March 5, 2014, by Yvonne Teoh

Dallas Buyers Club and Stigmatization

“This is for the 36 million brave souls who lost their lives to AIDS. And to anyone who ever felt injustice because of who they are or who they love. Tonight, I stand before the world, with you and for you.” – Jared Leto’s Acceptance Speech for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars 2014.

Dallas Buyers Club, a recent Academy Award nominated drama inspired by the life story of a man known as Ron Woodroof (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey). The tale follows Woodroof’s journey from the moment he was diagnosed with HIV-positive and had  30 days to live, till the moment when he decided to take matters into his own hands by learning about alternative treatments and begun smuggling them into the United States. Not only did he manage to prolong his own life, but that of the AIDS patients in Dallas, most of them from the homosexual community. The film continues with Woodroof’s struggle with the FDA and the government as he sells the non-approved medications and supplements.

What struck me about the film is not only the dedication and commitment of the actors and the crew but people’s outlook on HIV/AIDS patients, the homosexual community and the stigma that goes with it.  Hence, the film not only created the awareness of the AIDS epidemic back in the 80s in America, but it highlighted an issue that we’ve all forgotten or have come to terms with.

According to World Health Organization, 34 million people were still living with HIV at the end of 2011. In December 2013, World AIDS Day celebrated its 25th Anniversary, but even after all these years, HIV/AIDS-related stigma is still prevalent, and various organisations around the world have been working hard to counter this issue. According to Dr Herek , a social psychology professor in University of California at Davis, HIV/AIDS-related stigma often refers to “prejudice, discounting, discrediting and discrimination directed at people perceived to have AIDS or HIV, and the individuals, groups, and communities with which they are associated.” Even though AIDS-related stigma is universal, it differs between countries. The forms in which the stigma takes are shown throughout the film, for instance when Woodroof’s diagnosis was publicized, his friends and colleagues immediately shy away and rejected him from the group.

These stigma and discrimination not only affects the patients but it also undermines any HIV/AIDS prevention efforts and discourages people to seek for more information, answers, treatments or even the appropriate care and support for fear of being labelled by others and the community around them. Past research found that some of the main causes of discrimination and stigma across cultures are: (1) the lack of awareness of stigma and its negative consequences, (2) social judgments, prejudice and stereotypes against HIV/AIDS patients and communities associated with the disease, and (3) irrational fears and lack of knowledge regarding HIV/AIDS. Thus, by understanding its prevalence, causes and consequences of both the disease and the stigma, we are then able to begin on the path of living in harmony and accept each other’s differences, struggles, and lifestyles.

So, kudos to the writers, cast and crew of Dallas Buyers Club on taking the risk of making such a powerful film and reminding everyone of the ongoing battle HIV-positive/AIDS individuals go through, and for us to start keeping check of our own attitudes and views on this issue. Lastly, congratulations to Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and the Makeup and Hairstyling Department for their win at the Oscars on Monday.

Yvonne Teoh
(PhD Student, School of Psychology, UNMC)

Posted in behaviourblogfilmsnewspsychobabblepsychologysocial psychology