Is It Unethical To Use HIV Transmission As A Plot Element In Drama?

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. Continue reading

Tuesday Ethics Tidbits, 7/7/2020: Goodbye To “Social Q’s,” Faithless Electors And A Weenie Judge

1. I’m cancelling Philip Gallanes. The advice columnist in the Times’ Sunday Styles section has provided some interesting topic for discussion here, but there have to be some consequences for irresponsibly spreading propaganda and falsehoods, even if they are sanctioned by his employers. In response to a “Social Q’s” query from someone who was annoyed that a neighbor had posted a “Defund the Police” sign and asked if it would be ethical to eschew calling the cops if she saw her neighbor’s house vandalized (Answer: Of course not.), Gallanes had to give readers the whole set of George Floyd Freakouts talking points:

“Many of the reports I’ve read about defunding the police focus on limiting the deployment of armed police officers to situations where they may be necessary and helpful — such as violent crimes. Many activists point to the large share of state and local budgets dedicated to police services when many calls to police (about persistent homelessness or family conflicts, for instance) would be better handled by social workers. Why not redirect some police funds to affordable housing and mental health services, they ask?”

Then why not say what you mean, I ask? Defund means defund. I resent this dodge.

“Still others would like to dismantle the current model of policing, as Minneapolis has pledged to do, and reimagine community safety given the frequency with which officers kill unarmed Black men and women.

And how’s that working out so far for Minneapolis, Phil? The frequency in which officers kill unarmed Black men and women is called “infrequently,” and the frequency is decreasing. Continue reading

The Man Who Coarsened America

He didn’t set out to, of course. Like most figures in cultural history who leave the culture a little (or a lot) worse than they found it, Craig Gilbert, who died this week, just wanted to try something new he thought might work, and, of course, to make a buck. He was successful on both counts, but unfortunately, the law of unanticipated consequences took over.

What he wanted to try was the reality TV show, though he didn’t call it that. In the early 1970’s, Gilbert was an established documentary-maker of note and  a producer at WNET, the New York PBS station. He had the inspiration of  having a camera crew follow a real, ostensibly typical American family as it went about living for months, to let the public see what happens behind the closed doors of their neighbor’s homes.

WNET agreed to spend $1.2 million to finance the project), and Gilbert set about seeking an appropriate family for the venture.

Gilbert searched for a family that was ostentatiously middle class with a lot of kids spanning different age groups. He settled on the the Loud family, Bill and Pat, with  their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele. The Louds didn’t know what they were getting into, because it was something no family had ever gotten into before. Over 300 hours of filming over seven months in 1971, they were recorded in increasingly intrusive ways, creating scenes that made the Louds into national soap opera stars, except that it was their real life being watched and talked about. “An American Family” was broadcast two years later as a 12-part series, and gradually took over the lives of the family members. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/16/2020: Zugswang!

Good morning, inmates!

I’ve been reading that social isolation may be deadly. Zugswang!

Last week “ethics zugswangmade a return to Ethics Alarms, and you can expect to read a lot more of it. The chess term describing the dilemma is which the only safe move is to stay still, and staying still is impossible, seems to be applying to increasing numbers of dire situations recently, especially in the ethical sense, in which all choices are unethical.Upon reflection, several posts involved ethics zugswang even when I didn’t use that term. The woman whose student loan debts topped 900,000 dollars is in zugswang. Progressive feminists who use gender-baiting as a partisan weapon are in self-condemned zugswang when political allies use misogynist terms against conservative women.

It’s really fun saying “zugswang,” but I will try to touch on some matters that don’t involve ethics zugswang….like…

1. “Hogan’s Heroes” ethics. I never thought it would happen, but a cable channel is re-running “Hogan’s Heroes” episodes. The very popular Sixties sitcom about POW prison camp and the wacky and inept Nazis running it has been thoroughly excoriated as outrageously tasteless and politically incorrect. My father loved the show because anything that made the Nazis look ridiculous was aces with him. Is it tasteless and offensive to show “Hogan’s Heroes” today?

It was clearly satire, in the same spirit as Larry, Moe and Curly playing Hitler and cronies, or Charley Chaplin in “The Great Dictator”—or, to pick a recent example, the child’s view of Hitler as an imaginary friend in “Jo-Jo Rabbit.” The show obviously took its inspiration from “The Great Escape,” of which it is virtually a parody (without the executions, of course.) WW II vets like my father were accustomed to the Nazis being ridiculed and trivialized in the process. In an age that has seen the Holocaust Museum’s exhibits and widely distributed documentaries about the full barbarity of Nazi Germany, the satire may no longer work.

