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The Representation of AIDS in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema 

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‘AIDS and/or HIV was always seen as the disease of homosexuals and drug addicts.’ (M. Grey, 2014). The lack of education and research about AIDS in the 1980s was due to the homophobic stereotypes, some people believed that this was God’s will because sex with the same gender was seen as being a sin. The Church believes that sex should only be used in order to reproduce. The homophobic aspects surrounding AID’s and HIV are still prominent in contemporary Hollywood films. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) directed by Jean-Marc Vallée follows the story of a homophobic, racist electrician who catches HIV. Roy is instantly in denial because he only sees HIV as something ‘Faggots’ get. Although it is never specifically said how Roy caught HIV, we assume it’s due to his lifestyle of drug abuse and casual sex. Focusing on the attitude towards Aids and how the pandemic was dealt we can use Dallas Buyers Clube (2013) as a reference point as it was set in 1985 and is based on a true story.


Matthew McConaughey’s character Ron is ‘the character the spectator is forced to identify with right from the beginning of the film’ (Copier, L. 2018). This can be seen through the opening scene of the film. Throughout the title we see the bull fighting through two fence slabs, it fades to black between each little glimpse of the ring, this could be foreshadowing what happens to Roy, as the black could connote the death that is going to surround Roy in the film. The fact we see the very beginning of the film through a point of view shot reinforces the idea that the spectator is forced to identify with Roy. However, the first time we see Roy he is having a threesome with two girls and snorts what can only be cocaine, within the first two minutes of the film we already get an idea what Roy is like and the lifestyle he lives. This however changes throughout the film. The beginning of the film is all about reinforcing how much of a ‘typical male’ Roy is, this idea of not showing emotion, treating women as sexual objects, and being intoxicated all the time. This is also visible through Roy’s friend Tucker. Tucker is a corrupt police officer who like Roy enjoys the company of alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes. Tucker’s attitude towards Roy changes throughout the film, they start off being close friends, Tucker is the first-person Roy trusts with the fact he has HIV. Once Tucker finds this information out, he distances himself from Ro and ends up telling everyone else about his condition. This leads to the scene in the bar where one of the men turns around to Roy and says ‘Get me another beer will you, Sweetheart’ at first Roy is taken back by this, he continues to call him ‘sugar cake’ which is when Roy gets defensive and steps towards him asking if he wanted to fight. The man replies with ‘no I don’t want none of that faggot blood on me’ this homophobic comment is throws Roy as he himself is homophobic therefore he gets defensive. When Roy leaves the bar, the other men don’t say anything to him, but instead, they step well out of the way, this again is homophobic. It connotes that the men believe they will catch Aids just by touching someone HIV positive. This could be due to the lack of education about aids in the 1980s. ‘No one knew what had hit us, and people were dying in huge numbers all around us.’ (King, N. 2011) there was such a stigma around Aids, people believed they were safe just because they weren’t Gay, when in fact it was spread by specific body fluids such as blood, therefore people who used drugs ended up spreading the disease. It quickly became a pandemic itself.

Matthew McConaughy’s character Ron Woodroof is based on the real Ron Woodroof. ‘Once he found the drugs he thought would work—antivirals available in other countries but not in the United States, dextran sulfate and Procaine PVP, among them—Woodroof began acquiring them from around the world. Other AIDS patients soon came looking for Woodroof’s medications, and with the help of his doctor and a fellow patient, Woodroof created what would become known as the Dallas Buyers Club in March 1988.’ (2014). Ron suffered a lot during his fight to find a drug that would help people who suffered from Aids. All of Ron’s activities tried to stay under the FDA’s radar and he claimed that it was all non-profit and just an attempt to help. However, the FDA got involved when more Buyers Clubs started popping up around the country as the medication Ron had found improved the lives of people with Aids although it never killed the virus it made the symptoms of Aids bearable and prolonged life just that little bit longer. Towards the end of the film, we see Ron walk into a meeting of some kind regarding drugs, in this scene Ron passes out information to people whilst firing the fact that the mental health department ‘your own people deemed safe’ he goes on to say ‘ The phama companies pay the FDA to push their products’ and how the FDA is scared people will find an alternative to their drugs and thereby the FDA will lose money. Ron is then kicked out of the meeting, whilst he is being escorted out he says that the only reason they won’t look at his research is that he doesn’t have enough money and that ‘ I will be a pain in your ass until I’m six feet under, and then maybe one day you’ll get off your ass and do your fucking job’ this quote in itself speaks a great deal when it comes to the real Ron Woodroof as it shows his determination to fight for what he was doing, it also brings to light how corrupted the FDA and companies alike are. The way in which the pandemic was handled was with such little care for the people who caught it, as the biggest worry was not the death figures but what it could do to a company’s reputation.

