- Miss HIV and Us:Beauty Queens Against the HIV/AIDS Pandemic
AIDS policy is too important to be left in the hands of technocrats.—Nicoli Nattrass
We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know.—Percy Bysshe Shelley
I. The Problem of the Figure
There is an overwhelming amount of published material on the HIV/AIDS crisis over the course of its now three-decade-long history.1 Despite this proliferation, facts have been hard to come by—with powerful political contestations around rates and vectors of infections, prevention and treatment options, and historical causes and epidemiological solutions. A simple example for a statistical difficulty: the numbers for rates of infection in South Africa are mostly extrapolated from the rates of infection in pregnant women [End Page 9] at neonatal clinics across the country (Geffen 2008). This makes sense in that these clinics are the places where most testing has been done. On the other hand, these testing sites may skew rates of infection in that pregnant women definitionally constitute a high-risk group—sexually active and not consistently safe-sex practicing. This fact has led some very responsible people to call for mandatory HIV testing, with ethical questions of confidentiality and consent raising a different set of problems (Cameron 2005). These kinds of statistical difficulties provide ammunition for many sides in the ideological war that has been national HIV/AIDS policy in South Africa—the country with, putatively, the highest number of HIV-positive people in the world today (Gevisser 2009; Fassin 2007; Hoad 2005; AVERT 2009).
The focus of this paper is elsewhere. I am interested in how the pandemic and those most affected by it have been imagined, and particularly how the pandemic has been imagined in terms of embodiment. Many have attempted to give the pandemic a human face, from the innocent child victims—Ryan White in the United States and Nkosi Johnson in South Africa—to the phobic spectacles of the dying and emaciated bodies of first the gay man and then the African AIDS patient, which have circulated widely in local, national, and international media (White and Cunningham 1992; Wooten 2005). The celebrity HIV-positive person offers another face for the pandemic; Magic Johnson (Johnson 1992) and Rock Hudson (Meyer 1991) in very different ways are exemplary for the United States and Fana Khaba (a.k.a. Khabzela) for South Africa (McGregor 2005).
Recent years have seen a welter of documentary and testimonial practices invested in giving the person living with AIDS a face and a voice. Stephanie Nolen's 28 (2007), 28 short biographies of people living with AIDS (PWAs) in Africa, has the representational aspiration that each story will represent a million stories: 28 stories for the estimated 28 million people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, who have HIV. Without a doubt these documentary attempts do powerful cultural work.
In this essay, I am interested in another kind of figurational attempt to bring the sufferers of the pandemic into representation while contesting hegemonic representations of the AIDS sufferer. "Figure" is a tricky word with a proliferation of cognate meanings from drawing to number to feminine [End Page 10] embodiment, among other things. Miss HIV is a figure for me in that she is a complex representation that is required frequently to be both a representation and a representative. I will argue that this figure, differentially embodied in the examples that follow, works as a prosopopoiea of sorts—a speaking in the guise of another. Thus the person with HIV, or the imagining of HIV as a person, as a beauty queen or drag queen, is suggestive of new conditions of suffering, pedagogy, and possibility in the multiply ironized and contested field of representations that constitute how imaginative meaning is made of the pandemic in an era of globalization.
II. Beauty Pageants on the Global Stage
The figure of a Miss HIV relies on the imagined almost universal intelligibility of the beauty pageant in a mode of campy irony in my first case study, in the mode of sincerity in my second, and in the form of a polemic in my third. In the popular parlance of the...