Noting the recent uptick in reference to the ongoing AIDS epidemic within pop culture, writers Bryn Kelly and Theodore (Ted) Kerr discuss representations of the virus, when it works, when it doesn’t and why it matters.
THEODORE KERR: This week on “The Mindy Project”, flexing his patriarchal new daddy muscles, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) tries to limit Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and baby Leo’s movements, stating they can’t leave the apartment, because “New York City is the greatest city in the world, but it is a vile cesspool of disease. We invented AIDS.” Then quipping under his breath, “take that San Fran.”
BRYN KELLY: Ha! I saw that too.
TK: As someone not living with HIV, yet deeply invested and specifically interested in cultural production around HIV I was shocked. On one level I liked the way Diamond Dan (his stripper name as revealed in a previous season) was identifying (to a point) with AIDS, attached to his identity as a New Yorker, but I did question if the joke was earned or needed? How did the people working on the show—possibly living with HIV—feel about that joke, and how did viewers at home living with HIV feel about that joke? Not to put this all on you, but I am wondering how you as a cultural producer, pop culture observer and woman living with HIV felt about the joke?
BK: I dunno. I relate to your ambivalence. Part of me hates to veer into a kind of line-item, algebraic, let’s-dissect-the-joke kind of media criticism, though. That feels like it would take this conversation in a very blogwardly direction.
TK: Fair. I guess I am asking also because, “Mindy” joins a whole host of other other media for the screen, created over the last few years which have been bringing HIV/AIDS back into mainstream conversation. Last year on “Veep” the welfare of a little girl with HIV is used to build comic tension over a few episodes; on an “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch from a previous season we see Amy struggling to keep her cool after a date tells her he is “living with AIDS”, only for her to end up being shamed when it comes out she is a foodie; over the last few years the website “Humans of New York” often features people whose family members have died of HIV/AIDS; and—appearing almost as a sub-genre of current AIDS references—both the 2014 film “Maps to the Stars” and last season’s “House of Cards” featured moments where there was intentional obfuscation of someone’s HIV status, one played for laughs.
BK: I have seen most of those – and of course last week’s PrEP horniness on “How To Get Away With Murder.” Another instance I noticed was in Chelsea Handler’s “Uganda Be Kidding Me” on Netflix. In it she is recounting this conversation she had with her sister where she is proposing going to Africa for a vacation. She’s like, don’t you think it would be fun to hook up with some safari guy? And her sister says, “Seriously? You’re going to the AIDS capital of the world to hook up?” Chelsea says, “Whatever, AIDS is not gonna – bring a condom! I’m not gonna let that stop me! I’m not a quitter!” Which, like a lot of late-night comedy stuff, is low-to-medium LOL, but it caught me off guard, and at very least elicited a laugh of surprise.
TK: Yeah, none of the “AIDS Jokes” land for me, not to say there is no room for humor in the topic. “Merce” is a funny web series that tackles the topic of living with HIV with a lot of jokes! Plus there is the “classic joke” everyone thinks their friend made up:
Q: What do you do when life gives you AIDS?
A: Make LemonAIDS!
I guess if I had to pick the best of the bunch I like Amy Schumer’s sketch because it disrupts AIDS troupes: it is straight couple, a man is being vulnerable with a woman, AIDS is being played as comedy rather than tragedy, and in the end his HIV status is not the worst thing in the world – being a foodie is!
Talking to my friend Michael Crumpler,a healthcare chaplaincy resident who has been living with HIV for 9 years, he thinks that even when a mention of AIDS on prime TV is superficial and risky, the benefit is that is sparks interest and creates dialogue, opening the door for more in depth and critical social critique and education.
BK: I agree, particularly in this age of social media. Every nanosecond of primetime television is dissected for days afterward. Most of that discourse is annoying, but sometimes it creates community.
On a personal level, I can really relate to that Schumer joke. Once I was in a play about, among other things, the legacies of HIV in queer communities (Ezra Nepon’s “Between Two Worlds: Who Loved You Before You Were Mine”) and as a cast, we were having a very intense process about our individual relationships to the material, and I decided to disclose some things about survivor’s’ guilt and whatnot, and it was all very emotional.
