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Representation of HIV/AIDS in the Media

The first documented case of HIV/AIDS was in June of 1981, with little known about the disease as it began to spread around the United States, taking more and more lives, fear, and panic captured the populace[1]. It was initially known as gay-related immune deficiency, or GRID, as gay men were the most prominent demographic diagnosed with the disease at the beginning of the epidemic. There was a lack of knowledge and many misconceptions about AIDS for several decades, aided by a lack of response and knowledge from political leaders and the medical community. Those with the disease and the gay community were suffering the consequences of that lack of knowledge. Meanwhile, the topic of AIDS began to make its way into media and popular culture. HIV/AIDS was now beginning to be discussed on television or in movies and attention, and some celebrities began to bring that lack of knowledge and response from the country’s leaders to the public attention.

While there are scholarly books on the impact of HIV/AIDS on society, there is a lack of focus on the representation of HIV/AIDS in the media. Instead, it is found as small sections or chapters in more significant works but is not the focus of their arguments. The main arguments of books on HIV/AIDS focus on the responses from political leaders, the medical community, and the gay community. There is currently no literature that explores this topic to its fullest extent, even though the portrayal of HIV/AIDS in the media had a meaningful impact on society and how the media continued to discuss topics relating to sex and sexuality.

Ronald Reagan began his first term as president in 1981, and less than six months after he was sworn in, the AIDS epidemic began to surface. Lillian Faderman’s 2015 book The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle looks at the early responses from the Reagan administration, stating that he “had cultivated ignorance or worse about AIDS. [2]” It was not until several years after the epidemic began that he first used the word AIDS. He only began to truly address the epidemic when it came time for his reelection[3]. Scholarly works commonly explore President Reagan’s reaction and response to HIV/AIDS. Heather Murray’s chapter that is a part of the 2011 book Gender, Health, and Popular Culture: Historical Perspectives, edited by Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, assess how the public rose and took action in response to the lack of action coming from Reagan and his campaign[4]. Activism grew as the spread of and mortality rates of HIV/AIDS rapidly increased. Murray examines how the public began to throw promises or statements said by Reagan during his presidential campaign and the beginning of his presidency back at him[5]. Gerald J. Stine’s 1998 book Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome: Biological, Medical, Social, and Legal Issues, is one of the only works that mention how public officials were not generally successful in calming the panic, confusion, and fear that was spread due to the rising disease and instead often increased those levels of confusion and fear[6]. Faderman and Murray both make mention of the rising levels of panic and fear but do not directly call out political officials as being a factor of these rising levels; instead, they focus on how society’s beliefs and lack of knowledge were factors in the rise. Society’s beliefs and lack of knowledge is the most common perspective taken when looking at the panic and gear the gripped the public.

Several secondary sources, including those already mentioned, focus on the violence against gays increased in the streets of gay communities and examine activist movements relating to HIV/AIDS. However, Faderman’s The Gay Revolution is the only one that analyzes several of the most well know activist groups and movements at the time in depth; such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD both of which had a large impact on societies views on HIV/AIDS. Faderman’s book also looks at two significant instances where gay and lesbian political groups, activists, and ordinary people made critical political statements; the 1983 New York Gay Pride Parade and the march on Washington on October 11, 1987. Other authors like Murray examine these activist groups and movements but are researched in much less depth.

AIDS was a medical mystery even before the first diagnosis was made and was not well understood even a decade after. Stine’s Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome examines not only social and behavioral aspects of HIV/AIDs but also provides a scientific of discoveries made[7]. The idea that AIDS was a sex-based disease was because, in the beginning, gay men were the only ones coming forward with symptoms. It was not until 1982 when the discovery that the disease could pass through both men and women by sexual contact or through blood exchanges such as injections, transfusion, and birth[8]. The evolution of the women’s movement also reflected the change of discoveries relating to HIV/AIDS. Virginia Sapiro’s 1994 Women in American Society: An Introduction to Women’s Studies explores the relationship between women and AIDS and how the discovery of AIDS also prompted social research[9]. There was a considerable lack of knowledge before the 1990s surrounding the connection between women and AIDS because, before this time, research primarily focused on men. The literature shows that it was not until the 1990s, after a decade of the first discovery, that in-depth research had begun to make progress. This time was also the beginning of literature written on the subject with more accurate information. Faderman mentions two significant pieces of literature: the Glossary of AIDS Drug Trials, Testing, and Treatment and The National AIDS Research Agenda. Political groups mentioned above also marched on the Center for Disease Control and Protection and the National Institutes of Health, protesting the lack of effort put into HIV/AIDS research[10].

