How Jonathan Van Ness Can Save Us All: The History of HIV Representation in Media

Van Ness might be the ideal icon to openly speak about the reality of living with HIV/AIDS in 2019.

Our beloved Gay Jesus, Jonathan Van Ness, may actually save lives in coming years.

No, perhaps not directly, but as a darling of Netflix's Emmy-nominated Queer Eye, Van Ness has a platform to represent the LGBTQ+ community and be the voice of social change that's heard with a simple streaming subscription; and in a candid interview with The New York Times, Van Ness recently shared that he's living with HIV. Ahead of the release of his memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, the non-binary TV personality shared his story of testing positive at 25 after fainting one day at work. "When Queer Eye came out, it was really difficult because I was like, 'Do I want to talk about my status?'" he said. "And then I was like, 'The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the L.G.B.T. community thrive around me'…I do feel the need to talk about this." Now 32, he's opening up about being an addict and a survivor of sexual abuse long before he became Queer Eye's "effervescent, gregarious majestic center-part-blow-dry cotton-candy figure-skating queen," in his own words.

Van Ness might be the ideal icon to openly speak about the reality of living with HIV/AIDS in 2019. He's called the success of Queer Eye "the honor of a lifetime," and he's become a public face for non-binary members of the LGBTQ+ community (along with singer Sam Smith and actors like Asia Kate Dillon and Nico Tortorella).

But while queer representation in TV and film is still hardly substantial, when it comes to HIV status, media representation is about more than just fairness and accuracy. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic disrupted the public's sense of safety in the 1980s, deep misunderstandings and fear of the unknown fostered intense stigma against HIV-positive individuals. In the decades since, studies and public polling have shown that increased media representation of HIV/AIDS directly correlates with reduced social stigma. About six in ten Americans get their HIV/AIDS information from the media, whether that's watching Tales of the City's HIV-positive Michael Tolliver deepen his relationship with his HIV-negative boyfriend or watching Van Ness crown each of his clients "queen." Van Ness joins a small cohort of celebrities who are open about their HIV-positive status. Former Wales rugby player Gareth Thomas also recently confirmed he was living with HIV. Soon after, UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity shared that they'd seen a "sharp increase in the number of people accessing information about HIV from our website and THT Direct telephone service," as well as orders for their HIV self-test kits.

Today, about half of all Americans (52%) are not familiar with the term "undetectable," and 8% say they've heard the term but are unaware of what it means. Simply, HIV-positive individuals treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART) can have viral loads so low that they're not detected by standard lab tests. Hence, in a treated individual, the virus cannot replicate in the body and the individual cannot pass on the virus to another person: "Undetectable equals untransmittable." People can reach this stage of the disease within six months of beginning treatment—and continue to live full, uninterrupted lives. Additionally, polls assessing public awareness of new HIV prevention strategies, like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), find that less than half (42%) of the public is aware of the daily pill or the fact that individuals who are at a high risk of contracting HIV can reduce their risk by as much as 99% (as long as they take it consistently).

"I've had nightmares every night for the past three months because I'm scared to be this vulnerable with people," Van Ness told The New York Times. His fears went beyond his career as a TV personality; there's still rampant misunderstandings about who becomes infected with HIV which date back to panicked media coverage in the 1980s. In 1985, American movie icon Rock Hudson was the first well-known celebrity to die of AIDS-related complications; rock icon Freddie Mercury confirmed his HIV-positive status the day before his death from the disease in 1991; and fear continued to dominate America. Infected patients were treated as pariahs as paranoia and fear about the virus pervaded society. "Nurses wouldn't tend to their bedside; they wouldn't deliver them food," says Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, an HIV/AIDs speciality hospital in Toronto. "They were obviously really concerned about contracting HIV themselves and [there was] really a lack of understanding that it couldn't be transmitted through touch."

