From Haight Street to Sesame Street: The Evolution of AIDS in Pop Culture

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As the face of the disease has changed, so has art that portrays it.

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Eddie Murphy; NBC; Sesame Workshop; Sundance Selects

In the 19th century, fiction works by Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo helped to humanize and de-stigmatize tuberculosis victims. Around the same time in America, fiction by Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe was instrumental in turning public sentiment against racism and slavery. And in the years since the virus first came into the national spotlight in 1981, artistic and pop-culture portrayals of HIV and AIDS in America have captured the shifts in public attitudes in real-time.

Essays and ideas to mark the 24th annual World AIDS Day See full coverage

In 1989, The New York Times issued a grim pronouncement on the state of AIDS portrayals in American arts. With a pandemic at work in America, the disease was affecting more and more people, Michael Kimmelman wrote—and more and more types of people—but the art devoted to HIV and AIDS wasn't telling the story of AIDS as completely or as convincingly as other past works of activist art had. "The pandemic's demographics may be changing rapidly," he said, "but the art about AIDS does not."

It wouldn't be long, though, before storytellers and public figures caught onto the fact that AIDS didn't only afflict gay communities. Soon athletes, actors, artists, and musicians would come forward and help diversify public portrayals of HIV and AIDS.

In 2004, VH1 suggested that pop culture in America had dealt with the arrival of HIV and AIDS in five stages: silence (1980 to 1985), fear (1985 to 1990), activism (1990 to 1994), mainstreaming (1994 to 1997), and complacency (1997 to 2004). The present might well be considered an extension of the "complacency" phase—in the last decade, a curiously small number of artworks in America have been devoted to the subject. Below is a collection of some significant media portrayals of AIDS and HIV through the years; viewed in order of their creation, they can help illustrate the changing stages of public acceptance of the disease.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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