Genital Herpes and Film/TV/Literature: Films where herpes is a central theme
May as well lead with trumps… There are, believe it or not, films out there that have genital herpes as a central theme. Okay, I’ve only found two of them, but they’re there. The first is a made-for-television film called Intimate Agony, broadcast in the United States in 1983 and in the United Kingdom in 1985 (corresponding broadly to a peak of media interest in the disease). The second is a 50-minute made-for-the-cinema film called Merry Christmas… I Got You Herpes, released in 2006.
Intimate Agony has the distinction of starring Mark Harmon (an NCIS regular and also a notable guest star in one season of West Wing) as well as, if you can remember back that far, Tony Geary (who was in General Hospital).
The action takes place on “Paradise Island” where, despite the name of the location, Mark Harmon’s character, a playboy tennis pro called Tommy, discovers he has been infected with genital herpes. He is diagnosed by Tony Greary’s character, a doctor called Kyle, who as the movie progresses discovers that several other cases have been diagnosed in the small community on the island. What will Kyle do: alert the media so that the epidemic can be contained? or be silenced by a real-estate developer who sells condos on the island and wants the story hushed up?
Some quotable quotes: Tommy worries upon diagnosis that he may have become “just a tennis-shoe salesman with a tan”; the estate developer, upon hearing that the news of a herpes epidemic may be revealed, shouts: “Why not a leper colony?”.
The film critic John J. O’Connor wrote: “The crusading point of this movie is that the more you know about the disease, the more likely you are to be able to understand it and cope with it. On that level, ”Intimate Agony” is the glossy equivalent of those V.D.-warning films that used to be shown to military recruits during basic training. It does, one hopes, serve a purpose.”
Merry Christmas… I Got You Herpes is a more contemporary effort at telling a herpes tale. It was – no kidding – part of the Official Selection for a few different film festivals, including the 2006 NYC 48-Hour Film Project and the 2006 New York Indie Films Cartel Festival. Now that’s progress.
Produced by Ragtag Productions and directed by Brian Amyot, it is available for viewing on YouTube, I believe, though perhaps not legally.
One plot summary reads as follows: “Bobby cheerfully reveals to his new girlfriend Cindy that for their first Christmas together, he infected her with an STD. Bobby is quickly ostracized from the cocktail casual Christmas party, and makes a last ditch effort to teach Cindy’s friends about the true meaning of Christmas.”
Genital Herpes and Film/TV/Literature: Films where herpes is a minor theme
Other films and telefilms have herpes as a minor theme. Well, “theme” might be stretching things, but they do mention herpes in some way or another.
Starting small, in The Big Chill (some of its still-famous stars include Rob Lowe and that guy who played the mathematician in Jurassic Park), one of the female characters reassures herself that her husband will remain faithful thanks to his morbid fear of contracting herpes should he stray. In Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy’s character claims to have “herpes simplex 10”. And in Deconstructing Harry, the main character (played by Woody Allen) actually has genital herpes. Good for Woody!
Getting slightly bigger (but only slightly), a film directed by Stephen Kessler called The Independent was released in 2001. It starred Ben Stiller’s father Jerry Stiller (no, really) playing a movie director called Morty Fineman. Ron Howard even makes a brief appearance.
Although far from central to the plot, it emerges that Fineman’s (fictional) 30-year career includes a long-lost classic called The Simplex Complex. A black-and-white “anti-herpes” film shot for the Army, The Simplex Complex has herpes portrayed as a grim-reaper type character. As such, it was supposedly inspired by the movie The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman (where a knight challenges Death to a chess game, to save his life).
That’s about it, really. Characters in other films (e.g. Four-Eyed Monsters, directed by J.R. Jones and played at the 12th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival) and telefilms (e.g. The Burden of Proof, BBC, 1993) do occasionally turn out to have genital herpes. But not nearly as often as reality might suggest they should.
Genital Herpes and Film/TV/Literature: Television shows where herpes is a central theme
OCD is a central theme of Monk. MS was a (semi-)central theme of The West Wing. Both shows have raised awareness of those conditions and helped people dealing with them to feel less alone.
And genital herpes? Zip. Zero. Nada. Well, at least according to my research.
Genital Herpes and Film/TV/Literature: Television shows where herpes is a minor theme
Lost, Season 1, episode 19: Deus Ex Machina
Original air date on ABC: 03/30/2005 Written by Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof
JACK: Have you ever had a blood transfusion?
SAWYER: What? No. (Jack notes it down in the notebook.)
JACK: Taken pills for malaria?
JACK: Have you ever had sex with a prostitute? (Sawyer looks at Jack. Kate turns and looks at Sawyer.) (Jack waits for the answer.)