While research is done on media and popular culture responses, there are only a few perspectives that the literature looks at more in-depth. The response from Broadway is the most seen perspective that is written about in monographs. The Broadway community was incredibly active in the fight against AIDS. Kimberly R. Moffitt and Duncan A. Campbell’s 2011 The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade looks at the epidemic’s effect on Broadway[11]. The AIDS epidemic significantly impacted those who worked on Broadway; several well-known performers died from the disease at the start of the epidemic, and the deaths continued. The growing disease and the increasing number of deaths among those on Broadway and across the country had a significant effect on the morale and the performing arts community. Another common perspective discussed in the literature was the response from celebrities. In July 1985, actor Rock Hudson announced that he had AIDS; by October 1985, he had died from the disease. The reveal that Hudson had AIDS sent shock waves through Hollywood as Hudson was the first celebrity to announce a diagnosis of AIDS publicly. In 1991, professional basketball player Magic Johnson also announced that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Another prominent Hollywood figure that was a strong advocate for the fight against AIDS was Larry Kramer. Several works including The Gay Revolution and The 1980s both explore Kramer’s intensive involvement in the fight against AIDS[12].

While there is mentioning and some research into the media’s response and recounting of AIDS, it is a less developed topic written about in the historiography. The literature often finds the perspective on the portrayal of sex in the media and the impact of AIDS. In Patricia Mellencamp’s 1992 book High Anxiety, she states that “the AIDS crisis. . . has added loss and fear to the public sexual agenda, a deathly reality that has displaced desire, replacing it with anxiety, if not terror. [13]” The idea of sexually transmitted diseases was not new to the public, and in the past, their existence did not impact the depiction of sex on television[14]. However, at the beginning of the epidemic, there were links that the public made to AIDS and sexual promiscuity and that the disease was a form of punishment for the sexually promiscuous. This point of view is also reflected in Gender, Health, and Popular Culture[15]. Murray discusses this popular belief during the early years of the epidemic and how it was not just gay men that were under particular scrutiny at this time. However, the human body was also the source of controversy and, more specifically, women’s bodies.

The feminist perspective was also making its way onto television screens. Shows were beginning to explore different definitions of family, friendship, and the platonic relationship between women. The 1996 book Prime Time Feminism written by Bonnie J. Dow examines television shows with primarily feminine settings[16]. Dow uses the show Murphy Brown as an example of unrealistic depictions of female relationships and compares the show to others such as Designing Women and The Golden Girls for their positive and realistic portrayals of feminine relationships. However, not all changes to television representation were accepted by the media and public. Julie D’Acci’s 1994 book Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey examines the 1980s women’s movement and how it put pressure onto television shows to include better representation[17]. Jonathan Engel’s 2006 book The Epidemic takes a unique look at the media’s response and views on HIV/AIDS from a political standpoint, other works often focus on either of the two[18].

There is an extensive database of scholarly works written on HIV/AIDS; however, these works only examine specific themes like political responses, responses from the medical community, and the impact on the gay community. While there is evidence of research relating to the representation of HIV/AIDS in the media in scholarly works, all the information mentioned above was from a small part of over a dozen different sources. The discussion of HIV/AIDS in the media is a small part of their larger argument. There is little currently on how television shows approach controversial topics like HIV/AIDS, and development is needed in this historiographical field to understand better the representation of HIV/AIDS in the media.


[1] HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. HIV is contracted through contact with bodily fluids and AIDS is a result of contracting HIV. This disease interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections and disease.

[2] Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: the Story of the Struggle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 417.

[3] There is different account of when Ronald Reagan first publicly used the word AIDS. Faderman wrote that is was in 1985 after the death Rock Hudson, an old Hollywood friend of Reagan’s. In Mari’s book he put the date at 1987, when Reagan first acknowledges and set out his plan of action for HIV/AIDS from a political standpoint.

[4] Heather Murray, Gender, Health, and Popular Culture: Historical Perspective (Waterloo, Ont: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011), 237-254.

[5] Ronald Reagan’s face became a popular addition to protest posters at this time with the statements or quotes that were then being thrown back at him calling him out for hypocrisy or not following through on his poitical promises.

[6] Gerald J. Stine, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome: Biological, Medial, Social, and Legal Issues (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998).

[7] Stine, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome: Biological, Medial, Social, and Legal Issues

[8] More information on this discovery can be found in Stine’s Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome: Biological, Medical, Social, and Legal Issues

[9][9] Virginia Sapiro Women in American Society: An Introduction to Women’s Studies

[10] More information on these two pieces of literature can be found in Faderman, The Gay Revolution

[11] Kimberly R. Moffitt and Duncan A. Campbell The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade

[12] Actor Tom Hanks and journalist Ann Northrop are both referred to as significant celebrities in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

[13] Patricia Mellencamp, High Anxiety (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 42

[14] During this time period abortion was another topic of controversy relating to women’s bodies.

[15] Murray, Gender, Health, and Popular Culture: Historical Perspectives

[16] Bonnie J. Dow Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

[17] Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey is one of the only pieces of histography found that focused in depth on the impacts of a television show, including changes relating to the women’s movement and topics like HIV/AIDS.

[18] Jonathan Engel The Epidemic (NY: HarperCollins Publisher, 2006).

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