Portrayal of HIV and AIDS in Media: And the Band Played On, Zero Patience

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The Media has always had a potent role in shaping the publics perception of what living with HIV/AIDS is like. By showcasing a plethora of diverse narratives experienced by those both living with and affected by the HIV/AIDS virus. Film has allowed the human experience of having HIV to be illustrated to the wider world of those in both the homosexual and heterosexual communities.

There seems to be two generalised types of film about AIDS; “those produced by mass media (television news, soap operas, made-for-TV movies, Hollywood cinema) and those which are produced presumably “outside” the commercial sphere (independent or “activist” video and films, produced by communities directly affected by HIV/AIDS” (Fuqua, 1998). Films such as Longtime companion (1989), Philadelphia (1993), it’s my party (1995), and the band played on (1996) and Jeffery (1995) all fall into the category of those produced by mass media. The Musical Zero Patience is a unique film in this category, which is why I haven’t listed it above with the other films. It is a musical film geared directly to gay audiences, where the five other films are for a more generalised audience (gay or straight).

Zero Patience

Zero Patience directed by John Greyson in 1993, is about the man who started the AIDS epidemic, similar to how in Charles Dickens novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ the main protagonist is visited by the ghost from the past, in this however it is that of the man who brought AIDS to America and started the epidemic. This farcical musical mocks and pokes fun at the political and scientific realities of the AIDS epidemic. “It rewrites the history of “patient zero” highlighting the gaps that American media and medical field have glossed over in attempts to identify a foreign origin for AIDS, making visible the hidden agenda behind such a project” (Cagle, p.740).

Much of the musical is about how Americans fil to talk about sex. The musical makes fun of a system that is more preoccupied trying to blame and find the source of AIDS rather than stopping the epidemic. One main plot of the musical focuses on a natural history museum, where they have set up a display of the “hall of contagion”. In each display case is the human who was responsible for starting the epidemic, this way individuals are blamed for the problems rather then discussing societies sexual and behavioural issues regarding HIV/AIDS. The supposed idea is that if we can identify the individual responsible for the epidemic, no one else needs to take any sort or responsibility for the problem. In the musical however, once the pronouncement that Patient Zero was the origin, he is suddenly cast out and no longer recognised as a human being. Throughout the musical all Patient Zero is trying to do is tell his story, saying that he didn’t intend for any of this to happen, that he wasn’t evil. One thing this musical does which I’ve yet to see in any other film regarding HIV/AIDS, is referencing ACT UP – the organisation that is responsible for publicly protesting against the social injustices against the LGBT community.

In the musical, the scene with the museum displays, it is shown to be sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, which suggests to the viewer the collusion of the entire medical field regarding the AIDS epidemic. Contrasting that to today, the major drugs companies are the ones who finance the programs for lesbians and Gays, because they are the ones who are benefitting financially from the epidemic. As the medications required to stop HIV replicating are quite expensive. Data on the Aidsinfo.gov website (a website which tracks the generalised yearly cost of HIV medications such as;

  • Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs) – NRTIs block reverse transcriptase, an enzyme HIV needs to make copies of itself.
  • Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs) – NNRTIs bind to and later alter reverse transcriptase, an enzyme HIV needs to make copies of itself.
  • Protease Inhibitors (PIs) – PIs block HIV protease, an enzyme HIV needs to make copies of itself.
  • Fusion Inhibitors – Fusion inhibitors block HIV from entering the CD4 cells of the immune system.
  • CCR5 Antagonists – CCR5 antagonists block CCR5 coreceptors on the surface of certain immune cells that HIV needs to enter the cells.
  • Integrase Inhibitors – Integrase inhibitors block HIV integrase, an enzyme HIV needs to make copies of itself.
  • Post-Attachment Inhibitors – Post-attachment inhibitors block CD4 receptors on the surface of certain immune cells that HIV needs to enter the cells.
  • Pharmacokinetic Enhancers – Pharmacokinetic enhancers are used in HIV treatment to increase the effectiveness of an HIV medicine included in an HIV regimen.

