Monday, March 24, 2014

Notes on Philadelphia and HIV/AIDS

Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film Philadelphia explores the moral and ethical issues manifested by AIDS and its relation to homosexuality.

This drama suggests AIDS was viewed as a crime against the self and society as a whole. The film depicts people who believed punishment was the only viable resolution for the promiscuous conduct associated with AIDS.

Joe Miller is often seen in the background advertising his law firm with the line, “if you or someone you know has been injured through the fault of others, you may be entitled to legal remedy.”

It implies that those suffering from illness or accidents can be deemed guilty and, therefore, deserve the outcome of their actions making them unworthy of legal aid.

Sontag’s essay, “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” suggests that society judges the ill and labels them as guilty or innocent. She states, “Victims suggest innocence.

Sontag asserts that society describes AIDS in two ways. The actual illness is seen as an invasion, but when the focus is transmission, a different image is invoked: “pollution.” This view creates a divide between the healthy population and those who endanger their purity with the chance of infection.

Two scenes in the film directly portray this segregation of healthy persons from the ill.  One scene involves Beckett being called into the conference room by his partners. The distance between them quietly displays the true feelings of the law firm, thus setting the scene for firing Beckett. The second scene is the judgmental stares of the lawyers while they assume promiscuity and homosexuality on Beckett’s part as the cause for contracting AIDS.

The two main behaviors linked to the transmission of AIDS are homosexuality and illegal drug use. Both actions were condemned by society.

Sontag’s essay, it describes AIDS as “indulgence, delinquency—addictions to chemicals that are illegal and to sex regarded as deviant.”

Unlike many diseases, AIDS does not seem to strike random individuals, but instead, is thought of as a consequence to one’s actions. It is easy for some to regard the disease as punishment against those exhibiting deviant behavior.

The film presented society’s lack of empathy towards those infected with AIDS, due to the promiscuous actions often associated with the illness.

In the film, there is a scene where Miller vents to his wife about his views and confusion regarding homosexuality. He points out that the case is more about discrimination against homosexual people than it is about illness.

During the initial outbreak of AIDS, the majority of people viewed homosexuality as a crime against what nature intended. Many religions believe that homosexuality is to be regarded as an act of sin, deserving of punishment. Consequently, AIDS was viewed as punishment for the immoral conduct that an individual chooses to pursue.

The judgment of innocent versus guilty victims can be observed during one of the courtroom scenes from the film. One of the witnesses was a female employee of the firm who had AIDS. After the witness describes how she contracted the illness —through a blood transfusion — the defense then labels her an “innocent victim of the AIDS tragedy.”

The witness refutes this statement, insisting she is no different from anyone else suffering from the disease.  She says: “I’m not guilty, I’m not innocent. I’m just trying to survive.” This is an obvious example of society trying to pin a label on people according to their actions instead of their current circumstances.

The firm’s different treatment of Becket and the female employee with AIDS entails that the firm feared Beckett because of the stigma attached to AIDS and to homosexuality. 

Kenton (the firm’s senior partner who saw Beckett’s lesion) personally justifies labeling Beckett as a guilty victim of his own actions who deserved punishment for his negligence. In this case, AIDS is seen as a crime against the body and soul of the sufferer caused solely by that individual’s actions and choices.

This idea of AIDS as a crime against the self raises a doubt of guilt and shame for those ill persons.  Sontag asserts that with “AIDS, the shame is linked to an imputation of guilt.”

Sontag discusses the unveiling of an AIDS victim’s sexual preference by saying “the illness flushes out an identity that might have remained hidden” from society, had they not contracted the disease. In the film, AIDS was the factor that revealed Andy Beckett’s homosexuality.

Philadelphia Movie Quotes

Andrew Beckett: This is my favorite aria. This is Maria Callas. This is "Andrea Chenier", Umberto Giordano. This is Madeleine. She's saying how during the French Revolution, a mob set fire to her house, and her mother died... saving her. "Look, the place that cradled me is burning." Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe? In come the strings, and it changes everything. The music fills with a hope, and that'll change again. Listen... listen..."I bring sorrow to those who love me." Oh, that single cello! "It was during this sorrow that love came to me." A voice filled with harmony. It says, "Live still, I am life. Heaven is in your eyes. Is everything around you just the blood and mud? I am divine. I am oblivion. I am the god... that comes down from the heavens, and makes of the Earth a heaven. I am love!... I am love."

