I don’t usually bother with the Oscars, but this Sunday I’ll be on my sofa, snacks in hand, watching the 86th annual Academy Awards in real time. I’m forgoing my usual highlight reel approach to pop culture news because Dallas Buyers Club is up for six awards, including best picture, and following this particular film’s dance with Oscar is a matter of professional importance to me.
As a Ph.D. candidate in history at University of California, Irvine, I study the history of patient advocacy in the United States. I focus on AIDS. My work is amorphous by definition: the history of patient advocacy, at least as I see it, includes the history of the body and medicine, the history of gender and sexuality, death and dying studies, and disability studies, to name just a few of the disciplines my work brings together. Ultimately, I’m trying to describe the ways in which people with illnesses and disabilities have defined and defended themselves in the public sphere.
The first trailer for Dallas Buyers Club thrilled me, and I made it my business to catch it during opening week. The film tells the story of homophobic rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof, who, upon receiving a diagnosis of AIDS in 1985, started smuggling unapproved pharmaceuticals into Texas to treat his symptoms—and those of other AIDS patients who joined his “Dallas Buyers Club.” The movie more than lived up to my expectations: It’s artfully made and raises many of the complicated questions of patient identity and politics that my scholarship engages.
However, the film also produced a wide range of responses—including intense criticism—from the folks who bore the brunt of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Many who knew Ron Woodroof say the story gets him wrong, while others question the politics behind choosing to tell the story of a straight white man at all. Glenn Dunks of Junkee, for example, recently characterized the film as “heterosexual white-washing” of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Others take issue with the way transgender women are represented in the film....