As there is not one single drug used to treat HIV, a large quantity of different inhibitors and enhancers are required to stop the virus from replicating itself. It is suggested that a year of optimal HIV treatment costs $18,300 in the United States. (AIDSinfo, 2018). So it isn’t such a farfetched idea to have thought there is some sort of conspiracy relating the drug companies and the Epidemic.

This is explored in the musical several times, especially with the character George. He attends the Act Up meetings and tries to gain control, not of the system (like the other act up members), but control of his own life. George is the only member shown to try and keep things he has, such as his job, a relationship and trying to figure out more about himself medically as he is receiving contradictory information (which is also a key plot point of his character in the musical). In his song, he expresses that the only thing the medical community is positive about is that he will die, and the only thing George is positive about is that he wants to live.

Despite the age of this musical, this portrayal is similar to “the second wave of HIV” in terms of attitudes relating to HIV. The first wave is about being infected and dying with AIDS (the most popular) while the second wave is about living and dealing with AIDS (the main theme in both Zero Patience and Jeffery). While Zero Patience is a thought-provoking experience, one scene takes an abstract approach to how the blood stream and cells work. Using both people and balloons floating in the blood stream, which is a comical approach to explain cells. Another iconic moment is when Michael Callen, plays “Miss HIV”, complete with a blonde wig, a bouquet of flowers and sash. Callen was an American singer, songwriter, composer, author, and AIDS activist. Callen was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982 and proceeded to become a pioneer of AIDS activism in New York City, Callen was a leader and founder of activist organizations including The People with AIDS Coalition and the Community Research Initiative. (Michael Callen, 2019). It’s interesting to note that Callen also appears as a minor character in Jonathan Demmes ‘Philadelphia’ with his musical group, ‘The Flirtations’ (in the pool party scene).

And the Band Played On

And the band played on, directed by Roger Spottiswoode in 1993, regarding this film, Fuqua (1998) said that the narratives about AIDS in popular culture “provide competing versions of the truth and social reality”. In the HBO version of Randy Shilts’s ‘Band Played On’, it does just that, as the film traces the history of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s. This content is clear and concise as a re-enactment of the period where researchers were working to discover that was happening with the disease. The main themes of this film deal with the scientific discovery of HIV/AIDS, the anti-gay political agenda of the Ronald Reagan years and the economic repression of gay men and women.

The film stars some of the more mainstream actors and actresses of the time, which made it more acceptable for all audiences to watch, unlike Zero Patience, which was geared primarily to gay audiences. Casting Steve Martin, Phil Collins, Ian McKellen and Richard Gear made it socially acceptable for straight men and women to both enjoy. The general consensus of the film focuses on the governmental and scientific aspect of the HIV/AIDS virus, primarily focusing on the epidemiological team. This team was seen as the “saints of saints”, because they had no funding, no equipment, no support and no sort of normalised life outside of work. There is a scene where this is clearly shown when one of the scientists offers to travel to New York City to investigate and see what exactly is happening with the virus, paying for the excursion himself out of his own pocket and refusing compensation from the others on his team saying “there is no need to pay me back”.

One of the main things I noticed while watching it was how in a way, manages to shift the focus of the film from the AIDS epidemic from a distance and really only show the work they’re doing behind the scenes. I did notice however that none of the epidemiological team is shown to have any prejudices or disdain towards the work they’re doing but I also noticed that other than observing the gay community they had no interpersonal relationships with any of them.

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In this film however, the viewer sees very little about how the virus affects the lives people living with it, and the only people we’re introduced to is those brought in through the research investigation with one of the scientists or in political scenes where an injustice is prevalent. The only scene I can recall where we come close to seeing what living with the virus is like, is when we’re in the living room of Bill Krauss, but it like I mentioned before Is in a political setting and his partner is ignored through-out the scene. Which is one of the films biggest down falls as there is a lack of physical intimacy or relational commitment between the couples. The final moments of the film, show an array of photographs of people who have died of AIDS next to a candle light vigil. Elton John (AIDS activist and out-gay man) sings the closing credits song.

