It’s Time to Re-evaluate the Media Discourse Around HIV and AIDS

The way that HIV and AIDS are being portrayed in the media is still conducive of stigmatisation. Proper representation and inclusiveness will be of vital importance to change the narrative, a panel of experts concluded during a Harvard Medical School event organised for World AIDS Day (December 1).

Have We Managed to Change the Negative HIV Narrative?

Actors, directors and numerous health experts discussed the issues related to the media portrayal of HIV and AIDS. They focused on the necessity of talking about the complex issues stemming from the HIV pandemic in an open and honest way.

Media portrayal right now tends to be simplistic. In countries like the US, ads presenting healthcare options like antiretroviral therapy (ART) focus solely on the positives. In these commercials, people are portrayed as super happy and satisfied with their lives due to ART. While such commercial messages attempt to create a positive vision, they discount numerous complexities pertaining to living with HIV.

It’s still essential to generate more buzz, allowing people who are living with HIV and AIDS to tell their stories in raw, uncensored ways.

One negative example that the panel highlighted was the story of Pedro Zamora. The Cuban-American TV personality lost his life to AIDS-related complications.

Zamora’s struggle with the health issues stemming from AIDS had never been disclosed fully to the general public. Instead, it was sanitised and some of the most difficult to stomach aspects of his condition never got aired on television.

Telling stories in a way that doesn’t eliminate the challenging conversations will be important going forward, creating more awareness and killing some of the AIDS-related taboos that have persevered through the years.

How Has Hollywood Shaped HIV’s Portrayal in Media?

Even more important is the massive impact that Hollywood productions have had on the media portrayal of HIV and living with the virus.

Representation has been incredibly limited, usually focusing on the story of a young, Caucasian male who has just found out that he’s HIV-positive. People of colour and queer individuals have been missing from the depiction and only in the past few years have filmmakers made some attempts to break the mould and show something a bit more realistic.

The early portrayal of HIV has contributed to the so-called whitewashing of the issue. Whitewashing is a term referring to deliberately attempting to conceal true facts about a situation – that it’s affecting disproportionately high numbers of people of colour or members of marginalised communities, for example.

Black men who have sex with men, as well as trans women have been affected by HIV at much higher level than any other demographic since the first cases were reported in the early 1980s. Yet, this is a fact many people are unaware of because of the Hollywood version of the pandemic.

A changing point in that narrative occurred in 1985 when celebrity Hollywood actor Rock Hudson publicly acknowledged that he was gay and that he had AIDS. That public admission quickly turned HIV into a much more significant issue than prior media portrayal depicted it to be. Later that year and for the very first time US President Ronald Reagan acknowledged the HIV pandemic and called it a crisis. Before this admission happened, over 12,000 US citizens had already lost their lives to AIDS-related complications.

What Comes Next?

Numerous television shows and movies over the past few years have done a good job of portraying HIV in a more realistic light than their predecessors.

Some of these trailblazers include hit television series Pose (often labelled the most significant on-screen representation of marginalised individuals living with HIV), The Normal Heart (2014), Straight Outta Compton, Precious and Three Months.

Recently, media experts have noticed a decline in HIV representation on series and film. Advances in treatment and prevention are probably to “blame” for such a phenomenon but the importance of keeping the narrative going is still high.

While medicinal advances are a fact, living with HIV shame and stigma is still a thing. TV series like pose have done an incredible job depicting those social issues and revealing the devastating impact they can have on individual lives. Future works will need to continue normalising life with HIV through the portrayal of fully fleshed out characters that actual HIV-positive individuals can identify with.

Billy Porter, one of the lead actors in Pose, recently revealed his own HIV-positive status. In a Hollywood Reporter article, Porter wrote something very important: “There’s no more stigma – let’s be done with that. It’s time. I’ve been living it and being in the shame of it long enough.”

HIV and AIDS are no longer death sentences if people understand the importance of early intervention. Being familiar with one’s options (especially innovative solutions like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)) is even more crucial to reduce the risk of an eventual infection.

If you need to learn more about HIV, try books and films but don’t forget the importance of visiting a licensed sexual health facility in Singapore. Shim Clinic can give you all the answers in a fully confidential consultation you can have with one of our experts every day of the week. Contact Shim Clinic now or pay us a visit to expand your knowledge and choose the right course of action.