SAWYER: What the hell’s that got to do with anything?
JACK: Is that a yes?
SAWYER: (sighs) Yes.
JACK: And have you ever contracted a sexually transmitted disease? (Sawyer doesn’t answer.)
JACK: I take that as another yes. When was the last outbreak? (Sawyer gets to his feet.)
SAWYER: Go to hell, doc. (Sawyer leaves. Jack watches him go. Kate smiles.)
KATE: I know he deserved it, but –
JACK: (simply) He needs glasses. (Jack nods. Kate suppresses a smile.) (Camera holds on Jack.)
Well, that reference to herpes was a fairly typical one amongst television shows: the mere mention of the subject makes the implicated character feel embarrassed, and the other characters giggle. Same deal in the episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte (the pretty, naïve one) catches crabs. What we see less of on prime-time (in fact, I haven’t been able to find it at all) is the pain that can come from living with a chronic STD like genital herpes.
Indeed – though this is going back a bit – an interesting study was discussed back in 1989 in an article called Soap Opera Portrayals of Sex, Contraception, and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (for the REALLY interested, the reference is Lowry, D.T. and D.E. Towles, Journal of Communication, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1989), pp. 76-83). One of the stated purposes of the study was “to analyze how soap operas portray issues relating to the prevention of STDs and pregnancy”.
The article states: “Given the relatively high rates of sexual behaviors between unmarried partners found in past studies of TV and given the estimates of soap opera audiences that range as high as 60 million viewers…, it is important to evaluate what sexual messages the network soap operas are communicating to their viewers, especially the public health implications of those messages”. Sounds fair enough!
Anyway, the study looked at a total sample of 52.5 hours of programming, taken from ABC, CBS and NBC (if you’re not American, those are the main free-to-air US stations) during the period 1 May 1987 to 11 August 1987 (if you weren’t born then, those were the days when Michael J. Fox was the biggest star on the planet). For the study, “a simple random sample of five different afternoons was drawn for each network, and all of the soap operas for each sampled afternoon were videotaped”. Amongst other things, it looked for “verbal, implied, or physical depictions of someone who has contracted gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, AIDS, or other STDs”.
The study’s conclusion was this: “There was no treatment – verbal, implied, or physical – of … STD prevention in the 1987 sample, and it seems safe to assume that this would have been the case as well in the 1979 sample. The transcending message on soap operas concerning sex is that it is primarily for unmarried partners. Yet … [e]ven though life on most of the soap operas takes place in the sexually fast lane, no one ever catches a sexually transmitted disease. One could argue, with Planned Parenthood, that the soap operas are engaging in a national sex disinformation campaign. The results of this study suggest that such charges may in fact be understated.”
Sad, eh? ’Cause if those shows in the 1980s and 1990s had educated people a bit better, maybe not so many of us would be in this mess today!
Flick forward to today and the pickings aren’t much better. HIV gets a bit of screen-time – now that it’s hip to care about AIDS – and that means condoms and abstinence are being talked about. But when TV series mention STDs other than HIV, they seem to go for the cheap, isn’t-that-funny take. I already mentioned Lost and Sex and the City, but there are plenty of other examples.
Like, say, Grey’s Anatomy. A medical drama. What was their take on STDs? Oh yeah. Ha ha ha, Dr O’Malley’s caught syphilis. I have two problems with this episode of the series (episode 9, season 2). Forgive me while I rant and rave.
First, why did the writers decide to make contracting an STD a humoristic side-story? Sure, they have to entertain, but why not play the emotional line? Dr Green got cancer in ER, and that pulled in the viewers.
Second, why didn’t they choose genital herpes? Oh yeah, because it can’t be cured, and that would make the character who got it… euuhhh, yucky.
Oh well. I suppose it isn’t the job of television shows to improve people’s perceptions of genital herpes. But it sure would be nice if they did.
Genital Herpes and Film, TV, Literature Note:
This is a bit of a long shot, but is it possible that the character CJ Craig on West Wing has herpes? In season 5, she spends an episode conspicuously avoiding a date with an old flame, and during that same episode we learn that she – like several other women – once slept with the former Vice President Hoynes. She tells Hoynes she will tell people about their affair but then makes one extra intriguing statement: “Don’t make me tell the truth about you, because it will be the WHOLE truth”. She later confides to Toby that “If there’s one moment in my life I could change, it would be getting on that elevator” to leave with Hoynes.
So much for fiction shows. What about non-fiction shows? Not much better, it would appear. Oprah hasn’t yet tackled the herpes issue, and the shows that have have not always been a resounding success. One infamous example was the 13 February 2003 episode of ABC’s The View. Panelist Joy Behar was shown a Valentine’s ad that mentioned that the person looking for a date had herpes. To many people’s minds, this would show courage and respect. To Ms Behar, it made the person “a loser”.
