The Absence of Herpes in Film and Television
When was the last time you saw a TV show or a movie that featured a character with herpes? I find it rather ironic that a disease as prevalent as herpes (or HPV or that matter) is rarely brought into the world of film and television. Maybe those who work behind the scenes have never dealt with herpes. Or maybe they don’t want to discuss such a pointless and sexual illness. We’ve all seen movies in which characters have cancer, HIV, or heart disease. But herpes and HPV are just not interesting or important enough"unless, of course, we’re laughing about them. Maybe that’s why so many people are confused and misinformed about these viruses, or why there is such a stigma attached. It is not the media’s job to educate people about STDs, but it would be nice to have some kind of representation in the film and television realm.
It is estimated that one in five Americans has herpes, and one in four New Yorkers has it. If that’s the case, then that would mean"hhmmm"weren’t there four women on Sex and the City? So surely one of those women would have come up against herpes at some point in her sex life. Are we really supposed to believe that you can have that many partners without ever catching an STD? I’m sorry, but even with safe sex there is a small chance those characters would have never caught herpes or HPV. I think at one point Charlotte got crabs (from a younger man, of course, reinforcing the misconception that only young people are spreading STDs). Lucky for her crabs are curable; the issue fits neatly into one episode and never needs discussion again. How convenient
Though I can name other shows with protagonists who caught crabs and syphilis, I can’t think - off the top of my head - of any instances where a character got herpes. This perturbs me because, from all the people I’ve talked to, I’ve only met one person who had contracted a curable STD. Yet I have several friends and acquaintances (that I did not meet through herpes websites nor support groups) that have herpes and HPV. I turned to my friend Google for more answers, and found that a character in the soap opera Guiding Light contracted herpes. I also came across the South Park episode in which the boys’ parents purposefully expose them to chicken pox. After discovering it’s a form of herpes they, in revenge, ask a prostitute with oral herpes to infect all of their parents’ belongings. Though this episode perpetuates the stereotype that only prostitutes have herpes, I applaud the South Park guys for even bringing up the issue. I also think that drawing the line between chicken pox and herpes is a good way of diminishing the stigma, since most people learn that they have actually had a form of herpes - chicken pox - before.
I found out there is a movie planned for release this year called Herpes Boy. "Oh good," I thought, "a movie that addresses the life of someone with herpes!" Wrong. It is actually the story of a boy with a birthmark on his upper lip, which garners him the unfortunate nickname. (Really? You make a movie called Herpes Boy and the title character doesn’t even have herpes? You’ve got to be kidding me.) It appears that popular media is shy when it comes to talking about STDs that aren’t fatal nor curable, unless it’s as a joke. So while the topic of herpes is still taboo, and those with herpes continue to be underrepresented in popular media, those of us that are affected (a measly one-fifth of the population) will keep communicating through non-identifying avatars and screen names.
Have you seen movies or TV shows which addressed the issue of herpes? How was herpes represented in them?
Would you be interested in seeing more characters with herpes in film and television? How do you think that would affect the stigma around herpes?
Penelope wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Sexual Health.