I Hate ‘The Normal Heart’

May 29, 2014 • Culture

“You think that I’m killing people?”

This line is the most singularly powerful moment in The Normal Heart, which aired Sunday night on HBO to universal critical acclaim. When Joe Mantello speaks these words, there are tears in his eyes, and streaming down his face. His voice is positively ragged with sobs.

The monologue preceding this accusation, and the one that follows it, comprise the only truly honest and powerful scene in a film riddled with shame, blame, and a homophobia so deeply internalized as to be unrecognizable.

Apart from this speech, and a few brief scenes featuring Jim Parsons’ brilliant and empathetic performance, I cannot find a single praiseworthy moment in The Normal Heart.

I am, apparently, entirely alone in this sentiment. Aggregate rating sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have pronounced the film flawless. In and of itself, this isn’t surprising; these reviewers don’t identify as queer, and Ryan Murphy has taken care to produce a sanitized, fictional 1980s New York that caters perfectly to squeamish, discriminatory heterosexual audiences.

There is one speaking black actor in the entire film. One. Teeming crowd scenes on Fire Island and in Lower East Side discos resemble Pantone palettes for shades of beige.

Only two women are featured in speaking roles – one is Julia Roberts, as a heterosexual doctor who inquires of her gay clientele, “If having sex can kill you, doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking?

The other, named Estelle, arrives on the steps of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and announces, in tears, “Dammit, I wanna do something. Even though all my lesbian friends say, ‘What have you guys ever done for us?’ But I don’t care.” It’s never made clear whether Estelle herself is a lesbian, mind you, but the message is loud and clear all the same: lesbian women hate gay men, and played no role in early HIV/AIDS activism.

There are no trans people in this fictionalized AIDS crisis, and no poor people. The Normal Heart would have viewers believe that every victim of the AIDS outbreak was a well-heeled cisgender white man with a Cape Cod estate tucked away for a rainy day.

But we’re not here to add yet another failing grade to Ryan Murphy’s representational report card. The Normal Heart’s problems go far, far deeper than narrow-minded casting. Let’s return, for a moment, to the line that opened this review:

 “You think that I’m killing people?”

 Mark Ruffalo’s reply, delivered in a calm, level tone, is uncharacteristic of his character, Ned Weeks, a fictionalized version of its own screenwriter, activist Larry Kramer.

 “That’s not what I said,” he says.

 “It is!” Mantello fires back. “You know it! I’ve spent fifteen years of my life fighting for our right to be free, and to make love wherever, whenever, and you’re telling me that all those years of what being gay stood for: wrong. And that I’m a murderer… Ned, I’m not a murderer. I’m not a murderer.”

Everything that has come before this moment points to Mantello – and, more precisely, the gay liberation movement he represents – being, in fact, murderers. The entire film explicitly supports the thesis that gay men, through promiscuity and infidelity, brought an epidemic upon themselves.

In an early scene, Mark Ruffalo is wandering in the woods on Fire Island, and he stumbles upon four nude men engaged in a vague orgy. They are literally covered in mud. He recoils in disgust. Smash-cut to Ruffalo on a ferry, speeding away from the island, his nose buried in a newspaper. We see an ominous headline: “Rare Cancer is Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals.” He lifts his head. Horror is written on his face. The very next scene is a conversation between Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, which contains the aforementioned “doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking?” line, and a curt reply from Ruffalo: “Do you realize you’re talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity as their principal political agenda?”

…Right. Because the gay rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was all about barebacking.

This constant, nonchalant reduction of gay political goals to “fucking” and “promiscuity,” the scenes where a bunch of lisping caricatures in pink shirts react violently to the very suggestion of “cooling it,” the juxtaposition of orgies with doom-portending headlines: it all adds up a scathing condemnation of gay men that even Focus on the Family couldn’t replicate.

When Kramer first produced The Normal Heart as a Broadway play, its purpose was to illuminate ideological rifts in the gay community, and to encourage closure of those rifts through Kramer’s preferred radical, vocal form of activism. At the Public Theater in 1985, audiences were considerably more likely to intimately understand Kramer’s discontent with the current queer political climate than any of the 1.4 million who tuned into HBO on Sunday night. Removed of that context, the film simply reads as strident support of the idea that promiscuous, amoral gay men created an epidemic by engaging in risky behaviour.

