“Everyone has AIDS!” – When Did AIDS Become a Punchline?

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I watch an undue amount of television and films and have begun to wonder: when did it become okay to joke about AIDS? And when is a joke a joke too far?

When did AIDS stop being a histrionic soapbox issue in one isolated, “very special” TV episode (à la Designing Women) or a story arc for a regular character (à la Life Goes On and its Chad Lowe character “Jesse” – which actually handled it pretty well – but didn’t that show have enough going on with an economically strapped middle-class family rearing a Down Syndrome kid, an overachieving nerd kid and a late-in-life, unplanned pregnancy, among other things?).

Back in the early days of the crisis, which rightfully terrified every person conscious and alive at that time, we did not see a lot of gay stories on TV (we know of course that all AIDS stories were not gay stories, but the dearth and lateness of mainstream stories can be placed squarely on the fact that network television was not the semi-gay-friendly place it has now become), but there were some exceptions – Designing Women had a particularly poignant episode guest starring a very young Tony Goldwyn (yes, yes – President “Fitz” Grant from Scandal).

AIDS showed up in pop culture now and then… but when did it become okay to joke about it?

When you think about treatment for HIV and AIDS – and the awareness of it – it has advanced further and faster than advances in almost any other disease or illness. I’d attribute it to the persistent, loud demands of won’t-take-no-for-an-answer activism from an hitherto marginalized community of gay men who were disproportionately affected by this epidemic. We can all thank them – even if, as one characterization of the crisis puts it, we have ended up in a “complacent” or “indifferent” place in society with regard to what is now a treatable illness.

But does this advancement mean that all of societal perception has shifted? Does the tempering or perceived neutralization of the threat and the almost-distant memory of the devastation AIDS once caused in the western world mean that we have reached a stage where we can laugh at it? Young people today (I know I sound elderly starting a sentence that way) did not live through the fear and terror of those early years and thus don’t feel the same limitation or deference to the topic’s seriousness. It’s seen as a “developing-world issue” if it is thought of at all. Taking that into account, is it possible for some of the humor to be intelligent analysis or satire of the place we are with the disease – or with other things in society when held up to it? And where is that line? What happens when someone crosses it?

A woman named Justine Sacco found out the hard way, as she completely failed to walk the tightrope when she tweeted something that went viral and was widely seen as completely inappropriate and in horrible taste. (Her Tweet read: “she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”)

“Despite Ms Sacco only having around 200 followers, the message quickly spread to online news organisations, with social media users around the world expressing their disgust.

The irony of a supposed public relations expert tweeting such an insensitive comment, and the fact it could not be corrected during a 12-hour flight without an internet connection, meant the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was soon trending on the social media site.”

Apart from being a perfect example of displaying very bad judgment, it is also a perfect illustration of the viral nature of social media and why we have to be careful.

But pop culture is… well, popping with all kinds of increasingly frequent joking references to AIDS. From the parody of the popular musical Rent in Team America: World Police with its “Everyone Has AIDS!” song

to the South Park play on the different meanings of the homophones “AIDS” and “aides” (which reminds me of my days observing TESOL/ESL courses; one afternoon one of the teachers discussed acronyms and had used AIDS as an example – later in the lesson, although on a different topic, she introduced the word “aides” and asked the perplexed class, “Do you think Bill Clinton has aides?”).

What prompted this entire train of thought on the subject, apart from watching the heartwrenching HBO treatment of The Normal Heart last week, was my marathon-viewing of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, and an episode in which Amy’s boyfriend announces he has AIDS (humorously summarized here). Seeing it almost shocked me because I was not sure whether to find it funny or not. I think Schumer stayed on the right side of the humor because she was not actually laughing at AIDS but was shining a light on a lot of different issues, ranging from hypocrisy to the awkwardness of conversations in which you feel a certain pressure to accept or agree to things that you need time to process, regardless of what they are (but when put on the spot, it is not like you know what to say, so when the boyfriend asks if his having AIDS is a dealbreaker, she nervously, awkwardly chimes, “No, it’s great!”).

The question, though, cannot really be answered universally – where is the line?

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