There are other groups working towards rights for people suffering from Aids just like Ron did in Dallas Buyers Club. ACT UP for example stands for Aids coalition to unleash the power. They are an international grassroots political group working to end the Aids pandemic and were founded in March 1987 with the slogan Silence = Death. They came about due to the Government’s refusal to take the rising deaths of people suffering from Aids seriously. ‘The mission of ACT UP was to carry out daily acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, using vocal and visual demonstrations, in order to focus attention on critical issues regarding the AIDS crisis.’ (Banales, M. 2013). This is similar to the Glaad Media Awards. They tackle LGBT+ issues and worked to fix the Aids pandemic. Since the sexual offenses act in 1967, the years later the media still has bad coverage of LGBT+ so Glaad worked to make sure what the media did represent get awarded.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) was in limbo for a while as film companies decided whether to make the film. I believe that the stars within the film had a huge impact on this decision. For example, Matthew McConaughey was known for Magic Mike (2012) and Ghost of Girlfriends past (2009). Matthew McConaughey already had a large fan base behind him when he was cast for this role. However, this film is unusual for the star as he knew mostly for his ‘chick flicks’. This is the same when it comes to Jenifer Garner who plays Eve, a doctor who treats Rayon and throughout the film begins to notice that Ron is correct regarding the drugs she has been administrating and she works to change the outcome of her patience still alive. Jenifer Garner is also known for her romantic films such as 13 going on 30 (2004) and Valentine’s Day (2010). Jenifer’s character Eve is rather interesting as she is the main female that we see in the film and one of the only women with a speaking part, not to forget the fact she is a doctor, not a prostitute which seems to be the main role of females in Dallas Buyers Club (2013). We can look at this film from a feminist perspective when it comes to Eve. We see Eve in two meetings where she is the only female, in the first one her questions are pushed to the side as soon as money is mentioned. The second time Eve is asked to resign as it’s in the ‘best interest’ of everyone. When in fact the only reason they are asking her to leave is that she started to voice her concerns against what the company was doing, and she didn’t believe in drugging the vulnerable people in her care. There is the underlying question of would a male doctor be treated the same way as Eve was. Throughout the film, she is pushed aside by her fellow male doctors and treated as being inferior. At the same time, the other women that we see in the film are constantly objectified and used for sex and drugs, so the fact Dallas Buyers Club (2013) has a powerful woman in the 1980s can be classed as a small win for women, she isn’t sexualized by the camera, which gives the impression that Jenifer is there not because of the way she looks but because she plays a key part in telling Ron Woodroof’s story.

Similarly, changing our focus to the Transgender aspect that Dallas Buyers Clube (2013) tries to tackle. Jared Leto plays Rayon a man who dresses like a woman who also suffers from Aids. There is a lot of negative and positive comments about the way in which Jared Leto portrayed a trans woman. For example, ‘In his acceptance speech, Leto did not even mention the word transgender, much less thank the various trans people who had helped him prepare for his role.’ (Copier, L. 2018). The fact Jared Leto won an Oscar for best-supporting actor meant so much to the Trans community as it was such a big deal for Hollywood to be noticing let alone giving a Trans character an award. Due to the fact Leto did not acknowledge the community took away the small victory they received. ‘The Audience does not have a chance to see or feel with the trans character Rayon in the same way (as Ron), experiencing her sickness and desires. She oscillates throughout the film between a secondary presence and muted absence in relation to Ron’s noted Texan heterosexuality, never coming into a full enunciation in the film, let alone becoming privileged point of recognition and knowledge for the spectator’ (Copier, L. 2018). If we break this down it suggests that Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t give Rayon the opportunity to express herself, because of Ron’s overpowering heterosexual behaviors. But I believe that this changes throughout the film as Ron decides to work in order to help the Gay community fight for better medication. We are positioned on the side of Ron throughout the film, but that doesn’t mean the spectator can’t sympathize with Rayon and her troubles. However, he portrayed Rayon as being a very strong-headed character who knows what they want to achieve, therefore his representation is overall very positive. Rayon is shown as being the same as all the straight, ‘normal’ characters within the film, this is contradicting the popular opinion that Transgender people are worth less or can’t be the same as others. ‘The fear of homosexuality in American culture generally is so great that it is denied to the point of conversation into symptoms’ (Lang. R, 1957) this could suggest that Americans don’t want to talk about homosexuality to the point where they decided it is just better to represent it as some kind of disease, so the fact Rayon is such a powerful character and is so open about what she is going through is a breakthrough within Hollywood.

There is still a gap in contemporary Hollywood films when it comes to the representation of Aids, although there have been other films such as Philadelphia (1993) and Holding the man (2015) the education aspect is missing. This could be due to America’s homophobic attitude. ‘Homophobia … is the inability to accept one’s own bisexuality’ (Lang, R. 1957) this suggest that there is an element that people are too afraid to accept what isn’t classed as normal, therefore, this could be the reason there is a lack of education surrounding Aids in the 1980s as it was believed that people would become Gay if they were subjected to a Gay person or Gay culture.


In conclusion, Queer cinema improved throughout the 1990s and gained the attention of the mainstream press but at the same time, America still has a homophobic aspect. This, however, hasn’t stopped the representation of LGBT+ but there are still misconceptions when it comes to the representation of Aids itself. This is either due to the fact, people still see Aids as a ‘Gay disease’ or ‘God’s work’ or simply because of the lack of education around the disease. Glaad Media Awards to this day still work with foundations to defeat this pandemic. Because Dallas Buyers Club (2013) is based on real events and real people it is important to keep the story as truthful as possible in order to show the seriousness of the nature of Aids in 1980 when the pandemic was causing more deaths faster than they could find a cure

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The Representation Of AIDS In Contemporary Hollywood Cinema . (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from
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