Public Awareness: How the Media Has Shaped Our Perception of HIV/AIDS
People with HIV/AIDS are often misunderstood, feared, and ostracized. However, positive portrayals of people with HIV/AIDS in film and television have helped to change that.
Public Perceptions of HIV and AIDS
Few diseases have been more misunderstood, feared, and reviled than HIV and AIDS. Disease sufferers have been ostracized, harassed, and judged. In some cases, HIV-positive people have been barred from attending school, fired from their jobs, and even evicted from their own homes.
Fortunately, public awareness is on the rise, in part due to the media. Television shows and films featuring compassionate, nuanced portrayals of people with HIV and AIDS have helped change hearts and minds about the conditions.
Click through the slideshow to learn more about portrayals of HIV and AIDS in the media.
An Early Frost (1985)
Aired four years after AIDS emerged, this Emmy-winning movie introduced the disease into drawing rooms across America. When the film’s protagonist, a gay attorney named Michael Pierson, learns that he has AIDS, he heads home to tell his family.
After he breaks the news, Pierson must weather their rage, fear, and blame. The film shows one man’s attempt to defuse pervasive stereotypes about the disease in dealing with his family’s behavior—from his pregnant sister’s fearful refusal to see him, to his father’s anger when he kisses his mother.
The Ryan White Story (1989)
Fifteen million viewers tuned in to watch the heart-rending tale of Ryan White, a 13-year-old boy living with AIDS. White was a hemophiliac who contracted the illness through a blood transfusion. In the film, he confronts discrimination, panic, and ignorance as he fights for the right to continue to attend school.
By depicting a person who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, The Ryan White Story showed audiences that HIV and AIDS could affect anyone—not just gay men and drug users.
Something to Live for: The Alison Gertz Story (1992)
Like Ryan White, Alison Gertz wasn’t a “typical” AIDS sufferer. A young, affluent straight female, Gertz contracted HIV after a one-night stand.
Gertz eventually became an outspoken activist, sharing her story with everyone from middle school students to The New York Times. The film salutes her bravery as she manages her fear of mortality and channels her energy into helping others.
In the 24 hours after the film aired, the federal AIDS hotline received a record 189,251 calls.
Philadelphia tells the tale of Andrew Beckett, a young homosexual lawyer fired from a high-powered firm. To the bosses’ dismay, Beckett refuses to go quietly: he files suit for wrongful termination.
As he fights the hatred, fear, and loathing surrounding AIDS, Beckett makes a passionate case for the rights of AIDS sufferers—to live, love, and work freely, as equals under the eyes of the law. Even after the credits roll, Beckett’s determination, strength, and humanity sticks with you.
ER’s Jeanie Boulet was not the first television character to get HIV. However, she was one of the first to contract the disease—and live.
In fact, with treatment, the fiery physician’s assistant does not just survive; she thrives. Boulet keeps her job at the hospital, adopts an HIV-positive baby, gets married, and becomes a counselor for young people with HIV. The character shows that—contrary to conventional wisdom—HIV is not an instant death sentence.
Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, the musical Rent (adapted as a 2005 feature film) follows an eclectic group of friends in New York City’s East Village. HIV and AIDS are inextricably interwoven into the plot, as characters attend life support meetings and ponder their mortality.
Even during the spirited “La Vie Bohème,” the characters’ beepers ring, reminding them to take their AZT, a drug used to delay the development of AIDS in HIV-positive patients. However, the life-affirming film ultimately celebrates the characters’ lives and loves—even in the face of death.
We still have much to learn about HIV and AIDS. However, over the past three decades, progress has been made in overcoming the stigma surrounding the diseases, due in part to these films and television shows.
To learn more about HIV and AIDS, check out these slideshows: