In Part 3 of Series, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report Examines Two Decades of Expression on HIV/AIDS
On June 5, 1981, the CDC introduced the world to the disease that eventually became known as AIDS. Although the disease had been present in the United States and elsewhere before this time, it was the first known mention of AIDS in a media report. Over the years, media coverage of AIDS has evolved from having an air of mystery to reports of panic, stigma and homophobia; from domestic epidemiology and policies to international crises and drug access. This week, the Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report will feature stories on different aspects of the media's coverage of the disease over the past 20 years, including treatment advances, federal legislation, public fear and stigma and AIDS in the arts. The following report, the third in our series, examines how the various forms of art and entertainment promoted AIDS awareness and how such expression affected public perceptions of AIDS.
Leaving a Record
"How will people hundreds of years from now understand the culture of AIDS?" author Patrick Moore asks. Just as works from the era of the Black Death, such as Boccaccio's "Decameron," today serve as illustrations of life during the plague, Moore notes that future generations "are most likely to understand through the art of our time. It really doesn't matter if the art is good or bad. It is a historic record of this extraordinary time," he concludes (Page, Washington Post, 3/18). The following report examines how AIDS has been portrayed over the last two decades, both in general and in six different artistic arenas -- theater, television, visual arts, fashion, film and music -- and how those works have touched the greater national consciousness.
AIDS Art in General: An Evolutionary Response
"Artists have always helped us to understand the profound disturbances of any historical moment. This is one of art's traditional roles -- to give meaning and form to the horrifics," Robert Atkins, an art critic and editor of Artery, an online magazine devoted to AIDS-related art, said in a recent Washington Post article. Atkins added that artists created all of the "central, recognizable symbols of the epidemic" -- such as the AIDS quilt and the red ribbon -- as a means of "ameliorating" an epidemic that was "vilified by the mainstream media and by political and religious types who refused to treat AIDS as a public health problem, rather than a political or moral issue." As the epidemic has changed, so has its art (Washington Post, 3/18). Photographs in the media and images on television initially represented people with AIDS "as if they were starving babies wasting away in Africa," Atkins said. In the 1980s, some photographers "began to counter" those images with pictures of "smiling people in better health," but the "positive" images failed to "make a ripple. ... AIDS was too complicated to be read in single images," Atkins added (Moore, USA Today, 5/30). Works that began as "activist" have become "more 'elegiac'," as the epidemic moves into its third decade, according to Atkins, in part because drug treatment "has removed the sense of urgency in the United States and other wealthy nations. An emergency state can't continue for several decades. People adjust," he added.
Art in Specific Fields: Theater
The first piece of performance art to deal directly with AIDS is thought to be Jim Howell's 1982 dance piece "Ritual: The Journey of a Soul." Jeff Hagedon's "One," a monologue about a gay man recently diagnosed with AIDS, was one of the earliest plays about the disease to be performed and was initially staged in a Chicago gay bar (USA Today, 5/30). However, it was not until a decade later, when Tony Kushner's first installment of "Angels in America," "Millenium Approaches," earned the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and garnered four Tony awards that AIDS exploded onto the mainstream stage. The play, set in New York City in 1985, revolves around an ensemble of characters, two of whom have AIDS. Louis Ironson is a gay man struggling with how to leave his partner, Prior Walter, who has AIDS, because he does not believe he is capable of the compassion necessary to face Walter's imminent death. The other character with AIDS, Roy Cohn, based on a real lawyer and political figure of the same name, refuses to admit to his illness because he sees it as a disease of victims. The second installment, "Perestroika," which won the Tony for best play in 1994, continues the saga with an angel explaining to Walter that God has abandoned mankind and that he has been chosen to return things to the "good old days" (NYU Medical Humanities Database, 5/22). Taken together, USA Today reported, the two plays "remain the most entertaining and insightful works ever produced about AIDS," according to many critics. "It's hard to conceive of a play with more impact than 'Angels in America.' It was about a disease but also about what happens when you love someone and betray them. ... When we see Prior and Louis struggle with one another, those scenes resonate with anyone who has felt guilty about leaving a lover for any flaw," Caleen Sinette Jennings, a theater professor at American University, said. "Angels" was also unique because Walter is still alive at the end of the cycle, five years after being diagnosed with AIDS. Kushner said that having him live "was important because so many plays written about AIDS to that point had this tear-jerking ending. The person with AIDS dies, and it gives everybody a good cry" (USA Today, 5/30).
