Last wednesday, I decided to pick up the first issue of the new Bendis series "Powers Bureau" despite some reservations. While I enjoy his work on other titles (I'm digging the overhaul of the X-Books) Powers has been kind of a one-trick-pony for me... but I like Deena Pilgrim as a character, so it was that I found myself reading it later that evening.
The story is pretty much what I've come to expect from Powers/Bendis: frequent cussing, some violence mixed in, and the almost-obligatory "shock" moment... which in this issue came in the form of Pilgrim busting in on the bad guy mid-wank, and in the ensuing struggle getting (to use Bendis' term) "jizz" on her arm.
Now, I could really not care less about this (my Inner Twelve Year Old isn't a prude), and I wasn't bothered by how the characters now have to be tested for the "Powers virus," but a conversation that happens on the following page brought me up short.
Enki Sunrise says to Deena "But you're clean? The doctor said you're ok?"
And there we have it. "Clean." As in meaning "not infected" by the Powers virus, which is an obvious HIV stand-in.
One would hope that in this more informed day and age, we would have moved beyond this Eighties type of thinking. This type of thinking that dehumanizes those living with HIV or any other communicable illness, by labeling them "unclean." Because, let's not beat around the semantic bush, that's exactly what using the term "clean" does by using it to describe someone who is disease-free. That is the automatic juxtaposition, regardless of whether it is acknowledged or not.
Now, do I think this was Bendis' intent? Of course not. We have only to look at our own community, where "Clean, UB2" is a common sight on "dating" site profiles, to see how carelessly, and how often, the term is used. I'm sure, like the majority of the profile-creators mentioned, Bendis didn't set out with the purpose of labeling a section of the population "unclean", of drawing those parallels... but it's the unintended side-effect. A continuation of a stigmatization that harms many.
I don't think that Bendis owes anyone an apology, I don't think there needs to be an outcry of "You big bald meanie", I DO think it's an excellent chance for education on his part, though. THINK before you speak/type/etc. Words do matter.
We're striving towards dealing with this disease once and for all, but that can't happen for real until we move beyond how many people currently think about it, how our culture addresses it... and that starts with small steps, like paying attention to how we speak about it.