On January 21st 2015, the Channel 4 soap opera Hollyoaks began an HIV storyline when regular character Ste Hay (McQueen) was diagnosed as having the virus after a one-night stand of bareback sex with a university student.
Soap operas deal with issues that affect people in real life in a fictional form, and helplines can be provided at the end of episodes. In this continuing serial form soaps are able to follow issues like HIV which are on-going and from which there is no escape.
Various issues surrounding HIV have been, and will continue to be, explored in the soap (the blame one can cast on the partner who passed on the virus when known, the shame one feels and how to reveal one’s diagnosis to one’s friends and relatives, the way one feels untouchable etc.) but my concern here is with the sexual appeal of Kieron Richardson’s character ‘Ste’ and how this relates to HIV.
It is useful to draw on the work of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey who argued in the famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1973) that classical Hollywood cinema commonly put the spectator in a heterosexual masculine position with the figure of the woman on screen as object of ‘the male gaze’. As John Ellis asserted in the early 1980s, making a sweeping generalisation, film was viewed with a gaze while television is characteristically watched with the glance while occupied in other household activities.
In the case of the television programme Hollyoaks, however, Ste Hay, as a gay “twink”, can be very much the object of ‘the male gaze’ but here it is the on-screen male who is object of many male viewers’ desire. Ste Hay is not alone in this respect but fits in with a large body of male film and television characters who are the object of many female and male viewers’ desire.
These characters are like the male models in gay magazines and sometimes the actors that play the characters pose for these magazines. What is different with Ste Hay is that he is a character who has been diagnosed with HIV. In this way, the visual media of television differs from representations of HIV in literature (prose and poetry) in showing how it is not possible to tell whether someone has HIV just by looking at them (something that Ste’s husband Jean Paul points out to him) and that gay men with HIV (not just characters on television but also in real life) can be desirable. It also makes it possible for an actor who is HIV-negative to portray a character who is HIV-positive.
The message that, therefore, comes across is that it is not wrong to desire, and engage in sexual relations with, someone who has HIV or with someone whose HIV status is unknown but that it is essential to practice safer sex with each and every partner. It is HIV’s very invisibility that causes widespread infection.
Andrew O’Day (@AndrewODay1 on twitter)
Andrew O’Day volunteers for THT Oxford. He has also published on LGBTQ Studies and can be found on the web at hrvt.net/andrewoday