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Girlfriends for Life

Mara Brock Akil, Creator of UPN's Girlfriends, Shares with A&U's Chael Needle the Inside Scoop on the Show's HIV Story Lines and the State of Sexual Health on TV

Remember the uproar—fueled by tabloids and mainstream media alike—over the screen kiss between Rock Hudson and Linda Evans on Dynasty in the mid-eighties? Speculation about whether or not Hudson, who in real life was living with AIDS, had possibly transmitted HIV to Evans ran rampant. Not only was it a reminder that the public was woefully uninformed about the transmission routes of HIV, but it was also a reminder of a double standard in television: Shows were saturated with sex, but nary a word was spoken about the risks and responsibilities of those juicy trysts. That is, until Hudson's real-life HIV-positive status accidentally intersected with the high-glam fantasy world of the Carringtons and Colbys.

It used to be that—with very few exceptions (think of Gloria Reuben's HIV-positive character, Jeanie Boulet, on ER)—the main characters of television shows did not live in a world where sexual health was an issue. HIV, STDs, and contraception (even the choice to abstain as an adult) more likely than not were screened out. "Just a few years ago, the biggest message we had on a nationwide level was 'Just Say No,'" says Mara Brock Akil, creator, writer, and executive producer of UPN's sitcom Girlfriends, and the creative force behind its currently running HIV story lines. "Well, that's not talking about sex honestly. Our conversation about it has to get a lot farther along. But America likes sweeping things under the rug: We don't like to talk about racism, sex—we don't want to talk about anything."

When the scarcity of HIV/AIDS awareness on Will & Grace is mentioned, Akil responds: "It's funny you should bring that up. In the gay community, it would be false not to have had at least known someone [affected by HIV/AIDS]…It's unfortunate. By us leaving certain things out, it dehumanizes AIDS. And living with the disease is a very human problem and condition—not necessarily what it does to you physically, but how you deal with your family and friends, with yourself, and how you still operate as a human being in this world if everyone knows you have this disease…"

If sexual health is represented, says Akil, it's done and over with in a "very special episode": "The easier story to tell is having one of your main characters take an HIV test and at the end of the day, they're not HIV-positive…It's harder to put an actual character on television. Especially in half-hour—because you still have to be funny, and as soon as you say 'HIV' or 'AIDS,' you can hear the brakes coming on. People are still afraid to laugh, even if it is a funny joke…" But Girlfriends, now in its third season, has a knack for finding the humorous truth in no-laughing matters: It's easy to recognize yourself and your friends in the wacky situations and tender moments that make up the world of Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), Toni (Jill Marie Jones), Lynn (Persia White), Maya (Golden Brooks), and William (Reggie Hayes).

A world that now includes HIV.

Television in general looks like it might be changing for the better when it comes to addressing sexual health. Sex on TV 3: Content and Context, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's recent study of sexual messages on television, found that roughly one in four shows which talk about or depict sexual intercourse also made reference to a safer sex issue—a rate that has doubled from four years ago. It's a hopeful sign that television is starting to warm to depictions of sex and sexual health in all of its complexity.

This past January, however, Viacom—in association with Kaiser—became red-hot: The media conglomerate launched the KNOW HIV/AIDS Campaign, a global initiative that is fighting AIDS via public service announcements, television, radio, the Internet, and print. Ad placements alone for 2003 have been valued at more than $120 million. Many of its television properties—BET and MTV, for example—have already been recognized as groundbreakers in sexual health programming. And when the campaign invited television shows produced by Viacom companies to incorporate HIV/AIDS awareness into their story lines, many accepted. Becker, The District, Enterprise, Half & Half, One on One, The Parkers, Presidio Med, and Queer As Folk are among the shows which have addressed, or will address, AIDS this season.

It was quite easy for Girlfriends, which airs on Viacom-owned UPN, to pick up the torch. The show had already started addressing sexual health in its story lines from the beginning, thanks in large part to Mara Brock Akil. Take, for example, an episode entitled "The Burning Vagina Monologues." "We put a character in a really tough situation," says Akil. In the midst of an affair, Toni ended up having sex with her two lovers. "I think we even had her do this on the same day, which most people would think, 'Oh, what a whore.' But let's be honest, who hasn't done that?" asks Akil. Toni then finds out she has contracted chlamydia, but she doesn't know from whom. She feels guilty. "That's the thing about disease," says Akil. "Sometimes we're not protecting ourselves and we also put ourselves in tough situations and we want to hide that situation. But in hiding that situation you could be hurting someone because you have this disease."