And against all reason, Kramer appears to still be enthusiastic about the idea that sexually active, non-monogamous gay men are the movement’s biggest enemies. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kramer said, “Anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads. There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.”

You heard it, folks: the revolutionary medicine that virtually eliminates risk of HIV transmission is “poison,” and anyone who uses it is “cowardly” and disinterested in political action.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote, in a refutation of Kramer’s comments, “Flash back to the early 1980s, in the age of The Normal Heart… Imagine a scene when someone rushes into a GMHC meeting and declares that there’s now a pill that will make you immune to HIV if you take it once a day. Would Larry seriously have said that anyone who then took it had ‘rocks in their heads?’”

The Normal Heart, at least in its current iteration, does not promote equality. It promotes respectability. It promotes the denigration of sexually active gay men, and the exclusion of all but HIV’s most affluent and privileged victims.

In one scene, Ned Weeks’ older brother, a millionaire heterosexual lawyer, remarks to him, “I see TV… guys in leather, dresses, high heels… You guys have a dreadful image problem.”

Ned laughs. “Which is why it’s so important to have people like you supporting us.”

To all the folks at HBO, I say this: if your goal was to make straight people comfortable in their bigotry, to lay virtually the entire burden of blame for HIV/AIDS on the shoulders of gay men, and to systematically exclude the epidemic’s most vulnerable victims, you couldn’t possibly have done a better job.

Congratulations.

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Photos via HBO.

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  • Rose ⚡

    Might be for the best that he didn’t include more women/PoC tbh, RM doesn’t have the best track record there…

  • Mink Carlyle

    Sorry that you felt this way about the movie. I will just say, that as a straight person who watched it, I didn’t take away any of the negative messaging about gay people that you seem to think was contained therein.

    • Alex

      First of all, I’m British. I haven’t seen the film. What I will say is that I think you’ve misunderstood the point of this article.

      The key to progress, to moving forwards, is to promote an understanding of what is and has happened; from what I have gathered of this film is that it’s a step backwards. The director has ultimately reinforced bigoted viewpoints that will contribute against a progressive movement for equality. This adaption has failed to educate people on the history as it is misleading and hs been produced as a pseudo attempt at progress.

      • Mink Carlyle

        I haven’t misunderstood anything, and you’re being condescending by implying that I have. The author’s made points which are very personal, and with which therefore I cannot disagree, but I was just pointing out that a straight person has not taken away the negatives she seems to feel a straight person viewing the movie naturally would.

        Also, I will say, I think it’s probably a mistake to comment on this movie without having seen it (I have).

        • Alex

          Here you’re taking the “not all men” stance. You’re pointing yourself out as an exception to the author’s point in an attempt to negate their points. You’re arguing with a logical fallacy, your premise is flawed and so your argument is invalid.

      • No

        This is really unbelievable, honestly. You haven’t even seen it and yet you still have the urge to critique it. And by the way your ‘understanding’ is wrong. You say the key to progress is understanding what has happened? And yet you advocate misrepresenting what has happened. There are no ‘bigoted views’ in the movie.

        The adaptation did not set out to educate people and that’s not its job. It’s also not misleading, wtf? And finally it’s not an attempt at progress either, let alone a pseudo one.

        • Alex

          So, you’re telling me that this adaption was free from any message, it didn’t attempt to educate people on a debate. Then you’re correct, this isn’t an attempt at progress, it’s a film created for the appeasement of the public. One that has reaffirmed the idea that the gay community is responsible for the prevalence of STIs.

          Have you heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment?

          • No

            I’m telling you the adaptation and the play (which are the same piece of work) were an emotional response and a somewhat dramatized retelling of real life events that happened the year before it was written. It was written in 1985, when much less was known about AIDS. If there is any message here it is to not forget history (to respect it as well), and not to repeat it.

            “For the appeasement of the public”?! Are you dead serious right now? This movie is for gays and for people who lived through this time. It has nothing to do with appeasement of straight people, at all. Seriously, how can you make arguments like this when you haven’t even seen it?!

