USA Today Chronicles 20 Years of AIDS in the Performing Arts
"Performing arts ... have introduced mainstream audiences to AIDS, carried them through the tragedies and triumphs and now essentially have left the disease behind," USA Today reports, comparing Tom Hanks' portrayal of an "AIDS-emaciated" man in 1990's hit movie Philadelphia to the "beautiful" and "healthy" HIV-positive woman recently played by Gloria Reuben on the TV show ER. "In terms of attitudes toward the disease and those who have it, a lot has changed since the media entered the picture. As with many things, news happenings get taken into our cultural blend with artistic accounts," Christian Mendenhall, associate professor of theater at American University in Washington, D.C., said. USA Today chronicles milestones of AIDS in artistic media, noting that artists "didn't rally in response" to the epidemic until the mid-1980s. Until 1985, the year it was rumored that actor Rock Hudson was HIV-positive, "AIDS was still mysterious and very far away for most people," USA Today states. That same year, television made its "first foray into AIDS" with the melodrama "An Early Frost." The show "made subjects of homosexuality and AIDS less threatening," according to Rodney Buxton, assistant professor of mass communications at the University of Denver. Mendenhall described it as "the groundbreaker in public media," adding, "The one reason for its success: People didn't have to be seen going into a theater. They were in their homes, and no one knew they were watching. That's how TV shapes who we are. It is a private experience." The "cultural watershed" of Philadelphia came in 1990. Judy Wieder, editor in chief of The Advocate magazine, reflected on the significance of a prominent actor such as Tom Hanks playing a "gay man with AIDS." Wieder said, "It was symbolic for such an actor to take such a role. As was the involvement of Bruce Springsteen, a 'regular fellow' musician, who wrote a song for the movie. And they won Academy Awards." But of "far more complexity and acclaim" was Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which opened on Broadway in 1993. USA Today describes Kushner's works as "the most entertaining and insightful works ever produced about AIDS." However, now that drug treatments have prolonged the lives of AIDS patients, "[t]here has been an effort to say there is a lot of life outside AIDS," Wieder said. And USA Today notes that "[w]hile American artists no longer feel urgency about the disease ... they have not addressed the devastation being wreaked by AIDS in Third World countries." Mendenhall added, "We don't have any South African stories or Congolese stories about half a town that's dead. AIDS is an incomplete tale" (Moore, USA Today, 5/30).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.