Nonsilence = Death, Too?
Strub strenuously disputes Schulman's contention that "by emphasizing which AIDS-related products should be supported and which companies should be pressured, [POZ] prefers to foreground the buying power of PWAs [people with AIDS] as their primary means of political influence." Strub finds it condescending to think POZ readers "would confuse a sales pitch featuring a PWA with the achievement of political power." But, as Schulman points out, advertising is designed to create a bond between the product and the viewer of images, ultimately resulting in a purchase. It is, therefore, equally ridiculous to think that POZ's ads have no effect: It's safe to say that at least one reader has purchased, for example, a bottle of Solgar vitamins after seeing the company's ad on the back cover, especially in three or four consecutive issues. Strub says it makes sense for advertisers to act in their economic self-interest: "The pharmaceutical companies aren't going to show people with AIDS throwing up from their drugs. And Coca-Cola isn't going to show your teeth rotting."
Perhaps, but imagery of smiling groups of ethnically diverse friends does not mean the ads themselves contain accurate medical information. While POZ has often written about this issue, I wish Schulman had tackled it also. One area she is absolutely correct about, however, is the huge profit windfall these ads have given to all of the national glossies. Because of Food and Drug Administration regulations requiring disclosure of certain medical research information, many of these ads must be two, even three pages. Imagine Coke or Ivory soap buying a three-page spread in every issue of Vanity Fair, Time or Esquire, and one begins to get an idea of the huge potential profit from this marketing pool.
Henry Scott himself seems to have recognized this opportunity: Out Publishing debuted another magazine, HIV-Plus, in early September. Clearly established to compete with POZ, HIV-Plus used former POZ staff editor David Thomas as its managing editor for one issue. HIV-Plus calls itself a "treatment and research" magazine, but out of its sixty-four-page length, thirty-seven pages were editorial copy and twenty-seven were advertising, nearly all from pharmaceutical companies. Virtually all the information contained in the premiere issue of HIV-Plus was circulated in the myriad of nonprofit, noncommercial treatment newsletters and publications--like AIDS Treatment News and GMHC's Treatment Issues--that very month or earlier. As Schulman further articulates, the editorial viewpoint employed by the gay glossies and the mainstream press is almost exactly the same, despite the former's "rhetoric of diversity." Her arguments about how the dominant culture has usurped these publications is incredibly compelling. "There is no opposition between them," she says in an interview. "A huge number of gay and lesbian people are being completely, intentionally ignored."
Scott eagerly pointed to covers of women like Angela Davis, Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche and k.d. lang, but bristled at the fact that, except for Davis, all are famous white lesbians. "Where does this idea come from that magazines like Out and The Advocate should be all things for all gay people?" he demanded. "There are populations that exist for whom there are no magazines."
Judy Wieder, editor in chief of The Advocate, makes the following gender-based economic argument: "Men are much more likely to throw their money at things that seem to reflect their lives. Women are picky and infinitely more critical. They're not going to buy the magazine just because our cover is about breast cancer." While Wieder declined to discuss The Advocate's advertising at length, she applauded Schulman's book. "It's difficult to look at any of this, but this radical thinking, this painful criticism, is really necessary. But it's not the only way to effect change." For her part, Schulman believes Wieder's and Scott's "evidence" proves her larger point.
"If your readership deserts you when you put a woman or a person of color on the cover, then you are stuck servicing that readership and its advertisers forever," Schulman says. "People are responsible for the content of their representation. That content should evolve and, as it evolves, create equitable representation. But as is often the case, people who dominate this representation do not do that. They have the choice to change, but they choose not to change."
A study released in November seems to back up Schulman's argument about media representation, popularly held opinion and reality: M.V. Lee Badgett, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, conducted an investigation of differences in income between gay men and lesbians and their heterosexual counterparts. The final report, titled "Income Inflation: The Myth of Affluence Among Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Americans," was published jointly by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. Badgett made numerous discoveries, among them that gays, lesbians and bisexuals do not, on average, earn more than heterosexuals; nor do they tend to live in more affluent households than heterosexuals. Badgett also found that--just like most heterosexuals--gays, lesbians and bisexuals tend to fall somewhere in the middle range of income distribution.
In writing Stagestruck, Schulman harnessed deeply personal, painful experiences to elicit an extremely effective discussion of cultural production and visual representation. Linking the imagistic power of theater, advertising and magazine publishing, she confronts some troubling aspects of American culture. Why the incredible denial that AIDS continues to spread? How have those at risk come to believe that acquiring HIV is no longer something to worry about? The marketing of pharmaceutical products and the happy-go-lucky imagery upon which they rely have everything to do with those delusions. Why do gay men and lesbians continue to face discrimination? In part because of the myth of affluence and the notion, as the political right has successfully argued, that such an elite class has no need for "special" protection. And also because the dominant culture cannot remain dominant without placing someone under submission.
To believe Schulman's argument that AIDS and homosexuality have been dressed up for mass dissemination and maximum profit, one need look no further than the corridors of Washington or the nearest magazine rack. Congress refuses to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons from Manhattan to Wyoming are attacked and murdered in increasing numbers. And yet, new magazines of consumer lifestyle crop up almost monthly, offering escape into an imaginary world free of such real-life concerns. There was once a slogan in AIDS circles: "All I want is a cure, and my friends back." Even POZ now features a motto on its cover, one for the niche-market nineties: "Because AIDS Isn't Over." In the difference between these two sayings lies perhaps the greatest of Schulman's many truths: As long as there is profit to be made from AIDS and inequality, both are here to stay.