Longtime Companion

Longtime companion, directed by Norman Rene in 1990 is a direct parallel to as the band plays. Where it shows the relationship between several gay couples in the early years of the epidemic. Its overall theme is about the evolution and the effect of AIDS in a same sex couple, but also about the solidarity and commitment of a long-term same sex relationship where both men are infected and inevitably die of AIDS. Perhaps the most poignant theme in the film is death, but also staying loyal and with your loved ones at the worst of times. Contrasting this to ‘and the band plays on’, the viewer gets a more intimate perspective of how life is like in people’s everyday lives. There is a familial theme with the extended families of the gay men. For example, one scene where an obituary is shown, one gay man says “When I began my relationship with Fuzzy there was never any question that he was one of the family”. Which is a direct contrast to the only gay relationship in and the band plays on, which only show loving and loyal relations to be those in political activist relationships.

Philadelphia

Philadelphia directed by Jonathan Demme in 1993. Considered one of the most ground-breaking and first films to bring the AIDS epidemic into a mainstream audience, thanks to the casting of both Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. It grossed over 206 Million with a budget of 26 million. It stars Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a senior associate at a law firm in Philadelphia who has acquired an AIDS-defining illness – Kaposi’s Sarcoma, ‘which is one of the most common cancers in people living with HIV’(nhs.uk, 2019).

Beckett is dismissed for “incompetence” but suspects that the true reason for his termination is his HIV status, as one of the partners noticed a lesion on Beckett’s forehead which he dismisses as the result of a racquetball injury. Joe Miller played by Denzel Washington represents Beckett in court and proceeds to sue the firm for discrimination and wrongful dismissal. The power of this film lay in its ability to make the subject more palatable to a wider array of audiences, especially during some of the worst and hardest times of the AIDS epidemic, in part by casting household names such as Hanks and Washington as the two leads, and was the only film who used people in the end stage of the disease during the hospital scenes, which provided a realistic portrayal of persons living with advanced HIV and AIDS.

The defining moral scene in this film is in the courtroom scene where they bring up the fact that he was probably infected during one of the three visits to an adult porn theatre, as his wife is HIV negative. The central case of the court case is: “He did this to himself by doing deviant activities, that he is not a victim but one deserving God’s wrath upon the sinful”. When Beckett visits Miller, he finds it hard to get sympathy or even convince him that he has a case. However, after Miller only takes the case when he first hand sees the discrimination that is played out against Beckett.

Another moral point in the film is when Millers wife asks if he knows anyone who is gay, when he says “no,” she begins listing off family members from both sides who are gay. The whole time the wife is trying to break down the barrier of prejudice he’s built against gay men, but is unsuccessful. The scene dissolves to them making fun of gay male sexuality by saying “I’d never let anyone do that to me” and giggle about it as they continue being sexual with each other. By the end of the movie miller fails to change his homophobia.

One of the main differences between this film and the two others I’ve listed before, is that the majority of the scenes take play in a sterile and impersonal setting of an office or courtroom. There is a lack of display of affection between characters, very little emotion and a lack of expression of feelings, instead they’re are taking the issues of family dynamics and acting them out in the workplace. Similar to how in Longtime companion, his wife never questions his sexual orientation, or his diagnosis, and she sticks by him throughout the entirety of the film.