The episode won a SHINE (Sexual Health in Entertainment) Award from The Media Project, a Los Angeles-based organization that is a project of the non-profit Advocates for Youth in Washington, D.C. It assists entertainment professionals in the development of stories about sexual and reproductive health issues, says Robin Smalley, Director of The Media Project. "[We address] anything from HIV/AIDS, STDs, contraception, sexual assault, to rape. When we're dealing with children's shows, anything from peer pressure, parent-child communication to healthy body image; anything that helps young people make healthy choices." At the request of Kaiser, with whom it has worked in the past, The Media Project is currently assisting Viacom shows in Hollywood that want to support the HIV/AIDS campaign on-screen.

Girlfriends' chlamydia story line "was an incredible episode. It debunked the myth that you can tell if somebody has an STD—that people look 'clean' or 'dirty,'" says Smalley, referring to the fact that Toni assumed the man she slept with did not have an STD because he was a doctor and "looked great." As Girlfriends is popular among people of African descent (it's the number two show among African-American households), Smalley thinks the HIV story lines will reach a community reported to be at high-risk for STDs and HIV/AIDS. "It was a good example of normalizing healthy behaviors, which is what we promote: Getting tested if you've had unprotected sex, regardless of who your partner was or how 'clean' you think they are, [because infection] is not something that you can just see. You can't see if somebody has chlamydia; you can't see if somebody has HIV."

When the girlfriends find out about the situation, they reprimand Toni—but they do it in a humorous way. Writing jokes for an episode like this is often difficult, says Akil. "This is why people shy away from doing these sorts of topics on television—how can you make it funny? How can you make it not preachy? As soon as you make it not funny and preachy, they're turning it off. People think, 'Someone is trying to lecture me now.'" A sure way to lose your audience, notes Akil.

The writing team at Girlfriends is mindful of the challenge. Characters don't address sexual health as if they're reading their lines off of a safer sex pamphlet or from inside a protective bubble of wisdom. "I believe in sending safe sex messages, but I don't always necessarily believe in showing how to do it the 'right way,'" says Akil, paraphrasing her message at Kaiser's Sex on TV 2 Conference, in which she participated. "It has to be a balance. People can learn a lot from people's mistakes. So, it's okay to have your characters be flawed."

Akil became sensitized firsthand to the learning curve of AIDS awareness when, as a college intern at a local newspaper, she was assigned to cover a World AIDS Day press conference. Milling about in the hallway before its start, she passed by a woman and noticed how beautiful she was. "I went on to the press conference and she was the one who was speaking to us, she was the one who was HIV-positive," says Akil, who was shocked by the relevation. This happened before Magic Johnson came out about his positive serostatus and provided a public frame of reference for what living with HIV could "look like." Before the conference, "my image of a person with HIV or AIDS was not just a gay white male, but a very sickly looking gay white male," she says. "To see this woman who I could identify with…kind of scared me. And definitely brought me to attention." Akil remembers hanging on her every word, trying to educate herself as much as she could during the conference. The woman explained the difference between being HIV-positive and having AIDS, a distinction Akil had never heard of before. "And I felt as though I was a farily educated person, if not more than the average educated person," she says, mentioning her diet at the time of five newspapers a morning. "I didn't know, really, what it meant to be HIV-positive versus AIDS—it was all kind of lumped together. That was the point of my story."

Her dedicated research drew the attention of other people in the newspaper office, many of whom thought the article she had been assigned was supposed to be a simple "This-is-World-AIDS-Day" story. Akil took it seriously, however—if she didn't know, a lot of people probably didn't know. The editors—in their quest for space, Akil surmises—took a scissors to it, changing the longer word "HIV-positive" to the shorter "AIDS." "They missed the whole point of the article, in other words; the woman at the press conference talked about being HIV-positive but not having AIDS," says Akil. "I told my editor[s] that, but I think they thought I was the naive intern, the overzealous intern, and [that I should] just relax. Because I wanted a retraction printed! Because she didn't [say that]. On the one hand I didn't want to be perceived as a bad journalist; secondly, and over my own needs, I didn't want to do that to her."

