HIV on TV: Review

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HIV on TV: Popular Culture’s Epidemic
by Malynnda A. Johnson
Lexington Books

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard

From the alarming news stories of the eighties, those “very special episodes” of popular sitcoms and dramas, highly touted television movies, to the first major characters with HIV on prime time series—HIV has been portrayed in a variety of ways through media, especially television. Johnson points out in her study of this history that most young people—with a lack of sex education in our schools—get their information about HIV/AIDS through the media. It can serve to educate, but in the interest of dramatic effects and ratings, can also reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions. She covers HIV through the lens of television from the early eighties, when fears were high, to the present day, when the disease has become a manageable condition for many who have access to medications and healthcare. The dangers of using HIV as a punchline in television sitcoms is addressed as well as its over-dramatization in more serious pieces.

It’s a fascinating history that reflects the various stages of the disease’s treatment as well as the public’s evolving understanding of HIV. What is not addressed, and sadly is not addressed often enough in American media, is our new understanding of treatment as prevention. A serious critique of American television’s coverage and portrayal of HIV/AIDS is incomplete without it. In countries like the UK, various experts are frequently seen on television talking about U=U and the groundbreaking studies proving its efficacy. I would like to have seen this addressed more thoroughly in this book as a failure of our own television media here in the States. This does not completely discount this fascinating book’s value. It’s a thorough history of three decades of media coverage of modern history’s most virulent epidemic. It’s a balanced piece that talks about both television’s successes and failures as an educational tool in the fight against HIV and the stigma surrounding it.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.