The Historical Realities of Reaganism Behind Angels in America

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Written in a time of pride, prejudice, and punishment, Angels in America, a gay fantasia exploring a wide variety of National Themes is a highly dramatic piece that sets against a backdrop of selfishness, sexual politics and the introduction to a new and misinformed disease: AIDS. It is the background of this play that the characters of Angels in America are influenced by. Being largely defined by politics, Kushner depicts with characters both real and fictional just how scrutinized people were and continue to be in society when they stray away from what is socially seen as morally correct. Examining the role of the closet and the oppressed within it, my essay will focus on how this converted space the characters live in acts as an oppressive social construct, how the play exhibits power relations and its role in shaping the characters into people that they not only aren’t, but don’t want to be and how this has created an imagery of abstract love and death within the characters in return.

In the Reagan administrations early years, homosexuals were widely viewed as marginalized figures, having their identities established by those who propagate gender dichotomies and who had rapidly played part in both the construction and the promoting of an ‘unquestionable’ equation of homosexuality and illness, being gay was seen as an automatic death sentence. This conservative ideology that stigmatized and equated AIDS as a gay man’s disease had begun to wreak havoc on the minds of gay men across America in the 1980s, resulting in them being emasculated within society.

With the use of Roy Cohn, a morally bankrupt attorney who conserves his power in the administration by refusing his sexuality, Kushner highlights how hegemonic masculinity is used to equate to social power and how the fabrication of homosexuality was formed to view those who are gay, as people who had no place in constitutional clout. When Roy Cohn is told he has AIDS, he denies his diagnosis, telling the doctor that it is not AIDS that he has, but liver cancer, as “AIDS is something homosexuals have” (pg. 47). As the label homosexual was and continues to be demonized in society, Roy believes to be perceived as gay would relinquish any power he has accumulated over time. Exhibiting an exaggerated masculine identity, Roy serves as a reminder to how gender performativity was and continues to be utilized among men in order to conform to stereotypes and to augment the impression of power. As an early mentor for Donald Trump, it isn’t difficult to see traces and echoes of Trump in Cohn, and Cohn in Trump. As AIDs continues to be lethally stigmatized and both Trump and Cohn present combative litigation, their use of labels act as an oppressive barrier to granting the ‘socially unacceptable’ with political, economic and social opportunities, and in the Reagan era, it was treatment services for HIV and AIDS. As influential people like Roys character have a dominant cultural role in how people view homosexuality and AIDS, it is important to remember, as DeMilio (2014) mentions in her essay, “representations of the nation through a male perspective depend not only on the marginalization of women but also of specific representations of men, including gay men and men of colour.”

The construction of gender norms plays a large role in the understanding of government response to homosexuality. With the use of gender performativity and characters challenging the traditional female and male binary, Kushner examines how humans both knowingly and unknowingly equate hegemonic masculinity with power or the illusion of power and how the masculine body is used as a façade to confirm social status. Analysing what gender and sexual relationships look like without the government of dominant social structures, openly gay Prior raises questions and gains power far beyond the Roys of the world with the use of as Campagna (2014) observes, “imagining alternatives to the tragic queer history.” As arguably the protagonist and the only character fighting against conservative social norms of men and AIDS, Prior, ironically the most spirited character, plays chief victim to the power relations placed upon gays. “On the threshold of revelation” as Harper says, Prior lives outside the harsh victimization the binary is daring, and in return suffers the most from doing so. Having strange visions throughout the play caused by both disease and the abjection from partners, Kushner shows through not only Priors character, but Harpers of the conservativism within society in their shared dream scene. Both tied to the theme of preferred versions of reality, Harper and Prior share the same altered state, where only through hallucinations can they escape the restrictions placed upon them. Envisioning himself as a drag queen, Kushner expresses that the only place Prior is able to give shape to the unacceptable gender expressions, is through a dream.

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Whisked away by her own imagery of Antarctica, a place almost all woman couldn’t visit until the twentieth century, Harper experiences her place of solace, like Prior, in her imagination. Although trying to escape her torturous marriage through only dream, as Monoz (2007) states in his article How American History Spins Forward, “Harper’s desire to quit the real world denounces, in a way, women’s silencing and dependent role on men.” Deceived by her husband’s façade of masculine performance, Joe, Mormon attorney lying between proudly out Prior and I don’t have cancer, I have aids Roy, obeys to the typical ‘male’ behaviour subscribed to men, which is used to mask his internal discord with his sexuality. In return both Joe and Harper struggle under the oppressional construct of gender performances. Kushner’s choice of powerful characters such as Joe and Roy serve as an example as to why the closet is used among men, trapped by societies marginalization of gays and gender performances, they play the voices of conservatism in this play.

As the fusion of gender dichotomies and politics imposes on the creating, shaping and reconstructing of character identity, it is notable to mention how these power relations mold the character’s image of death and love in return. An image that is “not distracted; abstracted” (Louis, pg. 38). Existing in an era dependant on labels, religion, sexuality, and politics, Kushner utilizes multiple characters to depict how selfishness and lack of love can form within the modern man when the labels we adopt infringe on our outlook on human empathy. Saving only himself from societies widely unaccepted stance on homosexuality, character Joe’s obedience to the social customs that surround him drives him to a nominal marriage with Harper, a marriage built on essentially, selfishness. With already an abstract view of love, Joe throughout the play refers to Harper as ‘buddy’, a term most commonly used by men to other men, with buddy being a masculine designation for friendship, Joe uses this word to establish a feeling of comfortableness for him as it assigns her with a somewhat masculine, non romanic trait, a trait he desires over her femineity. Although small, this term sheds light to the extent Joe went to perpetuate the illusion of a ‘normal’ marriage.

Hindered by both society and religion, Joe’s questionable version of love can be linked to both his mother and father’s portrayal of it. In act 2 scene 8 where Joe drunkenly stands at a pay phone speaking with his mother Hannah, hysterical Joe asks his mother if his father ever loved him, leading to him confessing his homosexuality. Hannah, a devoutly Mormon first sternly denies both the question and Joe’s confession, then blames his desire for masculine affection on the lack of manly love he received from his father. As both religion and politics inscribed and embedded the notion of love being between a man and a woman, Hannah immediately feels there must be a reason behind his desire to be with a man, that there must be something or someone to blame for his sexuality. Using Hannah to symbolize the selfish heterosexual perceptions of gay men, Kushner uses Louis as an example to how the perception of love and death is not only enticed by religion but is fuelled by the unrelenting, unchanging notions that are transmitted by those in power. Inserted into the minds of many at a young age, death is seen as something to avoid, it involves change and just like many men in power, change is refused. Louis is used to confirm the denial of death when he leaves Prior not because he doesn’t love him, but because he can’t bear to face the harsh reality of death. Kushner’s use of these characters displays how existing notions and stereotypes such as refusing to embrace illness, all love and truth has the ability to create and interfere in an individual’s perception on love and death.

While Angels in America provides a somewhat harsh political view on Reaganism and conservatism, it provokes and provides the concept of new possibilities, ones outside the margins of social norms. With the use of oppressive constructs luring the characters into false security, identity and empathy, Kushner attempts to dismantle the solaces of public acceptance by providing us through his characters, the consequences and hurt not only individuals receive but society receives when rejecting the reconstruction of traditional gender hierarchy. Reading Angels in America, you’re minded that, among many things, the struggle and enforced search for power and belonging in a flawed society has the ability to effect and taint the construction of the self.

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