Afterward, I was sitting next to some other actors who were having a hushed conversation and I asked, “What are you talking about?” One actor said, “I’m embarrassed to say,” to which I replied, “I just told you I’m HIV positive! What could be more personal than that?” He said, “Okay! Alright! I have bedbugs, Bryn!” I was like, oh yeah, that’s way worse. And I sort of wasn’t kidding. Humor is a great device for keeping perspective, and for owning up to the ways we allow our perspectives to be warped.
Most of the stuff we’ve been talking about has been in the realm of comedy, and occasionally glitzy soap, which I find interesting. I think both those genres work best when they register true on some emotional level. If a joke or a dramatic device is emotionally true I find it funny; if not, I find it jarring. Even Chelsea is being like, pssh, AIDS is not that big a deal and can be prevented, thus will not get in the way of my horniness.
TK: I mean it is a kind of proto pre-PrEP joke for women, non?
BK: Sure. Handler is one of those comics who gets off on being “outrageous,” which of course is code for performing (and arguably espousing) a kind of clueless, specifically feminized racism. Her public persona is that she is generally callous to other people’s feelings and a “bad person,” while being simultaneously being quite judgmental. So it was an interesting moment to see her acknowledge the humanity — or at least, the fuckability (we know those are two different things) — of this potential HIV-positive fuck buddy in her colonialist safari fantasy, even if it serves to reify this caricature of her as an inveterate slut. It’s not a terribly dissimilar strategy to wearing a #TruvadaWhore teeshirt to the club or something.
But here I am, dissecting the joke like I said I wasn’t going to do!
All this sort of dovetails with the kind of things you have been talking about vis-a-vis “The Second Silence”.
TK: Yeah, I think so too, that idea that from 1996 to around 2008 there was a real drop off in public conversation around HIV, and it was broken primarily on what I call the AIDS Crisis Revisitation, a focus through media on early responses to HIV/AIDS in the US. So this moment of current AIDS related one-liners and plots comes at the same time as new releases that are looking back, like “Larry Kramer: In Love & Anger” (2015, Jean Carlomusto) and “Back on Board: Greg Louganis” (2015, Cheryl Furjanic) which can be seen as part of the same moment as the “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013, Jean-Marc Vallee), “United In Anger” (2012, Jim Hubbard), and How to Survive A Plague (2012, David France), ect. (t is also interesting to think about how “Straight Outta Compton”, 2015, directed by F. Gary Gray fits into this look back, but that is another conversation!)
Because I came of age around the Second Silence my ears perk up when there is even a mention of HIV, because for so long there seemed to be none.
Our common friend, filmmaker and academic Alexandra Juhasz—who literally wrote the book on the subject (“AIDS TV”, 1995)—thinks that these references is the popular media catch-up. She says, “maybe we can understand the mainstream to have been influenced by the larger media ecology of AIDS that has long been producing images and text around AIDS.”
And she is right. The ACT UP Oral History Project, the arts based non-profit Visual AIDS, magazines like “Poz” and “HIV Plus”, as well as individual artists and activists such as James Wentzy, Chloe Dzubilo, Frederick Weston and many others never stopped making AIDS related culture, even during the Second Silence.
BK: It’s always good to revisit the archive and to remember that there have been people making work about HIV/AIDS all along. But like you, I find these blips on the cultural radar encouraging, at least in the sense that they are reminders that AIDS has not been entirely erased from larger cultural imaginary. That said, even in the mainstream, it seems like AIDS Media 2.0 is no longer about the weepily sympathetic “AIDS victim.”
TK: Right. That was the story that circulated, and people tired of it. Nic Holas, the writer from Australia who often writes about his own experience as a someone living with HIV, recalls how, “You couldn’t sell an AIDS narrative in the early 2000s.”
He and others, such as fellow writer Mathew Rodriquez, point to the defining role demographics—specifically race—played in how and when AIDS ceased being part of the mainstream narrative. While the release of meds in 1996 was a new beginning for some, the crisis remains within black, people of color, and reduced class and income communities. As Holas noted though when it came to mainstream representation, “Once white people stopped dying the conversation was over.”
