime’s adaptation of Queer As Folk saw main character Michael in a relationship with an HIV- positive man named Ben for the last three seasons of the show.  Though it unfortunately ended its run this spring, ABC’s Brothers &Sisters revealed in its final season that Uncle Saul had been living with HIV.  There are currently no HIV-positive characters in regular or recurring roles on US TV.

Documentary film and reality TV is another matter entirely though.   There have been a slew of documentaries about HIV/AIDS over the years, including the Oscar-winning Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (1989) which illuminated several stories from the Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C.  Just this month, the stirring documentary We Were Here, which examines the onset of the epidemic in San Francisco, was nominated for a Spirit Award and made the Oscar documentary category shortlist.  Yesterday, the Sundance Film Festival announced that a new film about medical efforts to turn HIV/AIDS into a manageable condition, How to Survive a Plague, would play in competition at the 2012 festival.

On television, one of the most famous reality show cast members of all time helped put a face on HIV/AIDS for an entire generation.  MTV’s pioneering reality series The Real World featured the HIV-positive Pedro Zamora in its 1994 season, who went on to inspire a generation of advocates.  Much more recently, the Emmy winning Project Runway has featured several HIV- positive contestants including designers Jack Mackenroth and Mondo Guerra, whose moving story also helped win the series a GLAAD Media Awards.  On Logo, Rupaul’s Drag Race continues to dedicate episodes each season to promoting M.A.C. Cosmetics Viva Glam campaign to help raise funds to fight HIV/AIDS, and season one competitor Ongina tearfully revealed that he had been secretly living with HIV himself. All of these individuals provided strong reminders of the importance of telling stories that reflect the lives of people who are not only living with HIV/AIDS but also surviving and thriving.

It’s tempting to speculate on why there have been fewer scripted storylines about HIV/AIDS in the last few years, while they continue to be well represented in documentary film and reality television.  More important though, is to recognize and emphasize how characters living with the virus like those on Brothers & Sisters and ER were a model for how stories like these can be organically integrated into the world a show creates.  They can not only diversify and enrich a show’s narrative, but help educate, foster understanding, and simply remind viewers that there are still countless people affected by HIV/AIDS.  Hollywood must remember that as the struggle continues on a global scale, the media we create and consume still plays a vital role.