What Does Pop Culture Owe a Plague?

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Is there a correct way to talk about the American AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s, to dissect particular injustices while also evoking some sense of the broader scale of the horror and loss? With AIDS infection rates on the rise among young Americans, this seems like an important time to have the discussion. Twenty years after Angels in America premiered on Broadway (and nearly ten years after the HBO movie brought Tony Kushner's searing fever dream to the masses), it seems we may have lost some sense of perspective. Anecdotally, I've spoken to a dismaying amount of gay men in their early 20s who feel pretty untroubled by the specter of infection. In some ways, it seems like the AIDS narrative is losing its potency, and its position of prominence in how we remember the 1980s and '90s.

The new film Dallas Buyers Club addresses this history from a unique perspective. Rather than giving us the usual look at gay men in New York City or San Francisco, the American demographic hit hardest by the plague, the film tells the story of a straight man in Texas. Though not fitting the usual profile of American AIDS narratives, the film's hero struggles and suffers, and in some ways triumphs, in much the same way as the queer men whom we most closely associate with the disease. It's an interesting approach to the subject matter, and I found the film stirring yet sober, honest and wholly affecting. Not everyone agreed with me.

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In his review for Deadspin, Will Leitch labeled the film "gay history for straight people," complaining that it's a pandering attempt to pasteurize the story of the AIDS crisis and the fight for medical attention for an audience that might not want to see something that's too gay. Leitch writes that DBC is "obnoxious hokum, an important story so distilled and stripped of its essence that by the end, it's not about AIDS and the fight for new drugs at all." Though I disagree — where Leitch sees avoidance and cheap normalizing, I see a more catholic approach to discussing the disease — it does raise an interesting question.

Which, somewhat strangely, came to me while I was watching The Carrie Diaries. Yes. The Carrie Diaries. The first few episodes of the second season of The CW's winning little series about a young version of Sex and the City heroine Carrie Bradshaw have unfolded in the summer of '85, in New York City. Carrie is working at Interview magazine, meeting young Samantha Jones, and encouraging her gay bff Walt to pursue his crush. It's been a fun, bouncy season so far, clever in the sly, reference-y way the show has always been. And yet, something about these new episodes has been a bit troubling.

Again, we're in 1985. In New York City. Specifically, in the fashion industry. (Carrie works for Interview's fashion editor.) Carrie's gay friend Walt is crushing on her gay coworker Bennett, and in last Friday's episode, the two decided to start dating. The little romance is fumbling and cute, and the downtown New York gawking is always a hoot, even if it's not exactly the most accurate representation of the scene as it was. (Or so I've heard.) But let's think about that time and place, that milieu. Wouldn't something dark be seeping into this carefree, fun-loving idyll? Wouldn't there be some fearful whispering, conversations about sick friends and lost lovers? The AIDS crisis in the United States was reaching nightmare proportions by 1985, and it's just not believable that Carrie's world wouldn't have begun to be touched by it in some way.

Which isn't to say that The Carrie Diaries, a light romantic comedy meant for teenagers, should necessarily delve into what is deeply serious, heartbreaking history. But the experience of watching the show is odd, knowing that just outside this bright, mostly consequenceless bubble, an entire vibrant and varied community is being ravaged and decimated by a terrifying, incurable disease. As last year's galvanizing, vital documentary How to Survive a Plague so bracingly illustrated, America's big cities, especially San Francisco and New York, were angry, scary places in those days. Not for everyone, of course — plenty of people probably didn't pay much attention to what was happening in the gay corners of the city — but for the kind of people that Carrie Bradshaw hangs out with and aspires to be like, it seems entirely likely that the world they knew would suddenly begin to collapse right around the time of this cheery little summer.

