How TV portrays AIDS // Soaps misconstrue facts about disease
By Deborah Rogers
The New York Times
September 6, 1988
Genoa City, Pine Valley and Bay City, the fictional sites of three popular daytime soap operas, have finally witnessed the arrival of AIDS, accompanied by accolades for addressing a significant social issue. CBS' YOUNG AN THE RESTLESS, ABC's ALL MY CHILDREN and NBC's ANOTHER WORLD have each woven the topic of AIDS into their story lines. Each depicts the disease differently; yet, they have in common one disconcerting element: All three AIDS plots on these television serials feature patients who are women - and women with no history of drug abuse.
This dramatic license flies in the face of the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which indicate that as of Aug. 15, 1988, of the 69,577 individuals diagnosed as having AIDS, the overwhelming majority are homosexual and bisexual males and intravenous drug addicts. Women, including drug abusers and those have had sexual relations with infected men or who have received transfusions of contaminated blood, constitute only 8 percent of the total.
Illness, of course, has always provided dramatic grist for novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and, not least, writers of TV scripts. The disease-of-the-week syndrome is an affliction common to many made-for-TV films. And it is true that soap operas have never been known for dispensing accurate medical information. Recently, for example, a character on ABC's One Life to Live donated type ``G`` blood.
But some soap-opera writers think that by weaving into their story lines the subject of a serious illness such as AIDS they are performing a civic duty in that they are disseminating vital information about the mysterious disease. For instance, Kay Alden, co-head writer of THE YOUNG AN THE RESTLESS, describes the AIDS plot on the CBS soap as an attempt to dispel ``a great many misconceptions about people who are unfortunate enough to have contracted the disease.``
Alden justifies the female AIDS patient in the script as a service to the show's fans: ``We have a primarily female audience, so our most viable format was to involve a woman. A great deal can be done in using a woman because a lot of people don't view this as a disease women can get or don't realize that heterosexuals are at risk.``
Yet the depictions of AIDS on these three soaps are so distorted for dramatic effect that viewers of the series, estimated at 60-million each weekday, may form misleading impressions of the disease.
Two of these soap-opera characters contracted the virus through prostitution, in one case indirectly. ANOTHER WORLD's recently deceased AIDS patient, Dawn Rollo, was a virgin who got the disease from a transfusion - remotely possible but statistically unlikely. The blood donor - a prostitute - turns out to be her mother, who in effect kills her own daughter. Reversing traditional assumptions about motherhood and nurturing, the resolution here, which spells death for the daughter, is almost sadistic, given that most soap-opera viewers, 80 percent of whom are women, are by definition daughters, if not mothers.
Setting an AIDS plot line against a backdrop of a mother-daughter relationship and prostitution is not unique to ANOTHER WORLD. On THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, Jessica Blair, a former prostitute, is another mother with AIDS. Having deserted her virginal daughter years ago to pursue her ``career,`` Jessica returns to establish a relationship with her daughter before her own untimely death.
The use of AIDS as a plot device is more than a vehicle for working out the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. It provides a pretext for reinforcing female stereotypes and conservative sexual behavior by punishing promiscuity in women.
As Susan Sontag and Allan Brandt have noted, illnesses have unfortunately had a long history of being used metaphorically as moralistic punishments for corruption. Since violations of moral codes are generally punished on soap operas - and since Jessica had been a prostitute - her contracting the disease can hardly be coincidental.
Although soaps are often criticized for condoning immorality - and it is true that premarital and extramarital sex is rampant on the soaps - sexual transgressions are invariably punished in the end. In THE YOUNG AN THE RESTLESS, AIDS, primarily a disease associated with male homosexuality and with drug abuse, has become a disease of female heterosexuality, and one that, surrounded as it is by the rhetoric of plagues and scourges, evokes punitive notions.
Another troubling question raised by the depiction of AIDS on the soaps is not simply philosophical. So firmly are soap operas, in general, rooted in traditional heterosexual romance that the three female characters with AIDS on THE YOUNG AN THE RESTLESS, ANOTHER WORLD and ALL MY CHILDREN are involved in ongoing romantic relationships. While I am not suggesting that people with AIDS should be denied love and understanding, AIDS might seem inappropriate for a character in romantic fiction, especially since the implications could be dangerously misleading for viewers.
This kind of inappropriateness, to my mind, is the difficulty with the AIDS story line on ALL MY CHILDREN in particular. While it involves neither prostitution nor the mother-daughter relationship, this representation is the most offensive, if not the most potentially harmful. This plot revolves around Cindy Chandler, the mother of a young son, who contracted the disease from her ex-husband, an intravenous drug user. After being diagnosed, Cindy marries Stuart, who is mentally ``slow`` in an idyllic sort of way: Beloved by all, Stuart is handsome, gentle, generous, kind, understanding, fun - and rich.
The marriage of Cindy and Stuart, who is aware of his bride's illness, serves to depict negatively both AIDS patients and the mentally disabled. It either implies that only the mentally disabled would get involved with an AIDS patient or denies that the mentally disabled have normal human emotional and sexual desires.
And there is another possibility that is far more distressing. I think it is fair to assume - unless we are explicitly told otherwise - that marriages are consummated. If the message here does not endorse sexual intercourse for people with AIDS, what does it convey?
The portrayals of people with AIDS on these soap operas project onto women a disease that is primarily confined to men and drug abusers. A tragic and complex medical problem has been popularized to the point of dangerous oversimplification.
But, not to worry. The Pine Valleys of this world are fictions, existing nowhere - except in our living rooms and in our minds.
Deborah Rogers is a professor of English at the University of Maine, and is writing a book about the depiction of women on TV soap operas.