Cinema and Media Studies AIDS in Film and Television
Kylo-Patrick R. Hart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0322


Representations of AIDS in film and television have differed throughout the world. Accordingly, this article focuses primarily on such representations in North America, with a particular emphasis on US media offerings and occasional references to related examples from other English-speaking countries. In the early 1980s, what eventually became known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was initially labeled GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). As a result, the earliest representations of AIDS in television news programs focused almost exclusively on gay men, and shortly thereafter intravenous drug users, as “guilty villains” in the emergent AIDS crisis, with a visual emphasis on emaciated individuals covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. By 1985, independent films and documentaries pertaining to AIDS started to emerge, along with the NBC network’s first made-for-television movie about AIDS, An Early Frost. In 1987, AIDS began entering the plots of various prime-time television series. Most of these offerings continued to perpetuate understandings of AIDS as a gay disease, even into the early 1990s. As the decade of the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the phenomenon of AIDS was increasingly being regarded as two distinct yet interrelated epidemics: HIV and AIDS. Some film and television offerings began shifting their focus away from gay men and intravenous drug users with AIDS toward children with AIDS and healthy individuals with “at-risk bodies” that required ongoing protection. In 1993, Hollywood’s first all-star movie about AIDS, Philadelphia, flipped the script by foregrounding Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions to generate substantial compassion, rather than cultural contempt, for a gay man with AIDS. The film’s contents, viewed by a wider general public than preceding works, effectively challenged AIDS discrimination. During the first half of the 1990s, a small number of noteworthy AIDS metaphor movies were made and released, and self-representation in AIDS documentaries became more common. In large part due to the availability of lifesaving antiretrovirals, which resulted in a cultural shift from large numbers of individuals dying from AIDS to large numbers living with HIV, representations of HIV/AIDS in film and television decreased substantially during the second half of the 1990s and throughout the first decade of the new millennium. Since then, there has been a growing representational interest in exploring the early history of AIDS, in offerings such as How to Survive a Plague (2012), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and The Normal Heart (2014).

General Overviews

Read in succession, Treichler 1999, Hart 2000, and Kagan 2018 together provide a comprehensive overview of representational trends pertaining to HIV/AIDS in film and television from the early 1980s through the mid-2010s in North America and a handful of other English-speaking countries. Kinsella 1989 focuses on early influential approaches to covering AIDS in network news during the pandemic’s first decade. Baker 1994 analyzes various forms of “plague art,” situating insightful analyses of popular and independent AIDS films and television offerings alongside related representations in the domains of art, dance, music, and theater. MacKinnon 1992 and Griffin 2000 analyze noteworthy AIDS films from various genres, including horror and melodrama. With regard to television, Watney 1996 explores AIDS in televised entertainment programming, and Johnson 2018 analyzes representations of HIV in news programming, comedy, and drama over the course of the past four decades. Hallas 2009 articulates how innovative approaches in AIDS film and video bore witness to the devastation caused by AIDS in ways that challenged stereotypes and approaches common in the mainstream media.

  • Baker, Rob. The Art of AIDS: From Stigma to Conscience. New York: Continuum, 1994.

    Begins with a concise overview of widespread misconceptions commonly contained in media representations of AIDS and demonstrates their frequency through insightful analyses of films (including Blue, Buddies, The Living End, Longtime Companion, Parting Glances, Philadelphia, and Zero Patience), network and cable television movies (including An Early Frost, And the Band Played On, and Andre’s Mother), and related media offerings.

  • Griffin, Gabriele. Representations of HIV and AIDS: Visibility Blue/s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    Traces the trajectory of AIDS representations in film and related cultural artifacts from the height of the panic surrounding the pandemic to their comparative invisibility from the mid-1990s onward.

  • Hallas, Roger. Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822391401

    Explores the ways that film and video bore witness to the realities of the AIDS crisis by analyzing the cultural contributions of autobiographical videos, found-footage films, and related media artifacts, including works by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Derek Jarman, and Marlon Riggs.

  • Hart, Kylo-Patrick R. The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic in Film and Television. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Analyzes representations of AIDS in nearly three dozen American mainstream, independent, and made-for-television movies released during the pandemic’s first two decades and their contributions to the social construction of HIV/AIDS in US society.

  • Johnson, Malynnda A. HIV on TV: Popular Culture’s Epidemic. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.

    Discusses televised representations of HIV in news programs and entertainment offerings from the discovery of HIV to the present, their appeals as controversial or “taboo” topics, and their contributions to modern-day social constructions of illness and disease.

  • Kagan, Dion. Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’. London: I. B. Tauris, 2018.

    Details the representational shifts pertaining to gay men and HIV/AIDS in film and television following the advent of antiretroviral drugs, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s. The book’s highly detailed introduction is a must-read for scholars new to this area of research activity. Also offers eye-opening analyses of diverse offerings such as Brothers & Sisters, Chemsex, Dallas Buyers Club, The Normal Heart, and Queer as Folk.

  • Kinsella, James. Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

    Provides insights into the insensitivity common in news media reports during the early years of the AIDS pandemic and the similarities between print and television coverage during this same era.

  • MacKinnon, Kenneth. The Politics of Popular Representation: Reagan, Thatcher, AIDS, and the Movies. Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992.

    Argues that cultural attitudes and representational approaches pertaining to AIDS in the 1980s were a direct result of the views and actions of the New Right and Christian fundamentalists, including ongoing attacks on homosexuality and gay rights. Identifies values (such as masculinity and militarism) that were regularly communicated by offerings of entertainment cinema generally and horror films more specifically.

  • Treichler, Paula A. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822396963

    Provides essential background information about the social construction of HIV/AIDS—its meanings and metaphors—in various media offerings (including documentaries, talk shows, made-for-TV movies, and prime-time television series) over the course of the pandemic’s first two decades. Considers how AIDS narratives on television offered a limited range of portrayals that negatively impacted women and other audience members and the ways that identity and identification function in relation to narrative media.

  • Watney, Simon. Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

    Demonstrates how typical media representations of AIDS fostered the phenomenon of victim blaming and a variety of influential, deleterious social constructions about the “realities” of the AIDS pandemic and the range of individuals affected by it.

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