In telling HIV-related stories, other TV writers and showrunners might benefit by looking to Looking for an example of a character that defies the stereotypes and stigma associated with people who are living with HIV in the U.S. today.
Throughout its second season, Daniel Franzese (already popular from his influential role in Mean Girls) portrayed Eddie, a character who works with queer and trans youth. He is HIV-positive and also “body-positive,” as Franzese puts it. He also loves the fact that neither of those features defines his character, though.
Defying stereotypes, Eddie is sexy and healthy, has admirable self-esteem — and he is romantically pursued on the show by an HIV-negative character, a guy who begins a regimen of PrEP, the daily dose of a pill that can reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 99 percent, so that the pair can have sex without worry about transmission.
“Eddie’s not sick,” Franzese says. “There are no sad things that have to do with Eddie. There are problematic things that he has to deal with in his life, but most of them are social. There’s not going to be a ‘very special episode’ about Eddie. I found that to be so progressive.”
Another person who was thrilled by the character is Franzese’s real-life best friend, Ryan. In a situation similar to Eddie’s, Ryan found out he had HIV after his (now former) partner cheated on him. And like Franzese, he was frustrated that his experience was never represented in media. Major recent movies that dealt with HIV, like Dallas Buyers Club and HBO’s The Normal Heart, were period pieces set during the height of the AIDS crisis, when a positive diagnosis meant a death sentence. Today, people living with HIV are largely having the same types of lives as those around them, except with some extra medication and doctor’s appointments, so many advocates ask, Why can’t TV producers simply give more characters HIV without it needing to be a feature of a shocking bombshell episode?
Franzese remembers Ryan’s excitement when hearing about Eddie, a character who is healthy and thriving in the present day, who is never shown as a victim. “I’ve never seen that before,” Ryan told Franzese.
“It’s really cool to see Daniel playing a character like Eddie,” Ryan later told Plus. “As someone who is living with HIV, it’s refreshing to see that Hollywood is beginning to show characters who are HIV-positive and depicting them in a healthy way.”
He should be proud; Looking made TV history as the first scripted show to talk about PrEP, an HIV prevention method that experts say could cut worldwide HIV incidence by 25 percent and U.S. incidence even more.
Although he is pleased with the way Looking has represented HIV-positive gay men, Franzese would like to see Hollywood tell stories of characters living with HIV who are not gay. Men who have sex with men are indeed an at-risk group in the United States — people in this demographic accounted for 63 percent of new infections in 2010, according to the CDC. But other groups are also disproportionately affected, and their representations are nearly absent from media. For example, according to the CDC, the HIV rate among African-American women is 20 times that of white women — and black women’s stories are ones that Franzese says he would “love to see.” He notes, “All groups would like to see themselves represented on-screen,” stressing the need “to help educate the world about how diverse we all are.”
Sadly, the smartest HIV portrayal on TV is going away. HBO has not picked up Looking for a third season, though a movie is currently in the works as a final sendoff for fans. (Since Oliver finds out he has HIV in the season finale of How to Get Away With Murder, it remains to be seen how the character will be handled. But there will be a chance to find out: The Shonda Rhimes drama was one of the highest-rated new series of the past season, and ABC will bring it back for season 2 this fall.
And while Franzese is out of a job, he’s not leaving HIV work behind. After talks with his friend Quinn Tivey, an HIV activist and Elizabeth’s Taylor’s grandson, Franzese joined the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation as an ambassador, using his platform to increase dialogue on issues related to HIV and AIDS. He also works with GLAAD, a national organization that promotes positive representations of LGBT people in the media, in examining how television and film can raise awareness of the virus and its prevention.
“There’s a direct correlation between representation of a story in media and people knowing about it,” Franzese says. “If it’s not being seen, it’s not being talked about, and it’s not being learned.”