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How People with HIV and Aids Are Presented in Cinema - Essay Sample

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Wesleyan University
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Movies, television and the media news networks have a significant influence on the daily lives of people. These information outlets enlighten the audience about the society and influence the peoples opinions on how to navigate through the society. In the 1980s, HIV and AIDS became an epidemic that took people by surprise and the media released information about the disease regardless of whether the information and facts were right or wrong. During the first two decades after the outbreak of the disease, the movies portrayed the disease as a gay disease because HIV/AIDS infected a large proportion of the gay community especially in Los Angeles and New York (Feldman & Miller, 1998). During the time, medical professionals were unaware of the causes of the disease that was spread through bodily fluids and led to a lot of misdiagnoses. As a result, the sharing of used needles, unsanitary medical equipment, and blood transfusion facilitated the risk of transmitting the disease. Therefore, intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs were at the risk of the disease exposure. However, the media and Hollywood movies portrayed that the heterosexual males, non-drug users, and whites had nothing to worry about contracting HIV/AIDS. This group felt invincible and confident that they were not at risk. However, during the early outbreak of the disease and the following years, the media only released information about the people who had succumbed to HIV/AIDS but did not provide information about the preventive measures (Aaron, 2004). The popularity of the illness picked a lot of public attention and among the medical fraternity. Medical personnel had to revise the diagnostic criteria because the disease manifested itself in a couple of ways. As a result, Hollywood movie producers and directors took it upon them to create awareness about the disease, and on 1985 An Early Frost was released as the first movie that showcased HIV infected people on the silver screen. Since then, movies have played a critical role in representing AIDS and creating awareness. The paper seeks to how people with HIV/AIDS are represented in cinema. It will also cover a comparative analysis of the movies Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club.

Epidemiology of HIV and AIDS

HIV/AIDS was relatively a new disease to epidemiology as its origin was in the 20th century. According to the history of the disease, scientists trace its origin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through the preparation and consumption of bush meat in the 1920s especially monkeys that were infected with Simian immunodeficiency virus. The virus could be transferred using bodily fluids as soon as people consumed the wild meat (Feldman & Miller, 1998). Therefore, the virus spread in two ways. First, the illness was spread through public health workers that were vaccinating people against diseases and infections without the use of sanitary needles. Little was known about the dangers of sharing medical needles and other medical apparatus. Secondly, the virus was spread through the railway network which facilitated free and efficient transportation through the African wilderness that increased the likelihood of people contracting the virus and carrying it to a large geographical sphere. The disease was isolated in Africa in the 1960s until Haitians working in the DRC contracted the disease and returned to South America. The virus reached the US due to prevalent sex tourism in Haiti in the 1970s and 80s. When the first medical record of the disease was reported in the US, medical practitioners were unaware about the disease because there was no prior medical knowledge (Feldman & Miller, 1998).

The Queer Culture and HIV/AIDS

Initially, HIV was seen as a gay disease, and before the acronym AIDS was approved, some medical practitioners and scientists had termed the illness GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). However, as the knowledge of the disease advanced, it was noted that the illness did not distinguish between sexual orientation. The queer culture can be traced in the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century in the Western civilization when sexual attraction the between men appeared (Dyer, 2002). During this period, people who engaged in same-sex intimacy practiced in covert or in the dark and only communicated using symbols and codes. The men who engaged in sex with other men were branded as queer, and the term homosexuality was first used in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Dyer, 2002). The culture was not limited to sexual encounters but touched other social spheres such as gay social practices, gay neighbors, and gay selves. The queer culture was initially limited to high culture in the early United States. The association of gay culture began with wealthy men who had their own opera, fine cuisine, ballet and musical theatre. However, when the Golden Age of Hollywood began, the queer culture transitioned to cinema (Dyer, 2002). On the other hand, during the period of feminism growth, gay culture in women emerged and was recognized as lesbians. Currently, the US and some other parts of the world have come to accept the LGBTQ community. However, the movement still faces stiff opposition due to the moral, religious and ethical implication.

In the early onset of HIV in the US, the media underrepresented the seriousness of the disease and by 1981, 83% of the news stories that were publicized followed data produced by the CDC that informed the masses about the Gay Pneumonia. The Centre for Disease Control did not understand the causes of the infection and why it weakened the immune system (Aaron, 2004). All the medical reports implied that the queer culture in the US was mostly affected by the disease. As such, the homosexual behavior in women who were drug addicts and shared needles for drug injections led to a rise of lesbians diagnosed with the illness. However, the media emphasized gay men and masked the other people who were neither homosexual nor drug abusers in believing that they were safe from the disease (Dyer, 2002).

