(Spoilers for How to Get Away With Murder and Code Black)
It used to be that HIV/AIDS storylines in the media were meant to impart a lesson to the audience. Do not be like these people who have contracted HIV. People living with HIV are depicted as the other, and in many cases separated into dichotomous groups. For example, some are at high risk for contracting HIV versus people at low risk. Innocent “victims” of HIV versus people who “deserved” to contract the disease/show guilt for their disease.
As for news media, beginning in 1982; gay men were associated with HIV/AIDS despite research regularly revealing that other populations were contracting the infection causing AIDS. Even now, movies featuring HIV as a plot point, depict a gay male as the central character. Even though HIV/AIDS affects every population imaginable to certain degrees. And these same movies still surround the character and their life in cloud of inevitable sadness and negativity.
The 2015-2016 TV season however; has bucked this trend. While HIV is absolutely a serious topic and disease, there is no reason to only have negative and depressing portrayals of the disease. As opposed to a realistic depiction of how one (especially in the United States) can live comfortably with the disease if they have medical access.
This year, the television series How to Get Away With Murder and Code Black both depicted main characters reacting to and living with HIV. In HTGAWM, Oliver (main character Connor’s hacker boyfriend) finds out that he has tested positive for HIV while Connor has not. As Connor is the sexually promiscuous character, there is a sense of shock that Oliver would be the one to test positive. However, the writers do not venture into after-school special land, and instead describe and depict the realistic response to receiving news like Oliver has, and the aftermath. This of course includes the medical aftermath of Connor starting a Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis prescription.
PrEP is an HIV prevention method said to be effective 92% of the time when a person takes the pill daily to inhibit transmission of the virus. On HTGAWM, Connor and Oliver have an explicit discussion about their fears and worries about being together. It was the first depiction of PrEP on network television, ever.
Then a few months later, on Code Black (a woefully under-appreciated medical show on CBS), one of the medical residents, Mario is taking care of a patient, Ted who has lived with HIV for a large portion of his life. The worry is not that he has developed AIDS, but that his body just cannot keep up anymore. Unfortunately he does pass away but not before Mario accidentally pricks himself and bonds with Ted.
The scenes between Mario and Ted in “You Are The Heart” served to develop Mario’s character, and also to normalize depictions of people living with HIV, and especially those who are elderly and may not have received the level of treatment one can expect in the United States. Having these natural, realistic, and well thought out portrayals of people living with HIV and/or AIDS, and the current medical technology available to decrease the likelihood of contracting HIV is both a representative breakthrough, and a public health breakthrough.
As this trend continues with more LGB (and sometimes T) characters, other aspects of our lives will finally be portrayed.