There are other reasons why “Hogan’s Heroes” is no longer funny, despite the very talented cast. Its laugh track is annoying now, especially when the jokes are old and repetitive: how hard can you keep laughing when Sgt. Schultz (John Banner) says “I know nothing! NOTHING!” for the thousandth time? Perhaps the kiss of death for the series is the ubiquity of series star Bob Crane as Hogan, Crane was always smarmy for my taste, but knowing his fate—Crane was bludgeoned to death by a likely participant in his sick S & M porno ring that involved, among other revolting activities,  secretly videotaping women engaged in sex—make watching the show a painful experience. Continue reading

Yes, It’s Another “Ick Or Ethics?” Quiz: Sarah Palin’s Surprise

Believe it or not, that’s Sarah next to the bear….

To be absolutely transparent, my mind’s made up on this one: I think it’s unethical. However, I admit to be a hard-liner on this issue, which is “The duty of leaders not to debase their positions or former positions for personal gain or ego gratification.”

Let me introduce this  horrific cultural episode by saying that I regard the TV show involved, “The Masked Singer,” among the Top Ten Stupidest Shows in the history of network television, and I’ve seen a LOT of network television, far more than is good for me. Its existence is an insult to the public, its taste and intelligence, and the United States of America. Maybe the species too. Adam and Eve.

Now here is the video clip. Consider yourself warned: it cannot be unseen or unheard:

Yes, Sarah Palin dressed up in a rainbow teddy bear suit and rapped “Baby Got Back” on national television.

The lyrics from Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Noel Cowardesque 1992 hit:

Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt
It is so big, she looks like
One of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, ya know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her, because,
She looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like out there
I mean gross, look
She’s just so, black
I like big butts and I can not lie
You other brothers can’t deny
That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
And a round thing in your face
You get sprung, want to pull up tough
‘Cause you notice that butt was stuffed
Deep in the jeans she’s wearing
I’m hooked and I can’t stop staring
Oh baby, I want to get wit’cha
And take your picture
My homeboys tried to warn me
But with that butt you got makes (me so horny)…

Nice. Classy!

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Was Palin’s appearance on “The Masked Singer” icky, funny, or unethical?

Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Forgetting What We Know”

This post, one of the very first on Ethics Alarms, was written on Halloween, 2009. The blog had essentially no followers then. I judge it an excellent post (if I do say so myself) but just a handful of people read it. There were four commenters: King Kool, who traveled over from the old Ethics Scoreborad site and who, I am happy to say, still weighs in now and then; “Ethics Bob” Stone, who commented her last year,  and a friend I met through my connection with child star advocate Paul Petersen and with whom I am still in touch.

I found it extremely interesting to review–I wouldn’t change anything substantive in it, though I made three small edits—in light of what has happened since, and the theme of the post, which was how ethics evolves.

The post was written before the #MeToo upheaval. For all I know, Harvey Weinstein was forcing an aspiring starlet to have sex with him and Bill Cosby was drugging a young woman as I was posting it. It references several  rationalizations before the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list had been launched.

I wonder, though, how much out society has really learned since it was written.  Roman Polanski is still living free and directing films in France. Six women have accused him of sex-related crimes, the most recent last November.

Bill Cosby is in prison for one of his rapes: Harvey Weinstein is standing trial right now. Bill Clinton appears to have finally been reduced to persona non grata status among progressives and his former defenders, but his complicit and unapologetic enabler, Hillary Clinton, is still treated as a feminist icon, and even harbors dreams of running for President again. The Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax , has been convincingly accused of rape by one woman and sexual harassment by another, yetremains in office, and the local and national media have stuffed the story in the proverbial memory hole.

Six years after this post, David Letterman retired from “The Late Show” hailed as comedy legend, with Barack Obama and three former Presidents appearing on his farewell show. He continues to be sought after for interviews and as an MC, as in the USO event pictured above.  In 2016, Letterman joined the climate change documentary show Years of Living Dangerously as one of the show’s celebrity correspondents. In 2017, Letterman gave the induction speech for Pearl Jam when the group was inducted into the  Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. That same year, 2017, Letterman was feted on Turner Movie Classics with Alec Baldwin—don’t get me started–as he  co-hosted “The Essentials.”  Letterman and Baldwin introduced seven films for the series.

Wisely, “Rosemary’s Baby” was not among them.

In 2018, Letterman began hosting a six-episode monthly series of hour-long programs on Netflix called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. His old friend, patron, and feminist hero Barack Obama was his first guest.