AIDS was first seen in a television drama in 1985's "AIDS: An Early Frost." The "conventional family melodrama" made AIDS and homosexuality "less threatening" to middle America, according to Rodney Buxton, a professor of mass communication at the University of Denver. One reason for its impact was the fact that people could watch the drama at home and "didn't have to be seen going into a theater," theater professor Christian Mendenhall of American University said (USA Today, 5/30). Other shows, such as "Life Goes On," "St. Elsewhere," "ER" and the soap opera "General Hospital" have also dealt with HIV/AIDS. "General Hospital" was the first soap to tackle the issue, featuring a storyline involving two young lovers infected with the virus, one of whom ultimately died. However, it may be reality-based programs that have had the largest impact on television audiences. In 1994, MTV's reality show "The Real World" made AIDS a central issue and brought the disease to the attention of its young core demographic, 18- to 24-year-olds, when it included Pedro Zamora, a 22-year-old gay Cuban immigrant with AIDS, in its third cast. The show, which placed seven strangers in a house and taped their lives for five months, followed Zamora as he fought to raise AIDS awareness and as he personally battled for his health. Zamora died of AIDS-related complications on Nov. 11, 1994, after filming for "The Real World" was complete. Zamora's presence on the show allowed many to put a face to the disease for the first time, and his death triggered a national response. MTV broadcast the memorial service, which featured remarks by President Bill Clinton. "In his short life, Pedro enriched and enlightened our nation. He taught all of us that AIDS is a disease with a human face and one that affects every American, indeed, every citizen of the world," Clinton said. Zamora's legacy lives on today, not only through reruns of "The Real World," but through various foundations and institutions that have been established in his memory (MTV Online: The Real World: The Pedro Zamora Memorial, 5/22).
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a "poignant memorial, a powerful tool for prevention education and the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. Each of the more than 44,000 colorful panels in the quilt memorializes the life of a person lost to AIDS," according to the quilt Web site. Gay-rights activist Cleve Jones conceived of the idea in November 1985 when he learned that more than 1,000 San Franciscans had died of AIDS. In 1986, he created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and in 1987, he formally organized the NAMES Project Foundation, which sponsors the quilt. In October 1987, the quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. At that time, the quilt included 1,920 panels and received 500,000 visitors in one weekend. Such "overwhelming response" to the inaugural display led to a four-month, 20-city national tour the following year that raised almost $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS organizations. With local panels added in each city, the quilt grew to more than 6,000 panels by the end of 1987. Today, the quilt displays more than 44,000 individual memorial panels commemorating the lives of more than 83,000 people who died of AIDS. More than 13 million people have visited the quilt at thousands of displays around the world, and the NAMES Project Foundation has raised over $3 million for AIDS service groups in North America. The quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 (AIDS Memorial Quilt Web site, 5/25).
Created by the small HIV charity Visual AIDS Artists Caucus in New York in 1991, the red ribbon has become an international symbol of HIV/AIDS awareness. In 1991, the Red Ribbon first appeared at the Tony Awards on actor Jeremy Irons' lapel and costume designer Willa Kim's dress. That year, many people wore yellow ribbons symbolizing support for U.S troops in Iraq, and Visual AIDS wanted to "visibly demonstrate their opposition to the excesses of the war -- a war which was literally siphoning funding away from AIDS researchers." The color red was selected to portray blood, passion, anger and love. Three thousand ribbons were hand-made for the Tony Awards, with the intention to destigmatize the disease by making "mass audiences" aware of AIDS and associating it with celebrities. The ribbon "caught on like wildfire," becoming a familiar sight at awards ceremonies and social events as well as on the street (Rainbow Health Web site, 5/25). According to UNAIDS, whose logo incorporates the ribbon, wearing the red ribbon "is the first step in the fight against HIV and AIDS. ... The next step is to do something more" (UNAIDS Web site, 5/25).