It’s My Party

It’s my party directed by Randal Kleiser, 1996 is about a gay couple, when one of the men find out he is HIV+ it causes tension and stress within the relationship, in a direct contrast to longtime companion and Philadelphia, the audience sees the hurt and devastation that an AIDS diagnosis can cause in a relationship. In this case, Nick (eric Roberts) has no support or love from his father because he devalued his son when he found out he was gay. There is no accepting mother figure either as she is upset over the diagnosis and his lifestyle, and finally there is no loving partner because he is too scared of contracting the disease. In a twist of plot however it goes from being about him being isolated to him inviting everyone he loves, regardless of how their last encounter was (including his parents), over for a goodbye party. As the virus progresses to AIDS, he learns that in a matter of weeks he will lose his mental abilities. Rather than let this happen he decides the only rational decision to him is to kill himself before that happens. After the two day celebration with his loved ones, he kills himself so that he can die surrounded by the ones he loves. The lead character decides to control his last few weeks of his life because he’s failed to control his life in his illness. However when on e of his friends beings his Ex to the goodbye party everything falls off balance. During the party scene however we meet a range of stereotypes within the movie including;

  • The alcoholic abusive father who fails to come to terms with his son’s sexuality.
  • The emotionally devastated mother.
  • The fag hag who’s mission it is to only be around gay men.
  • The flamboyant and campy best friends.
  • The perfect lover, the one who got away because he couldn’t deal with the disease.

Comparing their relationships however we can see very similar traits stemming from how the parents, friends and lovers interact with each other, the parents are estranged, just as the lovers are. The friends are shallow and vapid, just like the lovers. I interpreted the party however not as a goodbye but as a way to make people feel guilty about their relationships, especially the failure of their family and the failure of their friendships, and the reality that it took death to bring them together, that they had nothing positive in their lives to celebrate, so they had to celebrate death.

Jeffery

Jeffery directed by Christopher Ashley in 1995. Jeffery is about a young gay man in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, that sex is too dangerous and will no longer have relationships or sex, basically becoming celibate. The term “magnet” was used to describe the relationships (platonic and sexual) between both a HIV Positive and a HIV Negative person. (hence magnet +, -). The film is about his inner struggle over whether or not a loving relationship is worth the risk of catching HIV. The main themes across the film however are;

  • Staying in a sexual relationship while one partner is infected with AIDS
  • Gay pride
  • Gay bashing.
  • The dynamic of a mother – son relationship.
  • Taking emotional risks.

The overall film though is about the moral decision of choosing to be with someone who has AIDS. It portrays the roman of a gay relationship instead of anonymous sexual encounters. The people are less like a close family and more like a young naïve couple trying to find their place with the AIDS diagnosis looming over them. Early on in the film, the two men kiss passionately, lusting after one another and telling each other how much they love one another, it then cuts to two heterosexual couples, watching the couple kiss on a cinema screen, as if they’re watching the same film we are, so in essence a film within a film. The men are both visibly disgusted and groan and try avoid looking at the two men kissing where the two women are passionately watching. This is a way the film tries to display what it is like for a gay audience watching men and women kissing, where gay audience members must listen to the reactions of disgust from heterosexual audiences. Particularly men.

There is one scene which gives insight to how there is/was an inability to discuss physical intimacy. There is a point in the film where Jeffery needs advice, breaking the fourth wall he poses the question “what it would be like to call your parents and ask them about sex” to the audience. He then resumes back into the scene and makes a mock/fantasy phone call where he calls his mum and dad to tell them that he is no longer having sex. They both have their own phones and talk to Jeffery in a relaxed and blunt way, where they talk about safe sex practices and discuss how he would work around his partner having AIDS. The point of this scene though is to illustrate how people cannot openly talk about sex, while you’d hope that parents could help guide their children or at least talk to them about sex, the fact is that most parents just don’t. It isn’t a comfortable topic to bring up. This makes the very nature of being intimate or having intimate communication with another person is private, that it is only between two people. Which makes it so some people have no idea how to bring the topic up and have this sort of conversation. Thus being an inexperienced teenager or young adult at the time of the AIDS epidemic and having no resources to turn to, specially as a gay man, That is the point of this scene.

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