            The gay community is not ‘responsible’ for STDs but gay and bi men are disproportionately affected, accounting for 84 percent of new syphilis cases and 66 percent of new HIV cases every year. Please try to look at this from the perspective of public health and stop assuming that I’m putting any judgment on ANYone. What I want is for gay men to get the help and attention that they need and deserve. This movie is actually a perfect reminder to young men who didn’t live through this time, it is priceless in my opinion.

            I’ve heard of Tuskegee, what are you implying? That the AIDS epidemic in gay men was a government conspiracy? The government response to the AIDS crisis was criminal in it’s negligence but it was not a purposeful, ‘experiment.’

          • Alex

            So this is to educate gays? But earlier you stated that “The adaptation did not set out to educate people and that’s not its job.” When you say this film was for gays, as a reminder to not repeat history, you are laying blame with the gay community saying they are responsible for their actions.

            You’ve ignored the negligence of government and if this were to be framed as public health advocacy then why not campaign for non-heteronormative sex education?

          • No

            They are responsible for their actions? I mean… yes, they are. You are saying that gay men are not responsible for their actions? Do you not see how that is more problematic than what I am saying?

            How have I ignored the negligence of the government when I literally used those exact words in my post??

            What do you mean why not campaign for that? What makes you think I don’t? Why do you think I can only do one thing at a time? I also appreciate this movie (while it’s not without flaws, actual flaws) and don’t appreciate these uninformed, badly intentioned takedown essays of it.

          • Alex

            …responsible for their actions, and hence the HIV crisis.

          • No

            Their actions in combination with a lot of other factors. Not the least of which being the government response, the sexual revolution, the rebellion from sexual oppression, the ease of transmission through anal sex, the small size of the sexual community, the high levels of promiscuity, the bathhouses, the newfound freedom, the long period between infection and onset of AIDS symptoms. And it goes on. It was a perfect storm, really.

          • Alex

            “Their actions in combination with a lot of other factors.” This is what should be reported, the truth, not a dated play.

            I would also like to point out that HIV is as easily transmitted via all kinds of sex, not just anal sex.

          • No

            The play is anything but dated, it is extremely relevant. And that is actually, EXACTLY what the play does, is address many of these factors that contributed to the spread of the epidemic in the early years.

            Receptive anal sex is the riskiest sex act by far. It is a risk of 138 out of 10,000 exposures from an infected source (not on meds, much lower if person is on meds but at this time obviously they wouldn’t have been). For insertive anal sex the risk is 11 out of 10,000 exposures. For receptive vaginal sex it is a risk of 8 out of 10,000 exposures. For insertive vaginal sex it is a risk of 4 out of 10,000 exposures. For oral sex it is so low that they don’t list a number out of 10,000 exposures. These risks go up under the following circumstances: presence of another STD, high viral load during for example seroconversion or if the person has AIDS.

    • Alex

      I would also like to suggest that you don’t insinuate that the negative messages were ‘supposed’ oppression is hard to see if you’ve internalised it.

      • Mink Carlyle

        I have no idea what that means – are you missing a full stop somewhere in that sentence?

        • Alex

          Internalisation is where you make an attitude or behaviour part of your nature through unconscious assimilation; this will have been happening your entire life.

          From your position, as a heterosexual person you have not and will not face the problems many marginalised people will. As none of these problems affect you, you cannot see them.

          • No

            Sexuality is not the only way people are marginalized. Also the AIDS crisis is not and was not an ‘LGBT’ crisis, it belongs to and has as much meaning to straight people as it does to queer 20 year olds, in terms of its basic message about humanity. The history of it that is represented in this movie belongs to gay and bi men of that generation, and the ones of this generation who are repeating the same mistakes.

          • Alex

            This makes very little to no sense.

          • No

            What don’t you understand? I’m saying that 20 year old queer women trying to claim ownership of it over straight people is plainly ridiculous, they both have the same distance to it. Sorry if it seems kind of off topic to your post but I was referring to your implication that the straight commenter won’t understand this issue because they’re straight.