Though she had become disillusioned prior to this with a media business that often seemed more in favor of printing big headlines and selling more papers than being the public's watchdog, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. Akil decided to pursue other interests; the objectivity required of journalism didn't suit her expressive and opinionated nature, anyway. In television and film she thought she could have an impact on people in a different way, she says, adding that she has nothing but respect and fondness for journalists.

"The Burning Vagina Monologues" was not the first time one of Akil's projects won a SHINE Award. A Moesha episode she penned about first-time sexual intimacy and the need for women to be able to make their own choices was honored a few years ago. Nor is the chlamydia episode the only time Girlfriends has addressed sexual health. A fibroids episode in the first season, for instance, elicited such a positive response from female viewers that Akil made a pledge to continue bringing real-life issues like this to the forefront. "I am an artist first—yes I'm in this business, but I'm a writer first; I have things I want to say," says Akil about bridging television's gap between entertainment and education. "I'm doing a show about women—African-American women—and I feel that a lot of times our issues don't get national attention. Prioritzed." While trying to figure out whether she should address sickle cell anemia or HIV this season, she received the memo from Viacom. "It was kind of like a kismet sort of thing," she says. "To have the support of the company behind you just made the most sense. Of course, when you see the numbers [of those infected] they're just startling, so I thought I'd go the HIV route." If you watch the show, you probably would've guessed that the girlfriends would get around to talking about HIV. What you might not have been prepared for, however, was how creatively the writers would weave it into the show, how hard you would laugh, and how hard you would cry.

One of the first things that Akil did to develop the HIV story lines was to welcome the assistance of The Media Project. "Most of the shows are doing a one episode thing, and some of them have done an incredible job," says Smalley. "But Girlfriends took it beyond that." Girlfriends is in the midst of a four-episode story arc that finds Lynn developing a documentary on HIV, thanks to a bit of lateral thinking on Akil's part: Viewers aren't surprised to hear legal talk on the show—Joan is an attorney; likewise, they won't be surprised to hear talk of HIV—Lynn is making an AIDS documentary. At the beginning of the arc, explains Akil, Lynn starts off doing a documentary on sex in America, but her sweetie's suggestion inspires her to tweak the project: "He just says it once, in an episode that aired in January: 'You are dying. Black women like you are dying. AIDS is your killer. Document that.'"

From then on, viewers have known that Lynn is working on an HIV/AIDS documentary—it's part of her character "so you can't ever forget that. It keeps it alive, even just the mention of it," says Akil. "My plan was not just to do one episode because, like HIV, it doesn't enter your life and then go away. Although we have one episode kind of like that within the arc, I wanted HIV to be something that you couldn't escape. I'm quite proud of this because I think [what I've done] is genius (not to be modest!)," laughs Akil.

Smalley agrees: "They're doing it beautifully. And Mara is so concerned with having things be honest, getting out the right messages, and being true to the subject matter. We had had several meetings in terms of giving the writers information about HIV/AIDS, but she even went a step beyond.

"She had me bring in people to talk to the actors—which is pretty unusual—so the actors could get a sense of what it was like to live with AIDS and to get any questions answered. I brought in two wonderful women who are both living with AIDS; both got it from men that they were with, that they trusted. Beautiful women who look like [the actors] do, like anybody does. (Again it's the whole myth—that even the actors had—that people with AIDS look like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. It's not necessarily true.) We spent a couple of hours with the writers and the cast, listening to these two women tell their stories. It was really a moving, bracing [experience]—we were laughing, we were crying, and I think the actors came away with a real enthusiasm to do right by this subject."

With Lynn established as a documentary filmmaker working on HIV/AIDS, Toni ("the most superficial character") goes to her for advice when her boyfriend asks her to take an HIV test but she balks. "'What does he think of me—that I must have cooties?'" says Akil, mimicking the character's reaction in a funny scene. The show explores Toni's fear of death—in her mind that's what HIV/AIDS means. The show is not so much about taking the test, but about how real life (in this case, HIV) can test us. Lynn's ongoing documentary film project elicits humor in the midst of sobriety in other ways. Lynn asks two of her friends to watch footage she has taken. Although viewers don't see the footage, they do see the friends' reactions when they see someone, carefully framed to not show his face, putting a condom on his penis. Then the camera moves ("because Lynn's not that great of a documentary filmmaker," cracks Akil) and suddenly frames a face, not a penis. The condom modeller turns out to be one of their friends!

