21 Jump Street AIDS Episode Rant

Cross-posted to The Angry Redhead and LiveJournal.

I’m sticking this in 3 different places for a reason: 1) It’s a media-related rant (LiveJournal) 2) It relates to real-life, controversial and angering issues (The Angry Redhead) and 3) It is related to my life (Life Blog.)

I’ve been watching the seasons of 21 Jump Street recently.  For those who don’t know, the show was a cop drama in the 80’s and the reason I’m watching it is because it was Johnny Depp’s first major acting role after A Nightmare on Elm Street.  I’m onto the second season and boy oh boy does this show have its clichés.  For one, it’s throwing in a few different holiday episodes, including a Christmas and Valentine’s Day one.  It’s so cheesy.  For two, it insists upon touching on every controversial subject in the most stereotypical way possible (interracial couples, teen pregnancy, homosexuality…)

So I’ve hit upon the AIDS episode.  You could tell this one was coming by the title: “Big Disease with a Little Name.”  What’s the first thing you think of?  And, I have to put at least a little bit of this into perspective.  The show was made in the 1980’s.  AIDS wasn’t first reported until 1981.  Not much was known and the first term for it was actually GRID: Gay-Related Immuno Deficiency.  No one knew how we got it, how it got spread or anything useful about it.  The CDC at the time called it the 4H disease: Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin users.  AIDS became the term in 1982.1 But it scared people.  Suddenly people were showing up with this disease that they couldn’t cure and it could kill you.  And because homosexuality and drug use were the most common ways to get it, there was a huge stigma surrounding those who had it.

Much of that has changed.  We know it can only be spread through direct contact with the fluids (mainly sexual or blood) of an infected person into an open area of ours, like a mucus membrane.  That’s why you get it through sex or when two people share blood through an unclean needle.  Mucus membranes, and the direct blood-to-blood content.  We have advanced medicines so that people won’t die as quickly, and we know that you can get it from anyone who has it, not just someone who’s gay or a drug user.

Part of my rage at this episode isn’t at the episode itself.  From what I’m seeing, they handle the matter quite effectively.  But sometimes I have problems suspending my disbelief.  I’m not so much mad at the show as the people in the show itself.  The character who is infected in this story is a hemophiliac.  And hospitals in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s didn’t always use the most sterile methods.  It’s believed that the first cases of the disease came about in the 50’s from people who had contracted SIV (the Simian Immuno-deficiency Virus.)  In other words, the disease started with apes and morphed to affect humans.  The first cases appeared in 1959/1960 in the Congo.  It initially affected those who handled bushmeat (the meat of terrestrial (those who live primarily on land) animals. More commonly called wild meat or game.)2 But the disease morphed and got carried around to humans.

Hospitals didn’t help, because they reused needles.  There was no reason to believe that it wasn’t safe to do so in those times and the needles transferred the disease from infected people to healthy people.  In particular, people with hemophilia (a hereditary disease where the body doesn’t make clots.  Hemophiliacs can die by something as simple as a bruise or cat scratch because the body won’t stop the bleeding.) need blood transfusions to replace the deficient clotting factor.  So lots of kids who weren’t otherwise involved in anything bad, got this horrible fatal disease because of something they were born with that can also kill them.  Think of that lot in life.  Here you are, trying not to die, and the hospital gives you something else that’ll kill you quicker.

Back to the show.  What I’m upset about is the people’s attitudes toward the kid.  As Johnny Depp’s character, Officer Tom Hanson, points out: “It’s not illegal to have the disease.”  But this kid faces parents screaming and physically trying to prevent him from going to school.  My heart bleeds, and the show isn’t even real!  But mostly it hurts because I know so much of that happened.  So many people were scared that you could get it from just being near the person or touching them and these parents were scared for their kids.  But no one stopped to imagine what this poor kid felt like.  Here he is, stuck with a genetic disease he has no control over.  He could die at any moment from something as simple as scraping his knee on something.  He fears everyday objects because they are potential death traps for him.  And the people that were supposed to help him ended up making him an enemy of the public for no reason!  It was the doctors and nurses that they all trust that gave him something that is guaranteed to steal his life before he’s even had much of a chance to live it.

But nobody then even stopped to reason that way.  Fear and panic took over and those are the most dangerous emotions humans will ever have.  More dangerous than a suicide bomber is the mob of people controlled by their fear.  A person afraid can and will do anything to retaliate against that fear.  And since you naturally fear what you don’t know and can’t understand, you retaliate against things that aren’t even all that threatening.

I know I see this from a person who has watched the progress we’ve made on AIDS, but it doesn’t make things any easier.  There’s less stigma associated with AIDS than before.  There are more instances where someone gets it, not by doing something wrong or by being promiscuous, but because they didn’t think far enough to make them check it.  Or you get it/are expose to it against your own will and volition.