Joe Miller: The Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against otherwise qualified handicapped persons who are able to perform the duties required by their employment. Although the ruling did not address the specific issue of HIV and AIDS discrimination...

Andrew Beckett: Subsequent decisions have held that AIDS is protected as a handicap under law, not only because of the physical limitations it imposes, but because the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a social death which precede... which precedes the physical one.

Joe Miller: This is the essence of discrimination: formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.


Joe Miller: We're standing here in Philadelphia, the, uh, city of brotherly love, the birthplace of freedom, where the, uh, founding fathers authored the Declaration of Independence, and I don't recall that glorious document saying anything about all straight men are created equal. I believe it says all men are created equal.


AIDS (Acquired immune deficiency syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a disease caused by a virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). The illness alters the immune system, making people much more vulnerable to infections and diseases. This susceptibility worsens as the disease progresses.

HIV is found in the body fluids of an infected person (semen and vaginal fluids, blood and breast milk). The virus is passed from one person to another through blood-to-blood and sexual contact. In addition, infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy, delivering the baby during childbirth, and through breast feeding.

HIV can be transmitted in many ways, such as vaginal, oral sex, anal sex, blood transfusion, and contaminated hypodermic needles.

Both the virus and the disease are often referred to together as HIV/AIDS. People with HIV have what is called HIV infection. As a result, some will then develop AIDS. The development of numerous opportunistic infections in an AIDS patient can ultimately lead to death.

According to research, the origins of HIV date back to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century in west-central Africa. AIDS and its cause, HIV, were first identified and recognized in the early 1980s.

There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS. Treatments can slow the course of the disease - some infected people can live a long and relatively healthy life

HIV and Its Stigma

Stigma associated with HIV can deter governments from taking fast, effective action against the epidemic, whilst on a personal level it can make individuals reluctant to access HIV testing, treatment and care.

Factors that contribute to HIV/AIDS-related stigma include:

  • HIV/AIDS is a life-threatening disease, and therefore people react to it in strong ways.
  • HIV infection is associated with behaviors (such as homosexuality, drug addiction, prostitution or promiscuity) that are already stigmatized in many societies.
  • Most people become infected with HIV through sex, which often carries moral baggage.
  • There is a lot of inaccurate information about how HIV is transmitted, creating irrational behavior and misperceptions of personal risk.
  • HIV infection is often thought to be the result of personal irresponsibility.
  • Religious or moral beliefs lead some people to believe that being infected with HIV is the result of moral fault (such as promiscuity or 'deviant sex') that deserves to be punished.
  • The effects of antiretroviral therapy on people’s physical appearance can result in forced disclosure and discrimination based on appearance.

From early in the AIDS epidemic a series of powerful images were used that reinforced and legitimized stigmatization.

  • HIV/AIDS as punishment (e.g. for immoral behavior)
  • HIV/AIDS as a crime (e.g. in relation to innocent and guilty victims)
  • HIV/AIDS as war (e.g. in relation to a virus which must be fought)
  • HIV/AIDS as horror (e.g. in which infected people are demonized and feared)
  • HIV/AIDS as otherness (in which the disease is an affliction of those set apart)

Some of these consequences refer to ‘internal stigma’ or ‘self-stigma’. Internal stigma refers to how people living with HIV regard themselves, as well as how they see public perception of people living with HIV. 

Stigmatizing beliefs and actions may be imposed by people living with HIV themselves.

In healthcare settings people with HIV can experience stigma and discrimination such as being refused medicines or access to facilities, receiving HIV testing without consent, and a lack of confidentiality. Such responses are often fuelled by ignorance of HIV transmission routes amongst doctors, midwives, nurses and hospital staff.

In the workplace, people living with HIV may suffer stigma from their co-workers and employers, such as social isolation and ridicule, or experience discriminatory practices, such as termination or refusal of employment.

Community-level stigma and discrimination can manifest as ostracism, rejection and verbal and physical abuse. It has even extended to murder. AIDS related murders have been reported in countries as diverse as Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, South Africa and Thailand.

Not all family responses are supportive. HIV positive members of the family can find themselves stigmatized and discriminated against within the home. There is concern that women and non-heterosexual family members are more likely than children and men to be mistreated.

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