It would be nice if this pretty negative portrayal of genital herpes could be remedied.
Let me close by quoting “LS”, who left this message on an on-line genital herpes message board:
“As for the lack of coverage about genital herpes in the media – specifically on Oprah and other shows – I think we should organize and make something happen. I actually think this topic is a very poignant one for Oprah’s audience (i.e. women) – with the advent of Herpevac right around the corner, women have the best chance of preventing the further spread of this virus. I think there are some very touching/heartaching stories on this board; we should submit a letter/packet, and implore her to do a show. She could have on doctors doing research, people dealing with the disease, and so on. I’m all for movement. It’s better than waiting. LS.”
Genital Herpes and Film/TV/Literature: Herpes in literature
The idea of writing fictional stories about STDs is not a new one. Take for example the disease we now know as syphilis.
Syphilis was originally known as the French disease, the Italian disease or the Spanish disease, depending on what country one considered responsible for its ‘arrival’ in Europe in the 1490s (probably from sailors returning from the New World).
The word ‘syphilis’ was only invented a generation later, being used as a title to a poem written (in 1530) by the Italian Girolamo Fracastoro. The poem tells of a shepherd named Syphilus (it’s Greek for ‘lover of pigs’) who offended the sun god and was punished by him with this particular disease. The name caught on.
Other historical works, although not devoted to STDs, mention them in passing. In 1759, for example, Voltaire published a satirical novel entitled Candide which tells the story of a young German nobleman by the same name.
At one point in Candide, the young man meets his old philosophy teacher, Pangloss, who looks the worse for wear. This is what Pangloss tells his former student:
“O my dear Candide, you remember Pacquette, that pretty maid, who waited on our noble Baroness. In her arms I tasted the pleasures of paradise, and they produced these torments of hell which are now destroying me. She was infected with a disease and perhaps has since died of it. She had received this present from a learned Franciscan, who had derived it from its source. He was indebted for it to an old countess, who had it from a captain of the cavalry, who had it from a marquise, who had it from a page. The page had it from a Jesuit, who, during his novitiate, had received it in a direct line from one of the fellow adventurers of Christopher Columbus. For my part I shall give it to no one, because I am dying.”
But what about genital herpes? Does any literature mention that disease?
Well, it came close to gaining worldwide exposure with the Roald Dahl novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Remember Mike Teevee? His name was actually “Herpes Trout” in a 1962 version of the manuscript (the final version of the manuscript was completed in 1964), a good fifteen years before herpes came to the fore of the public’s consciousness. That’s right: “Herpes Trout”. I kid you not.
It’s not clear what motivated Dahl to consider using the word “herpes” as the name of a character, but other writers have had personal reasons to evoke the disease.
Richard Brautigan, for example, was quite popular in the late sixties and early seventies, apparently. Some kind of counter-culture demi-God, a bit like Ralph Nader with musical talent.
According to a friend of Brautigan’s called Greg Keeler, “Richard was very careful about having sex (when he could have it) because of his herpes. His own case horrified him and he would go to extremes to keep from spreading it. He told me sad stories about a Japanese woman he knew who had herpes so bad she had to crawl around her apartment because she couldn’t walk”.
Don Carpenter (you youngsters will have to look him up in Wikipedia) has even commented on Brautigan’s condition. He wrote this: “Richard also had herpes, which he took as a personal affront. I kept telling him that there are no cures for herpes, but he would say, ‘No, no, no, there’s this guy who’s got these monkey glands over in Switzerland, I’m the only one who can get it in the United States, and it only costs $5,000.’ Women meant a lot to him.”
That’s probably all we need to know about Richard Brautigan and his medical condition. But here’s the thing, Richard Brautigan wrote the poem below, published in 1968, in one of many slim volumes of poetry and fiction:
Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, anyone can get VD, including those you love.
Please see a doctor if you think you’ve got it.
You’ll feel better afterwards and so will those you love.
Okay, it doesn’t use the word “herpes”, and to be honest it’s pretty lame, but this poem is the only contender in the category of “best poetic contribution to herpes literature”. If only Roald Dahl had written poetry!
Well, that’s about the size of it all for genital herpes: a near-miss in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; and a poem by a hippy has-been. Quite meagre coverage for such a widespread condition.
Indeed, genital herpes has remained a subject that traditional authors have ignored or, perhaps, that their agents or publishers have vetoed. People who want to read about characters living with HSV have had few options: a piece of online fan fiction entitled Winter In Hell; the odd short-story in a women’s magazine; but little else.
SO that’s the end of Genital Herpes and Film/TV/Literature. Hope your enjoyed it!