There are those out there who have tried to give AIDS to people as a form of revenge, but they are few and far between.  Most of the time, a partner won’t inform the other of the danger because of denial, indifference or fear of the loss of affection.  There is also the chance of exposure from strangers in 2 different ways: law enforcement and sexual assault.  In law enforcement, if you’re handling a suspect who is known to have the disease, there is a risk of exposure there.  If they get hurt and their blood comes into contact with yours or any number of other scenarios, then you are exposed and have to go through the same process sexual assault victims have to go through.  Which brings me to the “sexual assault” part.  While sexual assault or rape by a stranger is uncommon, it does still happen (it’s about a 20% rate.)  That’s how I was exposed.  When I was raped, it was by a stranger and I had no idea whether or not he was infected.  So I went through the preliminary/preventative treatments.
And those treatments aren’t fun.  You can’t prevent the disease, but if you think you’ve been exposed (like one of those ways above) they start you on some low-grade AZT pills.  I took a concoction of 3 for about a month and a half, maybe two months.  At one point, between those three pills, I was taking like 15+ pills a day.

We now can imagine and have sympathy for those that have been infected, but back then that didn’t exist.  Human nature is such an ugly thing and it scares me sometimes.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary. Men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”  – Joseph Conrad

“Evil is always unspectacular and always human. And shares our bed…and eats at our table.”  – W. H. Auden

“If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate.”  – Elbert Hubbard

1&2 Wikipedia article on AIDS and its origins.

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2 thoughts on “21 Jump Street AIDS Episode Rant

  1. I’m just here to let you know you’re facts aren’t straight. First off, depp started in 21jumpstreet before nightmare. 2nd, the whole point in this episode is to show how awful ppl were treated. It definitely is horrible but I feel like there is no reason to get mad at the show for being realistic for its time period. 3rd, if you actually pay attention to the episode, you find out that the character who has it, is not actually a hemophiliac and that his father made it up when they found out he had aids. He says “you can only get it 3 ways. Blood tranfusions, sharing needles and well, you know…well i dont share needles, and ive never had a blood transfusion, so you figure it out.” I agree with how horrible he was treated in this episode, but again, that was the whole point. The sympathy and heartbreak you felt for the character was completely intentional.

    1. A Nightmare on Elm Street comes out in 1984. 21 Jump Street runs from 1987 to 1990. Like I said, his first major role after Nightmare.

      Did you, like, even read what I wrote? Because I specifically try to put this into perspective. This episode comes out in like 1988/89. We’ve known about AIDS for, like, 7 years at this point. We are in the infantile stages of knowing anything about this disease. I am, in fact, aware of that when I write this. And I also make mention that I’m not really made at the episode itself. It could have done a lot worse, and there were a lot of shows at the time that did do a lot worse. And yes, I do understand how emotional manipulation works – why we feel what we feel when watching film/theater.

      But here’s where we’re about to differ.

      Firstly, I fucking hate how they copped out and made the kid gay. I hate it. Why do I hate it? Because they took the easy way out. “Oh, it turns out he really is gay! That’s why he got AIDS! It’s his own fault for being a [insert homophobic slur here]” No, I would’ve much preferred it if they kept the kid a hemophiliac. That would’ve shown in a more harsh light just how big of an asshole people can be, by showing how we blame people for things that aren’t their fault and how we jump to conclusions based on our own biases. Nowadays, we wouldn’t ever blame the hemophiliac – but notice how we still blame the homosexuals when they contract it. Homophobia is alive and well even in 2015, believe it. But keeping the kid a hemophiliac allows them to take the blame of contracting the disease off of the poor kid in a very obvious light. It would’ve highlighted the problems we had in the medical community that allowed diseases like this to spread. And it would’ve given a whole sub-population of people who had contracted AIDS that way a voice. Making him gay was a cop-out. It was a stupid decision, and not one I agree with.

      Secondly, you’re stupid. “There is no reason to get mad at the show for being realistic for its time period” is tantamount to saying “Don’t get mad at old people being racist, because they grew up with a different set of cultural values.” I don’t believe in excusing bad behavior in people simply because “that was what it was at the time.” It doesn’t make the bias okay. It doesn’t make that old racist fucker any less racist, nor does it mean I shouldn’t call him out for being a fucking racist. As cultural values change, we need to change as well, and the old guy doesn’t get a pass because he doesn’t feel like catching up to the shifting cultural values. In the same vein, I can call out the show and the people in the show for being homophobic, and I can be angry about that because I should be angry about it. There’s no reason to behave in that fashion. And yes, it is a homophobic episode. That’s why they lie about how the kid got AIDS, because they don’t want a homophobic backlash. Doesn’t matter, because that’s what everyone thought anyway and why they acted like that. And, as previously mentioned, the show copped out on making the kid an actual social justice beacon of hope and bought right into the homophobia.

      I understand that this particular piece of mine was written funny. I also wrote it…4 years ago at this point and I was (and am) still working on my technique when it comes to laying out a review/argument and making my points succinctly. But before you jump in with inaccuracies (you could’ve figured out Johnny Depp’s acting timeline by looking at IMDB too) and obviously known points just so that you can say “I don’t like that you got angry about it,” do me a favor: think first. Either, think about letting go of the fact that you’re upset at a person for being upset at a TV show (and everyone has the right to feel the emotions they feel when viewing the art) or think about just leaving a “I don’t like that you got angry about this” rather than trying poorly to justify why I shouldn’t feel what I feel.

      Might get you farther in life.

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