NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002) 210-212
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Women Take Care: Gender, Race, and the Culture of AIDS by Katie Hogan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001, 178 pp., $39.95 hardcover, $15.95 paper.
Hogan states, "Epidemics offer opportunities for the solidification of social hierarchies" (9). Literary, film, and television images have firmly fixed the roles expected of women in the face of illness into U.S. culture. The classic stereotypes of good girl, bad girl, Jezebel, Mammie, slut, virgin, and holy mother take on new significance in the era of AIDS. In [End Page 210] the movies, an ordinary woman can become a saint and a bad woman can be redeemed if she sacrifices herself for the care of the sick.
This book was written in response to family tragedy—the illness and death of the author's sister and brother-in-law from AIDS. AIDS imposed a script on the women in her family. Her sister felt shame in the face of the diagnosis, her response to her husband's hidden sexual relationships with men, and she fought to attain a positive image—that of innocent victim and devoted mother—by hiding the true origins of the family's illness and molding a better-than-life public identity. Hogan refused to follow her script—drop out of graduate school and become a care giver. Instead, she wrote this book.
Hogan links films of the 1990s, old films such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jezebel, and Little Women, novels from throughout U.S. history, and public figures such as Kimberly Bergalis (a woman who apparently was infected with HIV during a dental visit), Elizabeth Glaser (a woman with HIV who spoke at the 1992 Democratic National Convention), and Mary Fisher (a woman with HIV who spoke at the 1992 Republican National Convention) in analyzing depictions of women's roles in an epidemic. The roles expected of women during the HIV/AIDS crisis seem little different from those imposed on women during yellow fever epidemics in the 1700s or "consumption" outbreaks in the 1800s.
As a sociologist and women's studies scholar, I believe in interdisciplinary work but feel skeptical of those who attempt to cross disciplines and delve into areas where they have no prior training. Despite my intellectual commitment to the interdisciplinary, my main questions as I began reading the book were, "Why does a literature professor think she can analyze social patterns? Where is her data?" The book challenged me to accept the legitimacy of narrative analysis. From a social science perspective, the work can be seen as a deep qualitative content analysis of literature and media. As the logic and evidence unfolded, I lost my skepticism. As in all forms of analysis, questions remain. I would like to see a systematic sample of films and novels taken from a defined population as evidence that those discussed are representative. In her defense, Hogan analyzes a broad array of cultural products. The rigid gender roles with which Hogan links them seem clear.
I expected more discussion of different types of caring. Hogan seems to say that all care giving by women is self-destructive. The possibility of freely given loving care is never discussed. Sacrificing oneself is not solely a feminine role. The sacrifices of men, such as firefighters on September 11, 2001, are equally romanticized when they support gender roles. Men may also find redemption and become saints through gender-appropriate sacrifice.
This unique work ties personal experiences with patterns embedded in society through our cultural products' repeated presentation, whether in [End Page 211] print, on the Hollywood screen, or on television news. Hogan addresses the portrayal of Latinas, African American women, and lesbians in relation to HIV/AIDS. A chapter on black feminist narratives is particularly insightful. Women Taking Care will be of interest to feminist scholars not only in Women's Studies but also in literature, communication, and social sciences. It could be used in courses such as Gender and Society, Introduction to Women's Studies, Psychology of Women, and Women's Health...