PrEP Heroes: Why Superheroes Won’t Win The Truvada Battle

PrEP Heroes: Why Superheroes Won’t Win The Truvada Battle

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We’re proud to announce that the first article in this series has won the 2016 Excellence in HIV/AIDS Coverage Award from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association! 

This is the second installment of a three-part article examining how AIDS/HIV service and advocacy organizations are using images to respond to — and perhaps shape — the debates about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).  How can we imagine ourselves as part of this debate?  Or, based on the images out there right now, do we really want to?

The first part tackles the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s “Trust Him/Her?” billboard campaign, a controversial series of advertisements which confuse sexual responsibility with slut-shaming amidst high thread-count linens. This second part takes PrEP Heroes (a multi-channel campaign by Housing Works aimed at demystifying PrEP usage) to the mat for crimes against both fashion and coherence. Make sure to read the third part as well.

Riding the PrEP Effect: Why is it so hard to imagine safer sex these days? — Part Two: Is Everybody Free (To Feel Good)?

How should PrEP usage alter the ways that we think about — and visualize — questions of personal responsibility and sexual ethics as it transforms the landscape of LGBT life? More to the point, how have mainstream HIV/AIDS service and advocacy responded so far? Give the Magic 8-Ball a quick shake and flip it over: Reply hazy try again

Even public awareness campaigns which unabashedly advocate for PrEP usage struggle to come up with images which better capture the current conversations.

Take PrEP Heroes, a new social media project by New York City-based Housing Works. With the goal of “fighting aggressive viruses, negative stigmas, and uninformed stereotypes,” the campaign celebrates people who want to “change the face of HIV.”

And just who are these civic-minded individuals? “Their bodies are symbols of strength,” the campaign’s homepage swoons, “shielding the rest of us from deadly threats that lurk around every dark corner.” The language, ripped straight from the Bronze Age of comics, frames PrEP as a “single empowered choice” sero-negative men can make in this seemingly never-ending battle.

The geek-chic framing of the project is meant to humanize the confusions around prophylaxis as a health option, while encouraging open communication about sexual responsibility.  The site itself, while tending towards chattiness, is an excellent clearinghouse of information. Even the interviews with the participants seem like a point-for-point rebuttal of both Weinstein and the whole basis for the “Trust Him/Her?” campaign.

But what are those models wearing?

I recognize porn star Mike Dreyden, pressed into a sleeveless leather biker jacket with a tapered waist. What appears to be a fascinator made of black feathers sprouts from his head. His arms are criss-crossed with black straps. His beard is curiously blue.

Celebrity fashion photographer Charles Quiles is a little more fantasy-oriented, with massive horns sprouting from his forehead and a dramatic pleather halter top peeking from under his cape. It is tough to tell, but the belt beneath his sharp obliques probably belongs to a kilt. I was not previously familiar with fitness model (and self-proclaimed “Martha Stewart with sarcasm”) Alex Zarlengo, but I think he still looks handsome as a golden-armed angel with a glittering crown and cunningly-draped in a chainmail pashmina.

If you squint, you can maybe imagine that Edna Mode, the superhero fashion designer from Pixar’s The Incredibles, tried channeling Alexander McQueen for a day. No capes, dahling. Just feathers, leathers, and a little eye shadow.

Or maybe there is just an element of legendary comic artist Jack Kirby here. After all, the man created a naked silver dude on a cosmic surfboard to serve as the maître d’ for Galactus, a world-eating giant with a fondness for dramatically-angled headgear.

I could imagine this is what his Female Furies (an elite squad of interdimensional bad-girl assassins) might look like after they take a Boom Tube into the mall for a day of shopping and mayhem, with stops at Sports Authority, Hot Topic, Sephora, and the Hall of Justice.

The model who comes off the best is Franco de Marco. A queer trans activist, de Marco’s sly half-smirk lets you know that he is hip to the silliness of the costuming and to all the posturing that goes with it. Yeah, he seems to be saying, I am wearing a leather cage as a choker. And upside-down wings. Deal with it.

Maybe that unrelenting sex-as-glam perspective is part of the problem. The campaign comes with a fabulous visual pedigree: it was styled by fashion designer (and former Project Runway contestant) Jack Mackenroth and shot by A-list gay photographer Mike Ruiz. Yet, if these glammed-up figures are meant to represent friends, co-workers, partners, and/or family members (which is what the website claims), then we just might live and breathe fairly different circles.

While the campaign is careful to avoid stigmatizing people living with HIV/AIDS, it still relies on a certain kind of body for its messaging. The models, while diverse, are all male or male-identified. Everyone looks buff, cut, and well-scrubbed, as if a sexy body were just a side effect of the treatment. Does the campaign really reflect those people who may need or benefit from PrEP the most… or does it just glamorize a certain kind of masculinity?

A large part of the problem is the confusion over what those costumes are meant to do.  It’s tough to pinpoint the program’s exact position on PrEP amidst all that body paint.  It’s also not clear what the costumes are meant to show about the models or their individual experiences on PrEP.

For novelist Michael Chabon, the superhero costume should be a kind of “magic screen” which reveals as much as it conceals. He writes, as he contemplates the fashions worn by iconic figures like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man:

Superheroism is a kind of transvestitism; our superdrag serves to obscure the exterior self that no longer defines us while betraying, with half-unconscious panache, the story of the truth we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation.

To just go through the motions—black leather, make up and feathers, capes—is to risk indulging in cosplay, he might say. Sex positive, we might nod in agreement, but not really sexy.

But my eyes are drawn again to Franco de Marco, and to the thin scars that limn the muscles of his chest.  The story of the truth we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation.  There is a wonderful story of sexual heroism that this body could tell…but it’s tough to hear it through all that superdrag.

Click here to read the next installment: Is a #PrEPHero just a more fabulous form of a #TruvadaWhore?

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