"We did do a 'very special episode,'" says Akil, referring to the March 3rd show where an old college buddy of Joan, played by Kimberly Elise (Beloved, Set It Off, John Q), comes back into her life. Joan has been holding a twelve-year grudge against her college buddy because she stole Brian, the man she thought she would marry way back when. "They get into this fight," explains Akil. "And the [friend] goes, 'You want my life?' And Joan says, Yeah. 'You want my happy life?' And Joan says, Yeah. 'You want Brian?' And Joan says, Yeah. 'Well, then, you can have the AIDS he gave me, too.' That's the act break. You don't know she has AIDS until that moment." Brian was on the down-low, keeping the fact that he was having sex with men from his wife. He contracted HIV outside the marriage; his wife contracted HIV inside the marriage. Akil is quick to point out that keeping it on the down-low is a societal problem, "because a lot of black men don't feel comfortable coming out and saying that they're gay. I've even heard that some of these men, even though they're leading a secret life, don't even use condoms because, if they used a condom, it's almost admitting to themselves that they're actually going out to have sex with men as opposed to they just happen to have sex with men in this one passionate moment or something."

The last part of the arc will give viewers a chance to see footage from Lynn's documentary (which may incorporate footage from an actual AIDS documentary). [Spoiler: This show will air in May—stop reading if you don't want to know what happens.] "You also find out that the character that she's met, who you see in that episode, has died," says Akil. "But you don't know she has died until you see footage of the documentary. It's not really what the episode is about, which is the way I like it. I'm dealing with other issues in the episode and then you realize, 'Oh, shoot, the woman I was just growing to like and is back in the group is taken away because I feel that that's what this disease does. It takes your loved ones away. They're there one minute and they're gone the next.

"My whole reason for doing this character arc is that I wanted to spring people into action. Meeting that woman ten years ago at that conference and hearing her story made me start getting HIV-tested every year. So I'm hoping that something we do on the show will make people realize how real this disease is and how close to home it is. Especially women and women of color because it's affecting us in alarming rates. Maybe they'll realize that it does affect them. I wanted an actress who was beautiful, that everyone likes, and is charismatic because it doesn't just affect what some people like to think of as scum of the earth. There's a lot of bad ideas about this disease. A lot of people don't think it can be them, like it's some sort of discriminating disease. But it's not."

Mara Brock Akil points out that a lot of people think that the KNOW HIV/AIDS Campaign is being forced on the producers, but it's not. "I was proud of the company taking on this initiative. There's many things that they could've taken on. We do live in a corporate environment, and they're very corporate, but it's nice to see Corporate doing something. Obviously, not enough is being done about this issue. You can liken it to product placement. Sometimes Corporate makes you put a beer bottle in the middle of a scene. And I like that they're asking, if we feel comfortable with it: Can you mention this? Can you bring awareness to this? Product placement to save lives I'm all for—if I feel I can do it and not compromise the show."

Girlfriends may soon not be so alone in representing sexual health on television in such a creative way. "It's actually better and better," says Robin Smalley about the industry's increasing awareness. "Writers are really becoming more and more aware of the power and influence they have to do good. Entertaining along with educating is not such a dirty word anymore. Producers are very well aware that young people in particular are not necessarily getting the information they need to make healthy choices about their own bodies. I think everyone agrees that the best place for kids to get information is from their parents, from their families. But unfortunately that isn't happening often enough. With our country's emphasis on abstinence-until-marriage sex education, kids aren't often getting information in school either. All the studies indicate that television is young people's number two source of information about sex. So our feeling is that sex on television is here to stay—we don't say whether it's right or whether it's wrong—our feeling is if writers are going to include sexuality on television, at least it can demonstrate healthy sexuality. If not that, to show the risks and ramifications of unprotected sex."

In the meantime, Girlfriends is emerging as a leader of the pack, treating sexual health as an everyday issue in the lives of its characters, but keeping it real and keeping it funny.

For more information about The Media Project, log on to www.themediaproject.com. Check out the KNOW HIV/AIDS Campaign at www.knowaids.com.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

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Reprinted with permission from A&U Magazine, http://www.aumag.org/. The mission of A&U magazine is to collect, archive, publish, and distribute the growing body of art, activism, and current events emanating from the AIDS pandemic. It was created for the HIV-affected community. © 2003 by Art & Understanding, Inc. All rights reserved.

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