But celebrity outreach and increased media representation soon began shifting attitudes. In 1991, when Princess Diana visited patients at Casey House, front-page photographs showed her shaking hands with patients and kissing them on the cheeks, inspiring more compassion for infected individuals and, perhaps more importantly, dispelling common myths about the disease that caused stigma to fester. Similarly, in 1991 Magic Johnson announced his retirement from basketball due to his positive HIV diagnosis; and in the '90s Pedro Zamora became one of the first openly gay men in popular TV, appearing on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco to educate viewers about living with HIV before passing away from AIDS-related complications shortly afterwards. Pop culture slowly began to represent the human side of the disease in films Iike Philadelphia (1993) and And the Band Played On (1993). On ER (1997) Jeanie Boulder was the first TV character to contract HIV (she received treatment and went on to thrive throughout the series, becoming a counselor for youth with HIV).

Princess Diana at HIV hospital Princess Diana at Toronto's Casey HouseTorontoism

In fact, a Gallup poll conducted in 1997 found: "The public is somewhat less critical of those who get AIDS than it was a decade ago, but 31% of Americans still believe that AIDS is a punishment for a decline in moral standards (compared with 43% who felt that way ten years ago), and 40% say that the victims of AIDS are themselves to blame for getting the disease (compared with 51% who felt that way in 1987)."

HIV-positive characters have been slowly working their way into TV shows, from the aughts' Queer as Folk to the more recent Tales of the City, Pose, How to Get Away With Murder, Looking, and even Sesame Street. Characters grapple with their new diagnosis, process the loss of friends, navigate serodiscordent relationships (one between an HIV-positive and negative individual), and generally get on with their lives without HIV defining their characters. Thanks to increased visibility and public health awareness, recent polls find that most Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are "comfortable working with (79%), having a close friendship with (77%), and sharing a living space with (62%) someone who is living with HIV. This is true across racial and ethnic lines."

But none of that is to say there's enough media representation or understanding in society; that's partly what was giving Jonathan Van Ness nightmares in the weeks before sharing his HIV status. With a large majority of Americans (80%) identifying HIV as a "serious national issue," and with 46% reporting to personally know someone for whom it is a "serious concern," living with HIV is not a marginalized experience. To date, about 1.1 million people in the U.S. are HIV-positive (with an estimated 1 in 7 unaware of their infection). While we reject stigmas that attach moral judgments to HIV status, it's often underestimated how infection rates affect all sexual orientations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses. For instance, most newly infected individuals are between the ages of 25-34, and gay and bisexual men only account for an estimated 66% of annual HIV diagnoses through sexual contact, leaving heterosexuals to account for 24%. The numbers, though, reveal more nuance and social disparity when evaluated for rates of infection in underserved communities and for people of color.

Damian (Daniel Franzese) in "Mean Girls"

In 2019, there's no reason for media's scant representation of mixed HIV status relationships or accurate depictions of living with HIV—other than stigma, which lingers as the backfire of ignorance. Interestingly, in 2017 The Elizabeth Taylor AIDs Foundation (ETAF) noticed a particular absence of HIV-positive characters in American TV. ETAF Ambassador and actor Daniel Franzese (Looking, Mean Girls) and ETAF Managing Director Joel Goldman held a roundtable discussion with actors and network show creators from HBO and NBC to discuss "how the current lack of HIV representation is related to the climbing infection rates today." The roundtable concluded, "The lack of HIV stories may have a correlation with the rise in infection rates and the fact that people are either choosing not to or don't know how to be treated once they're diagnosed." Franzese (who has credited his Mean Girls role as the lead character's gay best friend for helping hm to come out as gay) says that the LGBTQ+ community has "moved on to adoption and marriage equality and trans acceptance, but it seems that HIV has taken a backseat to those other movements and they are all important, but I feel like we need as a community to bring that issue back to the forefront."

He added that pop culture icons—exactly the likes of Jonathan Van Ness—are key to spreading education and prevention to fans of all ages and backgrounds. "Let's see Beyonce take a PrEP pill with a glass of lemonade," he said.


"Queer Eye" Season 4 Continues to Glorify Late Capitalism

"Queer Eye" acts like a show that makes people's lives better. It actually promotes extremely dangerous ideas.

Queer Eye is a difficult show to criticize.

