Naina Khanna on Tyler Perry

WARNING: Spoilers for Tyler Perry’s Temptation ahead, although if you’re reading this, you probably already know what they are.

When I heard that in his recent film, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, Tyler Perry gives his female lead HIV as moral punishment for pursuing an affair with a sexy tech mogul while still married to her upstanding, if boring, husband, I resolved to see it as soon as possible, so that I could write about it here. [And a confession of my own: in the interest of camp, I wanted to see Kim Kardashian’s big screen debut.] I’ve been too busy to get to the movies, but Naina Khanna of the Positive Women’s Network–USA has an op-ed at poz.com that probably says everything I could have said, and more. Khanna writes–as an HIV-positive woman of color herself–in damning terms about the violence, both cultural and medical, that Perry’s work does to women of color living with HIV:

For the estimated 300,000 women living with HIV in the United States, Tyler Perry’s Temptation preys on the worst of all that. For this, I charge him with at least 300,000 counts of self-doubt and recrimination, a million moments of fear and hopelessness, hundreds of failures to disclose, countless refused HIV tests, thousands of missed medical appointments, suicides, homicides, and setting us back in our HIV response for over than a decade.

I must confess to never having seen any of Perry’s work, but he is an extremely successful filmmaker as far as the box office is concerned, even as he regularly draws the ire of film and cultural critics alike. At an academic conference at Northwestern, appropriately titled “Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable,” black academics picked apart Perry’s work for all of the ways that it reinforces norms of heterosexual patriarchy and conservative Christianity, both of which seem to be on display in Temptation.

No doubt, HIV/AIDS is a serious disease, and one that disproportionately affects African American women. Representations of that reality should do justice to the complexity of HIV-positive women’s lives, struggles, and successes. The disease is not a blunt storytelling instrument of moral condemnation, and using it as such is an insult to the women whose everyday courage proves otherwise.

SEE ALSO:

AV Club’s write-up of “Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable”

Positive Women’s Network blog post on Temptation (Waheedah Shabazz-El, a founding member of the group, longtime member of ACT UP Philadelphia, and oral history narrator for this project, is quoted therein)

Peter Staley in OUT; HIV drugs in South Africa

ACT UP Philadelphia protests Obama's AIDS policy. Photo by Kaytee Riek

ACT UP Philadelphia protests Obama’s AIDS policy. Photo by Kaytee Riek.

I was struck recently by a brief interview in OUT (or on their website anyway) with Peter Staley, a former member of ACT UP/NY and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), and one of the main protagonists in David France’s recent documentary, How to Survive a Plague. Staley laments the popular amnesia about the battles that he and many others fought in the 1980s and early 1990s to educate themselves and others about their disease, and to press for a government response to the epidemic. Although the film has raised some awareness among a new generation of gay men about the role of ACT UP and TAG in radically changing the meaning of HIV and AIDS for many in the United States, infection rates are still rising among gay men, and especially gay men of color.

Toward the end of the interview, Staley says, “We walked away in 1996, and it’s not over; it’s getting worse–and this time we’re not paying attention.” That’s true, up to a point. ACT UP did undergo a marked decline in the mid 1990s, but not everyone left the movement. ACT UP Philadelphia perhaps remained the most intact of the remaining chapters, as members worked to bring low-income people of color into the group by working with drug treatment programs, halfway houses, and AIDS service organizations with mostly poor and minority clients. Like many others fighting the HIV epidemic in black communities, they never “walked away,” and one goal of the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project is to show that AIDS activism didn’t end in 1996 any more than the AIDS epidemic did.

The Staley interview resonated with me especially because I encountered it as I was preparing for a presentation at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on ACT UP Philadelphia‘s evolving work during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although the group worked on a number of issues, including prison healthcare, affordable housing, and federal funding for needle exchange, I spoke about their advocacy for low-priced medications for people living with HIV and AIDS in the developing world. With that in mind, I was delighted to see (via Joe.My.God.) an announcement that South Africa will begin offering a version of Atripla, which combines three antiretrovirals in a single pill, for only $10 a month. By way of comparison, the patented version of the treatment costs $2000 a month in the United States.

South Africa has its own tortured relationship to AIDS, including former President Thabo Mbeki support of HIV denialists, and astronomically high infection rates driven by structural inequalities that remain from the apartheid era. Given all that, it’s wonderful to see good news coming out of the country that reflects the hard-won gains made by an international coalition of dedicated treatments activists over the years, including Staley and ACT UP Philadelphia alike.