In an essay in The Body, an HIV-AIDS community website, Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad argues that it is unethical and exploitive for writers to use the disease as a plot point in TV shows and movies. His argument is pitched at black writers particularly. (In case you are not familiar with the term he uses, the “down low” refers to apparently heterosexual black men who secretly have sex with males.) He argues in part,
Last week’s episode of the popular show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Greenleaf, provided a storyline that’s become all too familiar—the disclosure of HIV status as a spicy and scandalous plot twist.
…During this season, at the end of episode three, a shocking reveal happens: AJ was raped in prison, and the person who raped him transmitted HIV to him. AJ is now suffering from HIV disease and finally tells Grace. That’s how the episode ends. As an HIV-positive Black person, my heart sank, because again, the failure to hold any nuance with HIV emerged, 16 years after the “down low” and HIV plot twists of the early 2000s. It’s as if we’re frozen in time.
… I want to say this to the writers and producers of Greenleaf, and other Black creatives: HIV is not a plot twist device. HIV is not a caricature, and HIV is not predatory. Yes, there are the very real stories of people contracting HIV after being raped, and yes, there are some people who are not fully open to their partners and who may have transmitted HIV. But the narrative of HIV as a hidden monster and prison rape are not what drive the epidemic in Black communities.
…[T]here have been many harmful representations of HIV stories in the media. Let’s start with Tyler Perry’s 2010 film…For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. In his film adaptation, Janet Jackson’s character, “Lady in Red,” is married to a man named Carl Bradmore…His character is struggling with sexual desire and can be seen cruising for other men in the film, and ultimately there is a scene where oral sex is performed in a car. Hardwick’s character Carl Bradmore is in a BMW under a bridge and gets head from another Black man.
…Throughout the film, Lady in Red has a scarf tied around her neck, and toward the end, the scarf is red. She coughs frequently and drinks tea, ostensibly to soothe her throat. The drama erupts toward the end of the film, when they are both sitting on a bed and not facing each other. She says something to the effect of, “You can keep your sorry and your HIV”—which is saved as a grand reveal, to provide shock and melodrama to the story. Shange’s original play includes no “down low” men, and it was written before HIV, so these aspects were specifically added by Perry.
I watched this film in shock…. My mother was a Tyler Perry fan; she thought his desire to (and practice of) giving leading roles to Black actors was something to celebrate. I on the other hand felt… here again is another media representation of the [down low] monster as a viral operative to drive the drama of the plot, and to both titillate and disgust. There is data that suggests that Black people aren’t doing anything behaviorally different than white people when it comes to intimacy or other vulnerable ways to become HIV positive. The difference in disproportionate infections comes from anti-Black racism that discourages trust of systems and incarcerates and criminalizes Black people. Our vulnerability is undergirded by the lack of infrastructures of care and the breakdown of food systems in the hood and in the rural South.
Until we truly consider the truth about HIV and not the easily propagated myths, we are doing more harm to our communities and aren’t standing in solidarity with HIV-positive Black people…. Isn’t it time for TV and film catch up and stop with the same tired use of HIV as plot twist or cautionary tale.
I have a simple reaction to this: It’s time for people to stop telling writers what they can and cannot write about.
Several years ago I wrote a critical post about a frivolous lawsuit by a lawyer representing his girl friend, who claimed that the film “Drive” was anti-Semitic. I wrote, correctly, that the suit was incompetent and legally bats, because its argument was that the villains in the movie were all Jewish, hence the movie was harming all Jews. [He sued me for libel, so I took down the post. That lawsuit was also unethical.] This is where the slippery slope leads that we have watched getting greased for decades now. One black pimp in a single film implies that all blacks are pimps, or that all pimps are black. A fictional crooked lawyer is an attack on all lawyers. George Lucas was even attacked because an alien with a long nose in Star Wars Episode One talked in something sounding vaguely like a Yiddish accent, thus proving that the film was stereotyping Jews.
To paraphrase King Lear, this way chilling of free expression and suffocating the arts lies. Anything is a legitimate plot device if it is well done; nothing is a legitimate plot device if it’s lazy, gratuitous, or a cliche. Some group’s ox is gored in virtually every drama or comedy.; that’s part of being part of society. The Wayans brothers used all sorts of worn-out stereotypes in their “Scary Movie” films, including the perpetually stoned black guy. Yeah, I thought it was cheap, but stereotypes and familiar plot twists that are wildly unrealistic are still legitimate tools in a writer’s tool box. (My current pet peeve: lovers and families taking time to hug each other while the killer is lurking, the monster is near, or the clock is ticking down to doomsday. My father’s pet peeve that he passed on to me was the “Mexican stand-off”—I just saw an otherwise good movie in which there were three of them.)
There are black men on the “down low’ who infect their partners; also white men. Declaring that feature off limits for a drama is arrogant and illogical. The market rules: once a device is no longer fresh and begins boring or alienating audiences, it will be retired. That’s the way it works; that’s the way it has always worked. Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad can certainly try to persuade the public that HIV transmission is a cheap and unworthy play device, but neither he nor anyone else can or should make it taboo.
(I would address the dubious accountability-ducking in “The difference in disproportionate infections comes from anti-Black racism that discourages trust of systems and incarcerates and criminalizes Black people. Our vulnerability is undergirded by the lack of infrastructures of care and the breakdown of food systems in the hood and in the rural South,” but I have neither the time, the space, or the energy.)