Sunday, October 02, 2011

AIDS AIDS AIDS-AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS-AIDS-AIDS! AIDS! Today in the shower I was thinking about how when I was a kid, AIDS was one of the most terrifying things in my life. I fretted a lot about whether I could catch it somehow.

When I was a kid I had a very black-and-white view of health issues generally; I distinguished between minor, common afflictions that always got better, such as broken limbs and chicken pox; more serious things that could have very bad lasting effects, such as snake bites, burns or glandular fever; and things that were invariably fatal. If you had a heart attack, you died. If you broke your neck, you died. If you got cancer, you died.

And if you got AIDS – YOU FUCKING DIED!! You wasted away to a skeleton, and got gross tumours all over your body that made you look like a rotting corpse. And then you died.

Of course, I am probably a generation behind the one that was properly shitscared when AIDS emerged as a global pandemic in the mid-1980s. By the time I was old enough to be sexually active, we'd had the safe-sex message comprehensively drummed into us; magazines, pamphlets and TV told us how it was spread.

But in the '80s, treatment for HIV was not very successful, and there were plenty of misconceptions surrounding the virus. Famous people announced they had it… then died. But since I was a kid, the HIV patients I noticed most were the kids, including Ryan White and Eve van Grafhorst.

And then there was the Grim Reaper TV ad, which I found so terrifying that after one emotionally scarring viewing of it, I would flee the room whenever I saw it beginning. Years later, I couldn't even look at stills of the Grim Reaper character, it was so terrifying.

Now I find its hysterical, panicky tone odd. It's now 30 years since the pandemic was first identified, anti-retroviral therapies are enabling people to live for longer with HIV without developing 'full-blown AIDS', and much of the mystery and stigma surrounding the disease has waned in the West (although there's still an alarmingly mainstream denialist movement in South Africa and wacko conspiracy theories flourishing on the internet).

We've ironised so much about it, from the scary tone of public health campaigns to the community responses to it (for example, making quilts in commemoration of the dead). Thanks to Philadelphia, the public image of the AIDS patient is an effete gay man wasting away in a kimono listening to opera. The Chaser even took the piss out of the Grim Reaper ad, showing the character trying to get work at companies including James Hardie.

And then there's Team America: World Police, which takes the piss out of what must have seemed like a bold and revolutionary revisioning of Puccini's La Boheme – to have the heroine of Rent die of AIDS rather than consumption (although oddly enough, tuberculosis is one of the leading causes of AIDS-related death). The Team America piss-take, Lease, ironises how banal AIDS has come to be – "the Pope has got it, and so do you…"


So basically I was just thinking how odd it is that we've moved from this existential panic and terror to something so blasé.

I was also terrified of getting AIDS when I was a kid. I was shit scared of the grim reaper ad - sometimes I would think I could handle it but the bit where the baby flies out of the woman's arms always tipped me over the edge. And watching it today, I feel like the received message is not that everyone CAN get AIDS, but that everyone WILL get AIDS. The fact that no one in the ad avoided the reaper's mighty Lebowski spin implies that death by AIDS is now completely unavoidable.

(Do we know who did the voiceover? Because it sounds a lot like Geoffrey Rush to me.)

The other thing I remember from that time is a short documentary about a boy with AIDS talking to his classmates about it. I remember it screening in place of normal programming one afternoon after a topical episode of Degrassi. Thanks to your mention of Ryan White I've just discovered that it was about him, and it was produced by the awesome 3-2-1 Contact:

I had a great LOL at this ad, which YouTube recommended next after I watched the reaper:

Also, is this Russell Crowe?
Just today I learned of a conspiracy theory that Steve Jobs died of AIDS, which seemed kind of quaint to me because there used to be a real sense of transgression in the idea that a celebrity died of AIDS but not really any more.
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