The problem with Sacha Baron Cohen’s AIDS joke

The problem with Sacha Baron Cohen’s AIDS joke
Maybe you’ve heard that in Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, The Brothers Grimsby, opening this weekend, “Daniel Radcliffe” gives AIDS to “Donald Trump.” As reported by Entertainment Weekly: “One scene features a lookalike actor playing Radcliffe being sprayed in the mouth with blood from an HIV-positive African boy who has been accidentally shot. A later scene incorporating stock footage involves another stray bullet that strikes Radcliffe and sprays Trump, who is then reported to have AIDS by a news anchor in the film.”

The studio, Sony, is denying rumors that it pressured Cohen to remove the scene. Apparently, in the original version, Radcliffe “gives AIDS” to the Queen of England–but now, when the scene plays in theaters in the U.K. with Trump, audiences are cheering wildly.

This bothers me. But let me be clear. Even as someone who’s written about the science and politics of AIDS for twenty years and has lived with HIV for 16, it’s not because I’m categorically opposed to “AIDS jokes.” I happen to think Sacha Baron Cohen is a subversive comic genius, someone who makes us laugh uncomfortably about the worst aspects of our culture–often, specifically, of American culture. He skewers unsuspecting folks on things like racism, homophobia, and militarism. The same for comedian Sarah Silverman, who has famously quipped “When God gives you AIDS–and God does give you AIDS–make lemon-AIDS!” (I mean, she also makes jokes about abortion, rape, the Holocaust and 9/11.)

I think it’s ok to make jokes about seemingly off-limits things, if you get the tone and the context right. In fact, we rely on comedians to do that, so we don’t have to. And at this ugly moment in our political narrative, I’m certainly not opposed to comedy that imagines fantastically horrible things happening to Donald Trump. It’s cathartic. We need it.

My problem with Cohen’s AIDS joke is that–even in 2016, when HIV is highly treatable and even preventable via medication–it frames getting HIV (or “AIDS,” which you don’t “get”…you get HIV, which, if it goes untreated for years, develops into AIDS) as the absolute worst thing that could happen to someone, the ultimate death sentence, something befitting a monster like Donald Trump.

“No One Deserves AIDS–Not Even Donald Trump,” wrote Jeff Sneider on The Wrap in response to the Grimsby news. And I agree. But it’s also that the joke of someone “getting AIDS” by having somebody else’s HIV-infected blood sprayed in their mouth is just so…1983. It trades on the oldest and most uninformed stereotypes and fears about the disease. It’s next to impossible to get HIV by being sprayed with an HIV-positive person’s blood, even if it went in your mouth. But now we have Cohen’s movie affirming that eighties-era phobia with two quick ‘n’ dirty scenes.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a good “AIDS” joke now and then if it felt situated in 2016 instead of the Reagan years. Why can’t someone make a politically astute crack about the fact that the disease still disproportionately affects gay men of color? (And I mean a joke targeted at the system that lets this happen, not at the men themselves.) Or about gay men who have abandoned condoms for the PrEP pill and are now (thankfully) avoiding HIV but having to get treated for syphilis repeatedly? Anything that actually speaks to the reality of HIV in our current moment, when the virus is an obvious misfortune that one wants to avoid but not the equivalent of the Grim Reaper rushing at you with a bloody scythe.

Instead, we’re stuck with the kind of jokes that made Reagan and his hateful hetero cronies chuckle back in 1982. The truth is, today–in American and other non-poor nations, at least–HIV is often easier to treat than diabetes. Would anyone laugh at a joke about Donald Trump getting diabetes?

Nah, that probably wouldn’t land.

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