This is mostly thanks to its stars, Antoni, Jonathan, Bobby, Karamo, and Tan, each of whom radiate a well-balanced combination of kindness and charisma that makes you want to protect them at all costs. So, Fab Five, if you're reading this: It's not you—it's capitalism.

To be clear, the word capitalism (in this article) doesn't refer to good old-fashioned free market competition. It refers to the mutation that is neoliberal capitalism; which promotes unchecked, limitless accumulation; which revolves around massive, resource-sucking corporations; and which thrives off unsustainable income inequality.

Also known as late capitalism, this phrase "describes the hypocrisy and absurdities of capitalism as it digs its own grave," according to the economist Kimberly Amadeo. In spite of all its sweetness and positivity, Queer Eye is built on the foundation of neoliberal capitalism.

Money Fixes Everything

Queer Eye's entire concept is predicated on the idea that each of the "fixer-uppers" featured in each episode is desperately in need of remedying. And almost always, even though their actions and conversations may seem to imply otherwise, money is the answer.

While Karamo's life-coach role is the least firmly rooted in capitalist values, as he's more focused on internal worlds, each of the other Fab Five's tasks promote the message that redemption and happiness can be achieved with cash, and cash alone. Jonathan Van Ness and Tan France focus on exterior appearances, through hair, grooming, and clothing—all of which, needless to say, require money, and promote capitalist idealization of style and beauty.

Similarly, Bobby's exquisite renovations are probably the most expensive projects on the show. His extraordinary work, though satisfying during the big reveal, promotes illusory expectations as to how a home ought to look and how quickly renovations can happen. A renovation like Bobby's would be immensely complex and stressful for any ordinary working person, especially someone trying to DIY it.

Antoni's recipes, to his credit, are a bit less innocuous. Often, they're accessible projects for the ordinary working person who's not inclined to culinary endeavors. Interestingly, his methods have also faced the most media scrutiny of all, with professional chefs and the Internet alike criticizing him for the "simplicity" of his recipes.

This dislike for Antoni's recipes reveals that not only do viewers buy into Queer Eye's capitalist values. They watch because of them—because of the shiny, glitzy, quick-fix rush. This is because these values align neatly with what we've always been taught, both through subliminal advertising and American culture: that if we just change ourselves enough, if we just whip ourselves into shape enough, we'll somehow "make it."

The catch to this mentality is that there's never an end point. You never do "make it." In capitalism, "making it" requires constant maintenance, plucking, purchasing, and striving; and the more you have, the more there is to do. Capitalism is a cycle of self-loathing, instant gratification, brief happiness, and then self-loathing that re-emerges when the paint on that happiness starts to chip.

But capitalism thrives on that promise of happiness. "When we are constantly bombarded with advertisements tailored for us and pills that can cure our every ailment, it is easy to care for your own happiness and nothing else," writes one contributor to the Vanderbilt Political Review in a post about Queer Eye's emphasis on self-gratification.

Individualism, Just Slightly Less Rugged

A lot of Queer Eye's messages revolve around the idea that individualism and independence are the highest forms of being. Like capitalism, the show encourages individualism while discouraging individuality. It criticizes quirky clothing choices, faded favorite chairs, empty cabinets, and unfashionable hairstyles, promoting beauty standards and glorifying new, unblemished purchases—a progression that automatically produces waste.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. It's not like the Fab Five discourage uniqueness, as they often make the people they visit feel incredibly celebrated for who they are. And it's not all about individualism: The season 4 episode about John Stoner focuses on his relationship with his daughter, not solely on his own self-improvement. Still, though, in the Fab Five's methods, Stoner can only show his love for his daughter through objects, through cooking, dressing nicely for her skating competition, and placing shiny objects in his home in order to make her feel welcome.

All this isn't to say that the Fab Five are anything less than angels, or that Jonathan Van Ness isn't actually Jesus Christ reborn. In fact, a lot of the ways the show treats people is inspiring and, at times, even anticapitalist, in so far as uplifting people who help others but don't get recognized themselves. It's an admirable concept, one that contradicts systems of corporate profit and greed.