The second season premiered on May 31, 2019.

This  is “Forgetting What We Know.” Continue reading

Film Cutting Ethics: Three Episodes

 1.  The Canadian Broadcast Company edited Donald Trump’s cameo out of “Home Alone II” when the Christmas-themed family film was aired this week. That sets some kind of record for pettiness, don’t you think? The CBC lamely denies that they meant anything by it, responding to an inquiry,  “As is often the case with features adapted for television, Home Alone 2 was edited to allow for commercial time within the format.” Sure. I believe that! Don’t you believe that? Continue reading

TV Viewing Ethics Revelations

“Once Upon A Time..” also features a glorious pit bull.

I watch too much TV, and have all my life. Or maybe not too much. Sometimes I think everybody else watchs too little, reality shows excepted. Three shows I watched this week made me a little bit wiser…

“The Clinton Affair”

What this new, and generally excellent review of the Monica Lewinsky mess teaches us is that the Republicans were looking for ways to justify getting rid of Clinton, though less intensely and openly as today’s Democrats have hunted Donald Trump. The main differences: the news media, which was mostly supportive of  Clinton throughout, with a few notable exception, like Chris Matthews; and, as Jonathan Turley correctly stated in his testimony, Clinton unequivocally committed crimes, not just by lying in court in the Paula Jones hearing, but by lying under oath in a deposition in which he swore under oath, that he could not recall ever being “alone” with Monica.

Monica is prominent in the documentary (boy, she is beautiful) and is allowed to appeal to the sympathies of the viewer. Indeed, she was vilified excessively: clips of a younger but no less smug and revolting Bill Maher arguing, with many guests in agreement, that she, not Bill, was the real villain. This was nauseating then, and nauseating still. At the same time, there are limits to how much sympathy one can direct toward Lewinsky, who made a choice that was both unethical and stupid. How could she imagine such a situation would ever turn out anything but disastrously? She keeps telling us how humiliated she was, as if she didn’t deserve to be humiliated. Continue reading

Late Start Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/5/19: Dissing Tony Williams, and An Impeachment Headache

I don’t care: Whenever I get up on Saturday, it’s morning to me.

1. Those fake recordings...I have almost gotten used to the fake versions of famous songs an by iconic artists that show up as background in TV shows and movies, but I still resent them. They are lies, in essence, designed to fool less discriminating and knowledgeable audience members. Many people aren’t even aware of the practice, which is virtually routine, of long-standing, and considered standard practice. A friend of mine , a musician/ actor with a gift for mimicry, once explained the whole industry supported by these frauds, which exist because it is cheaper to record a faux version of a famous recording than to pay to use the real thing in a movie.

For some reason, however, the last 24 hours forced me to hear some unusually obnoxious examples. I just heard fake Roy Orbison, for instance. Nobody sounds like Roy Orbison. I heard fake versions of The Platters’ immortal and inimitable Tony Williams twice, and that really ticks me off. Williams, whose rendition of “Only You” may be my favorite male vocal ever, had a freak voice, and younger listeners who hear inferior versions of his “Twilight Time,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” are tragically misled. It is an insult to Williams’ memory and legacy to represent through deceptive imitations that he wasn’t as great as he really was.

Anytime you hear a song playing behind a scene, listen closely. I just heard Fake Any Williams, a really bad imitation. Interestingly, I have noticed that there are some departed artists that nobody dares to imitate. Bing Crosby, for example, is always the real Bing (although I have heard several fake Frank Sinatras). They don’t try to fool anyone with fake Judy Garlands, either; I haven’t heard a fake Freddie Mercury, and hope I never do.  But it’s unethical to fake anyone without being transparent about it..

Especially Tony Williams.

2. Still looking for some partners…in the Ethics Alarms Impeachment Project. I have now heard from three volunteers, and I’m grateful…a few more would be ideal. Of course, when and if the website gets published, I expect it will be easier to interest active participants.

The idea is to provide an easily accessible way for “low-information voters” and others to follow this dangerous and depressing drama while having access to the essential materials, facts, context and legitimate analysis without being confused by spin, selective reporting, misinformation and partisan agendas. Here’s an example of information that is relevant to the Democratic impeachment efforts that has hardly been reported at all, because the news media overwhelmingly wants to see the President of The United States impeached, and has made that objective clear to most objective observers for more than three years.