          • Alex

            I agree that nobody should be claiming ownership, however regardless of the intended viewers this work as a play does lay blame with gay men and their lifestyle for the spread of HIV. This viewpoint is not appropriate in this day and age, progressive steps should have been taken to bring the play into the twenty first century.

          • No

            Absolutely not should they have altered the play. It’s not okay to alter history to make it more palatable to you.

            Larry Kramer is a gay man, who is HIV positive, who had promiscuous sex himself, who made these criticisms of HIS gay community. Years before AIDS entered the picture. Why is it so important that gay men absolutely never be criticized, even if by other gay men.

            Did you know that in San Francisco in 1981, 30 percent of gay men were HIV positive? By 1985, it was 50 percent. In those 4 years of knowledge of a deadly disease which was probably spread sexually, 20 percent of the gay men in San Francisco still managed to contract the disease. Instead of denying the behavior a better thing to do is ask why.

  • No

    Oh, you’re mad that they weren’t poor? It was about the men who set up the GMHC, do you really think poor people are able to just quit their job and dedicate all their time to a non-profit organization?

    In the beginning days of the AIDS crisis it was gay men (and yes they were ‘cis’) and the majority of them were white.

    And I’m sorry but you just plain don’t understand the nuance of the promiscuity conversation. And you underestimate straight audience’s ability to understand. Furthermore, even if they don’t, who cares. This movie is not for them. Maybe this movie is not for you? Have you thought about that? Why the need to make gay men into total victims? I think that’s condescending, honestly. There is a middleground between saying they are 100 percent at fault and excusing them from any and all responsibility. I don’t agree with everything Kramer says but he has a point, one that is pretty relevant in a time when HIV and syphilis rates among gay men are so goddamn alarming.

    Also the PrEP debate is a pretty complicated one. While I agree with the CDC, I don’t think Kramer’s quote is that bad and I think he’s been somewhat misrepresented.

    • Elana

      Dude… you’re so wrong about the “white cis gay” comment… please, study some history before you make aggrandizing, sweeping claims. Even a cursory internet search will prove you wrong. Don’t you dare doubt the author’s “ability to understand” merely because you disagree with them; that sort of ad hominen fallacious attack already undoes your claim. The condescending, punitive nature of this comment reveals that you, No, are the one with an inability to understand the devastating nature of this film’s connotations and the implications, reverberations, and consequences it will have on an already-marginalized community.

      “Why do we need to make the gay men into total victims?” Because they are. Because of people like you. There is no middleground. Despite your spouting homophobic, transphobic, and toxic rhetoric about how the LGBTQIA+ community needs to take some “responsibility” for their “actions” (insinuating that they invoked HIV as a punishment–actually, your comment is alarmingly reminiscent of the hateful attitudes back during the height of the AIDS crisis, the ones which led those unencumbered to overlook the crisis and continue on their proverbial merry ways), you are the one who needs to take responsibility for your hateful words.

      Everything the author has put forth are legitimate concerns. Instead of swathing your attack with patronizing lingo, why don’t you present a legitimate constructive critique if you are that perturbed? While I disagree with everything you have said, if you were actually willing to engage in a debate you could have phrased it in a way that shows the author respect towards not only their opinion, but to themself.

      • No

        Nope, I’m not actually wrong and I can guarantee I know more about this than you. I’m talking about the time of this movie, when there were only a couple of hundred cases. Please don’t tell me to ‘study history’ when this is probably the field I am most educated in above any others. Don’t I dare doubt the author? I’ll doubt her if I want, and she’s dead wrong. Deal with it. Her misunderstanding is CLEAR in what she has written.

        It is BEYOND LAUGHABLE that you just called me homophobic. I happen to think that your denial is homophobic. And this has nothing at all to don with the LGBTQIA+ community, it has to do with gay and bi men. I never said it was a punishment?! I said there is value to Kramer’s OWN points.

      • No

        I have had time to process this and make a better response. I’m going to start by saying this is probably the most ignorant response I have ever received in years of advocacy on this issue.

