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FLASHBACK: How TV Portrays AIDS 1988

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.

5 comments:

  1. What a horribly offensive article. I realize it was written 22 years ago, but it basically calls AIDS a gay man's disease and admonishes the soap writers of the day for making it more accessible to the viewers (heterosexual females).

    This author's feelings about people living with AIDS having sex is so archaic. Because of my age (I was 11 in 1988), I am unaware of what the general consensus was regarding AIDS patients having sex, but surely people understood that condoms helped limit the spread of the disease.

    I am grateful that as a society we have become much more educated regarding this disease. It is only through education that we will limit its spread and one day find a cure. 22 years is not a long time, so it is great to see that as a society we have come from this article (so ignorant) to a much more intellectual point-of-view.

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  2. Yeah, this was pretty offensive. And I see that the Times was still not printing the word "gay." I too was a young child when this article was printed, and certainly did not know what "gay" meant (or that it applied to me), but articles like this certainly explain why I had a definite awareness that AIDS was a dreadful thing to have even for reasons beyond the fact that it was a death sentence at the time.

    That said, from what I know in hindsight, I kind of think the author did get at some flaws in those early AIDS stories on soaps. The only problem is, she drew all of the wrong conclusions from many of them, and cloaked her observations in her own homophobia and lack of compassion for people struggling with addiction. I actually agree that it seems like it would have stuck out like a sore thumb that these first three people with AIDS depicted on daytime were all women, but I don't think the writers were doing it to punish women for sexuality. I think they were so freaked out about viewers having homophobic reactions that they not only insisted on telling the audience ad nauseum that these characters were completely heterosexual, but they also couldn't trust the audience even to believe that the characters didn't get it from male-male sex unless they were women.

    I have to question how much of a positive impact those stories really had, especially as everyone else on the shows continued playing out the same old same old stories about women getting accidentally pregnant and not knowing who the father was and so forth, as if AIDS (not to mention DNA testing and Roe v. Wade and the pill) never existed. I saw the AW story when SoapNet re-aired those episodes a few years back, and it was kind of insulting. The story of how Dawn had contracted HIV was far-fetched and they did go out of their way to make the character completely asexual. On top of which, she had only tenuous ties to a few characters who had only been on the show for a few years at most and left not long after (but I guess that was typical of AW characters in its last 20 years or so).

    It almost seemed like the message was, "Well, yes, the vast majority of people who have died from this disease are not even worthy of being acknowledged on our show, but just on the off chance that some virgin who will never actually be part of your social circle - but she's a really nice girl - could get AIDS through a series of highly melodramatic circumstances, maybe we should do something about it or at least not automatically be cruel to people who have it." Then again, if that's what viewers took away from the AW story, maybe it would have been some sort of progress at that time in history. That's actually a more enlightened viewpoint than this author seemed to have.

    I never saw the AMC story, but it sounds like they at least did a better job of tying Cindy to core characters, and they showed a beloved character like Jesse working through his own fears about AIDS that perhaps viewers who were similarly ignorant could relate to and learn from. But I thought Forrest Gump sent some bizarre messages about AIDS and developmental disabilities and sexuality, and I can see how AMC's story did the same. And did they really never address whether Stuart and Cindy were having sex, and if so make clear that they were practicing safe sex? What on earth was the point, then?

    The Y&R story just sounds so bizarre, but I don't know anything about it so I won't say any more.

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  4. On a more progressive note, though, didn't ATWT do the Hank Eliot story around the time that this article ran? I know the character was short-lived and the partner who had AIDS never appeared on-screen. But just that one scene I came across on YouTube where Hank was talking to his dying partner's father on the phone, pleading in vain to let him visit him in the hospital, was so real and heartbreaking. And they even did something pretty clever by having the subplot involving James Stenbeck - aka evil incarnate - playing on his adolescent son's homophobia to turn him against his mother, who stood by Hank and his partner. Paul finally saw the error of his ways and befriended Hank, who ironically ended up being the one to save him from James after he saw his father for the monster that he was. Almost as if to suggest to viewers that maybe politicians and highly compensated religious leaders who fan the flames of homophobia might have some purely self-serving agenda as well.

    And then GH did the Robin/Stone story, as you so beautifully recapped. Which was a heterosexual story, but I think may have been the first time on a soap that characters appeared on-screen who had contracted HIV sexually, and the sex in and of itself (and/or the person they had sex with) were not portrayed as somehow deviant. And Robin has lived a full and healthy life for many years and was never pushed out as a core character, no matter how much the show has strayed from what it was at the time of that story.

    So, soaps did finally get it right, eventually...briefly... I know that's not much in the grand scheme of things, but I think it's worth acknowledging on an otherwise very sad day.

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  5. I agree with you guys about the tone of the article. I think she had an interesting point in her mind, but her column is so one-sided and negative that it was completely lost.

    John, the AMC story was by far the best for me. Whereas Dawn Rollo was sort of isolated and the audience never really had a chance to care for her, you absolutely fell in love with Cindy Parker, and the entire town of Pine Valley was involved. Ellen Wheeler gave one of the best performances in soap history along with David Canary. I do think people watching that story received a bit of education and had to be moved.

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