Six months ago, the NY Daily News revealed that Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)received at least $65,000 in campaign donations “from the music industry and other intellectual property businesses that he oversees as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.” That was the end of the story; even the Daily News never followed up. Nadler also spent about $30K to host a Grammy Awards gala in LA in February during the Grammy Awards, giving him access to music  executives for more campaign donations.  Those execs, meanwhile, had their companies pony up $5,000 a ticket to attend the party. This is influence peddling, of course. It’s legal, because Congress won’t criminalize sleazy politics.  TechDirt called it soft corruption:

“These are the kinds of practices that are most likely legal, and possibly even common among the political class, but which absolutely stink of corruption to the average American. And that’s a huge problem, not just because of the general ethical questions raised by such soft corruption, but because it creates a cynical American public that does not trust politicians to adequately represent their interests.”

Nadler’s conduct is relevant to the impeachment efforts because it reveals the hypocrisy behind Democratic efforts to impeach President Trump for political practices that are neither illegal nor unusual while making pious pronouncements that belie their own behavior. The purely political assault on the 2016 Presidential election results is obscured by the media’s efforts to hide the true character and motives of the President’s foes, including the journalists and editors themselves.

3. Here’s another example...My New York Times this morning is dominated by yellow-highlighted text messages between the Ukraine’s ambassador with U.S. Ambassador Volker, and a two-column width headline, “Another Official Considers Filing a Report On Ukraine.” When have you ever seen front page news about an anonymous figure “considering” something? That’s not fact, that’s not news, it is entirely prejudicial spin intended to create distrust and suspicion.

Meanwhile, the Times could have made legitimately made the front page stories about  last week’s  Congressional testimony from Ambassador Kurt Volker, who served for two years as the top U.S. diplomatic envoy to Ukraine, which directly contradicts the pro-impeachment narrative . He testified, under oath, that he was never aware of and never took part in any effort to push the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden or his son Hunter, and stressed that the interactions between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials were facilitated not to find “dirt” on Biden, but to address concerns that the incoming Ukrainian government would not be able to get a handle on corruption within the country. The Federalist obtained the full transcript of the testimony, which certainly could have been revealed by the Times as well, if it wanted to.

More later-I have a terrible headache that has lingered for two days, and I can’t tell if it’s this crap or a brain tumor. Coffee, Tylenol, and the Twins beating the Yankees should help.

Saturday Ethics Catch-Up, 6/22/2019: “The Rifleman” Whiffs. A Paralegal Spills, The Commies Like Democrats, But Students Hate Pioneers

I am so, so far behind, both here on Ethics Alarms, and elsewhere, like prepping for some upcoming seminars, writing new programs, and trying to get the business and home budgets to work. Last week involved the car dying, getting a new one, enduring a six hour, 17 inning loss by the Red Sox, some lingering new computer glitches, and a major video shoot for which I had to write and refine the script, acquire the props and costumes, and rehearse the actors, then assist the team of seven who handled the shoot itself, all while being sick, and progressively exhausted. (This project would not have all happened without the brilliant and tireless work of my business partner and love of my life, Grace.)

Ethics Alarms was lower on the priority list this week than I would have liked it to have been. I’m sorry.

1. “The Rifleman” Ethics: As I have mentioned here before, “The Rifleman,” the 30 minute TV Western drama, starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain that ran from 1959-1962, was all about ethics, with almost every episode teaching an ethics lesson to the Rifleman’s son Mark, played by the charming juvenile actor Johnny Crawford.  I just watched an episode from the show’s final season that I hadn’t seen before. Guest-starring Mark Goddard (best known as the hot-headed young co-pilot in the original “Lost in Space” on ABC), the story involved a charismatic young huckster whom Mark admires but his father distrusts. This causes rare friction between father and son. Eventually, Lucas is proven right: the young man is a liar and a crook who was taking advantage of Mark’s guilelessness.

Mark shamefully but manfully tells his father, “I apologize for being wrong.”

NO! One shouldn’t apologize for being wrong. One  has an obligation to apologize for doing wrong, which includes making a bad decision because of laziness, carelessness, poor reasoning, inadequate analysis, or through some other failing. There is no shame or blame in being wrong in the kind of situation laid out in the episode, however.

Until the final moments, the audience couldn’t tell whether this would be one of the episodes where Chuck screws up, with the lesson to Mark being, “Jumping to conclusions and judging strangers harshly before you know anything about them is unfair, Mark. You were right. I’m proud of you.”

In fact, after Mark apologized, I expected his father to come back with exactly what I just wrote. This was moral luck: Mark had nothing to apologize for.

Boy, I’m never going to catch up if  I let issues jump in line like that… Continue reading