BK: At least on the entertainment side.
TK: True. That was something Rodriquez pointed out. Growing up his Dad was living with HIV and so he had a keen awareness of the virus and when it was mentioned. He saw how AIDS never left the media but rather than being folded into TV dramas or special presentations, AIDS became just a news topic. Important milestones like the release of The Swiss Statement and the ongoing progress of Treatment as Prevention never sunk into the popular consciousness the way earlier aspects of the epidemic did because they never were incorporated as robustly in the culture. In part, maybe this is why the general public’s knowledge of AIDS seems largely to be stuck in the late 90s.
BK: I think about the people who write for and direct television, and that workforce is overwhelmingly white, mostly straight, Ivy League-educated men in their 20s and 30s. Even Mindy Kaling was recently criticized, rightly or wrongly, for having one of the least diverse production companies producing content for network television today. In that milieu, it feels like AIDS is invoked in this way that is like, here is this cartoonishly bad thing that can happen to you — in a silly way, like when Wiley Coyote runs off a cliff or something.
I used to stop by this very nerdy trivia night in Williamsburg with similar demographics, and every team kind of competes for the silliest name, and once a bunch of guys picked “Friday the Thirteenth, Part AIDS.” Which I actually find quite funny! I still laugh about that with my friends who were there. It is a good mashup of absurdities.
If a massive number of people were still dying in the US in extreme ways they used to, I do not think it would be possible to make these jokes, at least not in a mainstream way.
TK: Which raises the question of where is the line? When is it inappropriate to make / not make the joke? Is it death? Is it daily suffering? We know that while the death rate in relation to HIV/AIDS has been reduced, in some communities the rate of new infections has not changed and the stigma remains the same if not worse. All of this of course goes back to demographics. Most white middle class people with HIV have a very different experience than others living with the virus. There is struggle across the board, but it is different based on age, years living with the virus, gender, race, geographic, mental health, sexual identity, immigration status, class, etc. We know that in the US the more minoritized your are, the greater your risk of getting HIV is, and the worse your social, political and so physical experience of the virus will be. Danny’s joke is not rooted in this reality. It seems present to shock, or present to be seen as safely edgy.
BK: In that same episode, the character Tamara is texting with her cousin Sheena, played by Laverne Cox, who works at the White House and is clearly well-respected there, in a bizarrely prescient instance of art-imitates-life-imitates-art. (Just last month, President Obama appointed Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, also an incredibly accomplished transgender woman of color, to the White House Office of Personnel.)
But in the episode prior, Mindy, who is pregnant, is like, “What if our kid is trans? I just want herm to be happy” or something like that, which is certainly less funny. And of course, to some extent, Kaling’s comedy — and to a much larger extent, Handler’s comedy, like we were talking about before — both have heretofore tended to rely on some obnoxious, tired-out tropes of anti-black racism. I could list countless examples here; they are distasteful so I will not.
Suffice to say, there’s this weird push-pull always around the intersectional moment.
TK: This is a good way of seeing it. So while Diamond Dan’s one-liner may be nothing to celebrate, I guess it’s also nothing to ignore because when it comes to HIV, silence still equals death.
But if we are looking for a victory, I think an easy win would be if the number of characters living with the virus on TV outweighed the jokes about the virus.
BK: Before we wrap up I want to get back to your first question. How I felt about the joke on The Mindy Project? The quick answer is that it is all very situational and context-specific.
In the end if I had to say something about my feelings upon coming across these pop culture moments about AIDS—regardless of humor or taste—I would just say, they make me feel seen. Or at very least, not totally forgotten.
Bryn Kelly has shared her written work at NYC-based performance series Gayety!, Low Standards, and Queer Memoir; on Showtime Network’s OurChart.com; in Original Plumbing magazine; as a regular columnist at the digital literary magazine PrettyQueer.com; and in the anthology, Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love and Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary, edited by Morty Diamond. She was a cofounder of Theater Transgression, a transgender multimedia performance collective, and studied playwriting at Brooklyn College. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Theodore (Ted) Kerr is a Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS. He was the programs manager at Visual AIDS. He is currently at Union Theological Seminary looking at Christian Ethics and HIV/AIDS.