To their credit, the Queer Eye team may even temporarily change lives. Still, the thing about makeovers is that they fade away after one shower. The team leaves the people they visit with short-term solutions and blueprints for lives that are probably going to be unaffordable in the end. Plus, the opportunities they offer and the changes they encourage are often unattainable to most ordinary people.

Queer Eye, therefore, is uplifting in the way that a shot of tequila is uplifting. It might make you feel warm and fuzzy for a while, as you watch lives apparently get fixed before your eyes, but then it leaves you with a headache when the glamour fades and you're left to face real life.

Social Justice, Late Capitalism Style

Even Queer Eye's dedication to social justice may be part of a marketing strategy. According to Amadeo, one of the defining characteristics of late capitalism is that it often relies on "the immorality of corporations using social issues to advance their brand."

Queer Eye's fourth season does just this. It emphasizes the show's social justice angle, focusing on an array of extraordinary people who are very much deserving of praise.

Unfortunately, the show uses social justice as a vehicle for its capitalist ideology. This becomes clear when you take a closer look at how the show handles things like disability. A Quartz article called out, "Queer eye demonstrates how we can show disability, but still fail to represent it," essentially making the same arguments as this article but through the specific focus on the disabled community. "Throughout these scenes, we see Wesley and the Fab Five repeatedly discussing [Wesley's] eventual independence," its authors write. "Access to independent living is undeniably an important tenet of disability rights advocacy. But support systems and care networks are a crucial part of this advocacy."

Indeed, Queer Eye's emphasis on individualism and quick-fixes, rather than interdependence and societal adjustment to systemic oppression, may be its central flaw. "The episode's emphasis on personal independence at the expense of interdependence is echoed by its failure to address the fact that individual 'fixes' are only necessary because of a societal failure to address systemic design flaws, and will never be enough to create meaningful access," continues the article.

The show uses queerness in a similar way. Queer people started out as a group rejected by capitalism. Not fitting into the mold of the nuclear family, they were forced to create alternative ways of life. However, after the LGBTQ+ community gained mainstream acceptance, capitalism was quick to commodify them, effectively "selling" them the "straight" life that had previously been inaccessible...all under the guise of compassion.

This is visible in the onslaught of "rainbow capitalism," which has resulted in Pride parades across the world being stained by Citibank floats. It's also been instrumental in the massive success of Queer Eye, which first found its niche by guiding men who struggle with their masculinity towards realms traditionally marketed to women only—like makeup and home improvement. Of course, this merely reinstates old capitalist norms.

"Give a man a makeover and you fix him for a day," writes Laurie Penny in her excellent article, The Queer Art of Failing Better. "Teach a man that masculinity under late capitalism is a toxic pyramid scheme that is slowly killing him just like it's killing the world, and you might just fix a sucking hole in the future."

Taking What We Can Get

While there are so, so many good things about Queer Eye (have you seen the way Antoni looks at Corgis?) the show might be easier to appreciate if it wasn't centered around the very ideals that are on track to destroy the world. After all, late capitalism encourages income inequality, thrives on racial and social divides, and is stalling action on climate change. And if our most beloved media glorifies it, how can we expect to break free from it? How can we, for example, expect to elect politicians who will tax us more, asking us to forgo our newest renovation for food stamp programs and long-term investments in renewable energy? That's why we can't let shows like Queer Eye off the hook, as lovable as their cast may be and as touching as their storylines are. There's a lot it's doing right, but for a show that presents itself like it has humanity's best interests at heart, it could do so much better.

All this being said, Queer Eye is still doing important, meaningful work. It's a vast improvement from, say, The Kardashians, or other forms of reality television. Those shows celebrate synthetic stars and their absurd abuse of wealth, and at least Queer Eye honors real people, and gives voice to their real lives and struggle.

Also, Queer Eye is different because it promotes kindness. People are nice to each other on the show; they respect each others' differences, and encourage vulnerability and connection. While it's important to be critical of Queer Eye's capitalist core, that doesn't mean we can't appreciate its compassionate veneer.