The Representation of AIDS on TV and Movies

In 1981, the Cable News Network (CNN) was the first television channel to air news about HIV/AIDS. However, it was until 1984 when St Elswhere featured characters infected with AIDS as the first television show. In the period following to 1985, the gay hiatus theme on television dramas showed that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the queer culture (Aaron, 2004). However, there was fear that gay activism would speak out in the media because the infection was isolated to one group of people. As a result, television networks began suppressing information about HIV to counter the threat posed by gay activists. Nevertheless, networks wanted to have TV dialogues about HIV, and they were showing people who were dying because of the disease. These people were represented as malnourished and in dire need of medical attention even though there was no ready cure for the disease. In 1985, An Early Frost the first TV movie to represent AIDS infected people was produced by National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The movies showed an HIV positive young man who was ousted by his family (Aaron, 2004). The movies received an Emmy Award for its exceptional feature of a gay male with AIDS, but the movie did not show the guy living his full life. At the end of the movie, the young male person succumbed to the disease. The movie was limiting because it showcased how infected people were stigmatized by the society (Aaron, 2004). There were stereotypes that even a handshake would lead to the spread of the epidemic. The movie focused on how the family reacted to their positive gay relative instead of how he was struggling with his illness. However, the production of HIV movies shifted from television to Hollywood as producers and directors were still working on stories about the epidemic to create awareness.

Comparative analysis of Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club


One decade after the AIDS epidemic, HIV had grown into an international killer disease that had no cure. Philadelphia is a 1993 movie that illustrates the journey of Andrew Beckett played by Tom Hank as a young gay lawyer fired from a reputable and the largest law firm in Philadelphia. However, Beckett refuses to go quietly. Beckett lives together with his partner Miguel Alvarez, and hides his HIV status. On an assignment on a new and important case, a partner of the law firm notices a tiny lesion on the forehead of Beckett. To find a way to hide or deal with the lesion, he decides to stay at home where he finishes the complaints of the case and submits instructions to his assistance to present the complaint to the court. Unfortunately, Beckett suffers from bowel spasms and is rushed to the hospital, and coincidentally, the file complaints to the case go missing. He believes that somebody at the firm intentionally hid the files due to his condition and is terminated for wrongfully handling court files as a pretext on the part of the firm. He is fired and finds attorneys to take his case, and nine lawyers reject him but Joe Miller decides to take his case. Miller is homophobic, and after knowing the condition of his client, he initially refuses to shake his hands, but the doctor informs him how the disease is contracted. Miller takes on Becketts case after seeing how his client is discriminated, but after a series of court proceedings, Miller wins the case, and Beckett is paid $4.5 million in damages, but he succumbs to AIDS (Perez & Lopez, 2005).

The movie showcases the prevalence of AIDS among the gay community and also shows the signs of HIV positive people. The manifestation of the illness is through facial lesions and febrile episodes. The spots on the face could be a result of skin infections, but as the movie progresses, the skin lesions became generalized and associated with HIV/AIDS. When Beckett goes to the hospital, the doctor does a colonoscopy to determine if the cause of his diarrhea is Kaposi's sarcoma. In the early prevalence of AIDS, the symptoms were thought to be that of Kaposi's sarcoma, hence the reason why the doctor carries out the colon tests. However, after a blood sample analysis, the doctor finds out that Beckett is HIV infected. However, he is discharged, and after a few months, he experiences massive weight loss, fatigued, and his physical health deteriorates. The situation gets worse as the disease advances, and his hair whitens, he becomes weak and experiences muscle pain. In the last stages of AIDS, Philadelphia shows how opportunistic diseases attack Beckett, and his digestive and respiratory systems are affected. His nervous system fails, and he feels faint while testifying before the judge. Later, he faints and is rushed to the hospital (Perez & Lopez, 2005).

Apart from the symptoms of the disease, Philadelphia takes a twist to show how HIV positive people were discriminated and even worse if their sexual orientation is homosexual. Beckett is an accomplished lawyer, but he is discriminated on the grounds of the stigma surrounding HIV and also because of his gay nature. The discrimination raises ethical and moral questions on whether a persons sexual conduct (Hart, 2014).

Dallas Buyers Club

The movie tells the tales of Ron Woodroof (Mathew McConaughey), an electrician in Dallas in 1985 who lives a life of drinking, smoking, casual sex, and drug use. Ron is racist and homophobic. His is diagnosed with AIDS after visiting the hospital for an injury he received at work and that he would die within a month. He is infuriated by the thought of a disease associated with faggots or in other words homosexuals. His anger further infuriates his denial, but after deliberations, he accepts his condition. He researches on the available in...

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