This thought struck me last week, prompting some tweets (yes, tweets) about how Carrie's friend Walt would likely be dead now. Statistically speaking, that's not really true, but it's certainly possible. And if not Walt, perhaps Bennett, older and more socially (and presumably sexually) connected to the gay world as he is. It's a grim game to play, guessing who among this YA confection's characters would still be around today, but I think there is actually a pretty urgent question there. Carrie Diaries executive producer Amy B. Harris responded to my Twitter musing, saying "Life can be dark." Indeed it can be! But will the show go there? Curious as to whether or not the series would ever address this glaring issue, I posed the question to Harris, who told me over Twitter direct message that "later on this season we dig into it in a big way." That's in line with an interview she gave to The New York Post last January, when she said "I don’t think we can play a series that takes place in the ’80s and in New York and not examine [AIDS] … And we really hope to."

It might seem like a silly thing to have wondered about, considering we're talking about a teen-oriented show about young and fabulous Carrie Bradshaw. But given the specific world and the particular time, it would be an awfully big sidestep to not address AIDS at all. I had some reason to doubt that they would, seeing as the series avoided showing the Twin Towers last season, so I'm surprised, and glad in a way, to hear that this other catastrophe won't go ignored. Especially when you consider the series that The Carrie Diaries is a prequel to. When Sex and the City premiered in 1998, AIDS death rates in the U.S. were on the decline and the darkest days seemed over. But only by a few years. And yet the show mostly gave us New York as a glittery fantasia of cocktails and brunch. Which, of course, it was, for many people. Even in the height of the AIDS crisis, New York was a party for lots of folks.

But SATC, created by a gay man and run for many years by another gay man, was a decidedly queer-tinged series, even if there were only two recurring gay characters. One of those characters, Stanford, has been mentioned on The Carrie Diaries — he's Bennett's as-yet-unseen roommate, whom we're told we're going to meet sometime this season. So, Carrie knew Stanford from her teens into adulthood, which would presumably mean that they lived through some pretty bleak days together. And yet AIDS was hardly ever mentioned on SATC, the disease getting the biggest focus in an episode involving a never-before-tested Samantha freaking out over the potential results. (She was fine in the end.) I guess you could see SATC as a fantasy created by Darren Starr and fostered by Michael Patrick King to help put the horrors of the previous decade behind them. And it was certainly their prerogative to do that; it's their history too. But there was always something slightly off about the decided blurriness of Carrie and company's New York backstory. So, it would seem that, as is the job of a good prequel, The Carrie Diaries has plans to do some clarification.

Still, one worries about how the topic will be handled. This isn't a show that traffics in harsh, unflinching honesty. And yet isn't that exactly what the subject deserves? I suppose the show could go a more sentimental route, which is likely the tack it will take, but is that fair? Is it respectful enough? If you can make the argument that something as assured and textured as Dallas Buyers Club is pandering, then a show like The Carrie Diaries addressing the issue through the eyes of a young woman who we know will grow up healthy and fabulous could definitely be called problematic. But of course there were young women like Carrie who stumbled terrified through those horrible years, so to deny them some sort of representation, fluffy and CW-shaped as it may be, is unfair too.

That's the tricky nature of addressing the recent past, with reality still relatively fresh in older people's minds and many younger people hungry for some sort of glossed-over retro fantasy. In that vein, The Carrie Diaries raises some interesting questions about historical fiction (that is what the show is, in its own way!) and how we tend to either embolden or avoid entirely the more difficult parts of the past. It's good to know that the show's writers aren't planning on callously ignoring the AIDS issue entirely, but it suddenly makes watching the show kinda grim, and sad. So much of what makes the world of the show fun would, in real life, soon be gone, if it wasn't already. But The Carrie Diaries keeps chugging along toward this darkening future anyway. It's an odd possibility, then, that this much-groaned-about network prequel aimed at teenagers may ultimately do a more thorough job of grappling with this terrible truth than its seminal, Emmy-winning cable predecessor ever did. Let's hope so, anyway.

Update: Harris further followed up over email, telling us: "It's definitely going to play a big part in this season. For both Carrie and Walt and their friends at Interview. Working in Manhattan in a creative field means this group of friends will ways be affected by this epidemic. Friends dying. Having to go get tested and how people at this time viewed that. It will definitely impact them."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.