Between the lack of education that plagues our youth and the lack of awareness among so-called low-risk populations, it's no wonder that stigma is the leading perpetrator of a consistent infection rate year after year. If Scorsese's assertion that entertainment reflects how we see the world, then why are we surprised that the world is still so uneducated and ill-informed about the current state of the disease? A large portion of the population still doesn't know the difference between HIV and AIDS, and Hollywood has yet to come to the rescue. In 1989, the peak of the epidemic, 150,000 people were diagnosed with AIDS in the U.S., a number that has since dropped 80%. Who knew?
One would argue there's not enough drama or suspense in a modern-day plot to include HIV, but therein lies the beauty of how easy it should be to include. For example, create a character that is, say, a smart-mouthed ass-kicking chick, that also happens to be HIV-positive and hasn't progressed to AIDS, and isn't seen on her deathbed in the final scene. It boils down to the fact that 1 million people in the U.S. have HIV and the number of films released theatrically in the past three years (documentaries excluded) that have included a character with HIV is, well one: Judith in Temptation, which tells the world that people with HIV deserved what they got. That certainly doesn't send a positive message to easily influenced moviegoers.
Luckily for the fight against stigma, there is a small saving grace in the world of reality television. Reality series (as in real life … mostly) are the only mainstream medium truly depicting HIV-positive people as they are today: living normal healthy lives, thriving even. Role models like Project Runway All-Stars winner Mondo Guerra and The Voice runner-up Jamar Rogers bring awareness to what it's like to live with and conquer HIV today to viewers across the country. It's a start, but it's not enough. We may be over the rainbow when it comes to actuality, but in Hollywood we're still farm girls stuck in a stormy AIDS-ridden world of gray. Until there is a true spectrum of positive HIV-positive representation across all forms of media, you can be sure that HIV stigma is one thing we won't see fade to black.
Scott McPherson is the creative director of The Advocate and HIV Plus magazines, and founder and vice president of the Stigma Project, a grassroots organization using social media and advertising to reduce the stigma around HIV and AIDS. (www.thestigmaproject.org)