        1) I’m not wrong about the ‘white cis gay’ comment, the vast majority of the first thousand deaths were in white cis gay men. It was called GRID to begin with because it was only seen in gay men.
        2) I understand the film’s “connotations and the implications, reverberations, and consequences” far, far, far better than you do, and I don’t care at this point about being condescending because this is just an undeniable fact based on your response to me.
        3) No, there is no need to make gay men total victims, because they are not. Why is it important to you that they are totally victimized? Did you see the movie? Because that was ACTUALLY THE WHOLE POINT.
        4) Saying that gay men are not 100 percent blameless in the AIDS crisis is not saying they deserved it, that I have any judgment whatsoever about their behavior, or that it is a “punishment.”
        5) Again this has nothing to do with that wider ‘queer’ community, this is a story that belongs to gay/bi men, period. Why are you grouping them in with people that have nothing to do with this.
        6) I also never said they ‘need to take responsibility’ please don’t attack things I’ve never even said.

        The degree to which you don’t understand this issue, don’t understand my post, think that you actually know what you’re talking about, and are prepared to lecture somebody who is involved EVERY SINGLE DAY in this work, is shocking to me. Shame on you, to be quite honest.

  • No

    These are what the AIDS obituaries looked like in San Francisco in the 80s.

    http://castrobiscuit.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/224097_10151111302536176_1727042366_n-520×245.jpg

    http://ww4.hdnux.com/photos/07/16/25/1893743/7/628×471.jpg

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/1987/03/devastation-of-aids-1980s/.i.0.aids-in-memoriam.jpg

    Unless you think they were all trans men or white passing mixed race people, the ‘cis white gay men’ thing was pretty accurate.

    • Beth Lalonde

      What are you talking about? Even if these three random obituaries were a fully representative sample of the men who died in the early HIV/AIDS epidemic – and they aren’t – there are still more people of colour represented in these images than in the entirety of The Normal Heart. Like, you have literally posted a photograph which includes multiple pictures of black men and said “the white men thing was pretty accurate.”

      Furthermore, it’s not at all inconceivable that a lot of these obituaries would depict trans women using photos where they passed as cis men. Gender affirmation surgery in the early 80s was nothing like what it is now, and many trans women never underwent any kind of medical transition prior to the advent of HIV/AIDS.

      And hey, real statistics – according to the Centres for Disease Control, transgender women are at high risk for HIV/AIDS and black transgender women have the highest percentage of new HIV-positive test results of any racial or ethnic group. Erasing them completely from narratives about AIDS alienates them from accessing the care they need and contributes to their suffering and death.

      http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/transgender/

      • No

        What am I talking about? There are two black men in those pictures. There are two women. The vast majority were white gay men. I never, ever said it was 100 percent gay men. I don’t disagree with you that there were not enough non-white characters in the movie, either. I’m just pointing out that I have been told repeatedly that I was ‘so wrong’ about it affecting mainly ‘white cis gay men’ in the beginning, and I’m not.

        As far as I’m aware the rate of HIV today in the US for black MSM and for black trans women is about the same–1/3. I don’t mean to erase anyone. I don’t share your opinion that they were as present or as affected at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. But I certainly agree with you that today, they deserve as much help and attention as other high risk groups, and more than they are getting.

        I’m sorry I’ve been so aggressive and probably insulting, I know you mean well and while we disagree I happen to think you’re a really smart young woman (smarter than me, also a young woman) who seems to be doing great things with your life at a young age. This topic is just very close to me, and I enjoy going on an internet tirade (that is obvious).

  • PeteAJ

    I think they could definitely included more trans and PoC in this production, but this author really seems to interested in historical revisionism. The Normal Heart is not a definitive or universal story. It’s Larry Kramer’s play. It seems totally a position of privilege to suggest wholesale revision the work of a gay man. Check yourself. This author sounds as though she arrived at these issues yesterday. Don’t you get how much has been won in the past 20 years? No feel for the history. They added in the line ‘thank god for the lesbians’.. It’s ever so slightly more pro-lesbian than the play! This aren’t ‘lisping caricatures’ it’s 2014.. that’s showing not everyone has to be butch all the time. To say you hated the Normal Heart.. that might make a clickable headline but I think it’s dismissive, juvenile to write something off because it doesn’t conform to you up to the moment values. Not impressed.

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