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Giving pandemic a mainstream face

The ’50s matinee idol’s AIDS-related death in October 1985 was a seismicmoment in the disease’s history, prompting the public to rethinkknee-jerk reactions that had characterized AIDS sufferers as deviants.

1985: Death of Rock Hudson

The ’50s matinee idol’s AIDS-related death in October 1985 was a seismic moment in the disease’s history, prompting the public to rethink knee-jerk reactions that had characterized AIDS sufferers as deviants. Dona­tions to research efforts flourished in the wake of the actor’s death.



1991: Salt-N-Pepa “Let’s Talk About Sex”/“Let’s talk about AIDS”


S-n-P’s mega-hit (and alternate version, which more directly addressed the pandemic) is a mark of AIDS’ destigmatization in the mainstream. To the kids doing the running man to this track at middle-school dances, AIDS was everyone’s problem, not just a gay problem.



1992: Magic’s crusade


It would be hard to name an organization with more youth cachet circa 1991 than the NBA, and it would be even harder to name a man more widely loved than Magic Johnson. The HIV-positive superstar played on the Dream Team, stayed cool with Arsenio and has since proved that life after diagnosis can be long and rich.

1994: Tom Hanks wins Oscar for Philadelphia

Perhaps unsurprisingly it took almost 15 years for Hollywood to provide its mass audience with a sympathetic portrait of a well-to-do white man with AIDS. It’s also instructive to consider how resolutely this narrative — that of the AIDS sufferer’s stoic reckoning with a death sentence — has been abandoned.



2004: Team America: World Police


Cut to 10 years later: The South Park guys’ score a hit with Everyone Has AIDS, a musical mockery of the solemnity of Rent, which debuted on Broadway in the mid-’90s. Back then, the song would have been seen as malicious; in the mid-aughts, tellingly, it was merely irreverent.

 
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