Several low-budget independent films have broached the subject of AIDS -- "Longtime Companion," "Parting Glances" and "The Living End" for example -- and the documentary "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt" won the Academy Award for best feature-length documentary in 1990. In 1994, Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme released the major-studio film "Philadelphia," starring Tom Hanks, in what proved to be a "cultural watershed." The role of a gay lawyer with AIDS won Hanks his first Oscar. "Tom Hanks, an everyman kind of actor playing a gay man with AIDS was huge. 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 ("The Streets of Philadelphia")," Judy Wieder, editor in chief of The Advocate, said. Atkins said that the movie was "watered down," but "strategic in helping change attitudes." The film was criticized for being "sanitized" for mainstream audiences that might have found homosexuality offensive, but "ultimately, 'Philadelphia' succeeded as mass entertainment and a social document," USA Today reports (USA Today, 5/30). At the time, Desson Howe of the Washington Post called the film a "valiant attempt [by Hollywood] to catch up with human history," but said "[i]n terms of the ugly, debilitating truth about AIDS ... 'Philadelphia' is lost and floating somewhere on the far side of Pluto." Howe said, "It's the kind of safe-sex filmmaking that protects its viewers from all discomfort and sensation, while congratulating them for getting a little closer to the disease" (Howe, Washington Post, 1/14/94). But critic Roger Ebert noted that "Philadelphia" had "broken" the ice for more films about AIDS, adding that although the film was not all it could have been it was a "righteous first step" (Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 1/14/94).
In 1990, the rap group Salt-n-Pepa released the song "Let's Talk About Sex" and brought the topics of sex and AIDS to a national audience. Although the song dealt with sexual relationships in general, it also specifically dealt with sexually transmitted diseases in one verse, referring to a "three-letter word some regard as a curse." The group went on to describe a casual sexual encounter in which the man did not use a condom and the woman rationalized that she would be okay because she was "on the pill," ignoring the dangers of STDs (Salt-N-Pepa, "Let's Talk About Sex," 1990). Another trio of young black women, TLC, in 1994 addressed HIV/AIDS in the song "Waterfalls." The song profiled one young man who engaged in risky sexual behavior, only to wake up one day to find "his health is fading and he doesn't know why. ... Three letters took him to his final resting place" (TLC, "Waterfalls," 1994). Among several organizations dedicated to fund raising for AIDS research and services, the music industry also includes the Red Hot Organization, which seeks to "figh[t] AIDS through popular culture." The organization, founded a decade ago, "strategically uses mass media to raise AIDS awareness, and insert discussion about the issues which surround it into the popular lexicon." The group's benefit compilation CDs, such as "Red Hot & Dance," "Red Hot & Country" and "Red Hot & Blue," have featured artists as diverse as the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, D'Angelo and Branford Marsalis (Red Hot Web site, 5/31).
In their roles as celebrities, artists have also helped encourage politicians to act on AIDS. For example, U2 lead singer Bono last Friday visited the White House to speak with Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten "about AIDS in Africa and the debt of the world's poorest countries," the Albany Times Union reported. The singer also spoke at a meeting of the Global Health Council (Albany Times Union, 6/3). Tomorrow, the Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report will examine the legislative and policy responses to the epidemic across the administrations of three presidents and will recap the early moves on AIDS by President Bush.
The other parts of the Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report 20th anniversary series are available online:
- The June 4 article examines early media coverage of the epidemic.
- The June 5 article examines the stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS.
- The June 7 article looks at 20 years of legislation and policies on the disease.
- The June 8 article recaps advances in treatment.