Twenty years ago, basketball hall-of-famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson made a stunning announcement. On November 7, 1991, the Los Angeles Lakers legend told the world that he was HIV-positive and would be retiring from the National Basketball Association. His announcement rocked the sports world. Fans and detractors alike were shocked that such a popular, hyper-masculinized athlete could contract what had previously been seen as disease solely for the extremely deviant – the gays and the drug addicts – not for a heterosexual superstar. With his status, Magic Johnson shed new light on what it meant to be HIV-positive. While his story brought new attention to the disease, the media used his situation to perpetuate heterosexist and misogynistic ideals. Johnson’s own language after his announcement helped maintain his position as a hyper-masculine and hyper-heterosexual African American athlete. Subsequently, in the many articles that were written about him, these ideals persisted. Johnson’s situation was undoubtedly unique, but because of what he symbolized in popular culture, he was never demonized, but rather victimized and forgiven for his heterosexual promiscuity.
In 1991, setting the record “straight” about Magic Johnson and HIV became the hot-button issue. In the months following his announcement, over 100 articles were written about Johnson, and more specifically, how he contracted and was dealing with the disease. Samantha King points out in “The Politics of the Body and the Body Politic: Magic Johnson and the Ideology of AIDS” that the media has the capacity to shape public opinion about issues. “The role of the mass media in shaping public perception or ‘reality’ has been widely documented … The media work in the same way to reproduce our bodies and the meanings attached to them” (King 260). In this case, the media worked to reproduce “the construction of Johnson as a larger-than-life sporting hero” (King 260). Understandably, the media did not demonize Johnson for contracting a disease that was impacting an increasing number of African Americans. Instead, they painted the picture of Johnson as a family man who had gone astray, tempted into “promiscuous heterosexual sex” with NBA groupies. Countless accounts boasted that Johnson would set the record straight – both in telling the truth and continuing to depict himself as a hyper-heterosexual hero. Jet magazine, citing interviews by Connie Chung and Sports Illustrated, uses this language to build up a very specific side of Johnson’s story. The opening of the article is a prime example. “Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson wants to set the record straight. He is not getting sick, and he’s not afraid, and his life with his wife Cookie goes on, even with sex, but he stresses that it is protected sex” (“Magic Johnson Reveals That Despite HIV Virus, He and His Wife Still Hug, Kiss and Have Sex” 46). That passage truly says it all. Magic Johnson was a shining symbol of living with HIV. The strength he showed on the court against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics was the same strength he used to fight HIV. On the other side of the coin, Johnson was also the ideal image of heteronormativity. His marriage to his pregnant, college sweetheart wife Cookie was still intact. She and their unborn baby were not HIV-positive, and most importantly, Cookie and Magic could still have protected, “heterosexual sex.” The language of Johnson within the media not only kept his status “straight,” but also created a new image of HIV.
While Johnson’s case showed the American public that heterosexuals could also contract HIV, his situation worked to detract from the deeper issues at hand. King says that Johnson’s announcement was meant to “tell all” and set the record straight, but it also “served to disguise the reality of HIV further by using a powerful figure to convey specific, narrowly defined images of AIDS and HIV.” Because Johnson was (re)constructed as not just someone with HIV, but a sports hero with HIV, the dominant discourses served to reinforce the ideas of homophobia and misogyny that shaped the messages surrounding AIDS during that era and the prevailing image of male sports stars (King 259). Once again, we see how the media impact our reality. In “‘Disciplining the Body’: HIV-Positive Male Athletes, Media Surveillance, and the Policing of Sexuality,” Dworkin and Wachs apply Rubin’s idea of sexual hierarchies to Johnson’s situation. “Good sex is viewed as heterosexual, monogamous, and reproductive; while bad sex includes such qualities as ‘homosexual sex,’ fetishes, promiscuity, and casual sex. Rubin notes a ‘middle ground’ which is the site of major contestation and includes unmarried heterosexuals, promiscuous heterosexuals, and stable, long-term relationships between gays and lesbians” (Dworkin and Wachs 4). In this case, Johnson was on a shaky middle ground, participating in promiscuous, casual sex. However, he was slightly redeemed by the fact that it was at least heterosexual promiscuity. The media’s constant reminders of his pregnant wife further redeemed his situation. “The heterosexual, monogamous body is normalized, while non-monogamous heterosexuals are labeled as deviant but redeemable through abstinence and/or by returning to the confines of heterosexual monogamy” (Dworkin and Wachs 12). This idea suggests promiscuous sex itself (gay sex is also immediately tied to promiscuity) is risky and is connected to HIV. However, the articles on how Johnson’s promiscuous lifestyle focused more on the quantity than the actual behaviors that got him there. “More accurate information about AIDS/HIV transmission and human sexuality could be conveyed through the mass media if AIDS/HIV were associated with particular acts rather than particular fixed identities” (Dworkin and Wachs 12). Johnson did not contract HIV just from being promiscuous, but rather, by having unprotected sex. Gay men didn’t contract the disease simply because they were gay, but rather, because they were having unprotected sex with infected men. “There is nothing surprising about homophobia and the reassertion of male power operating in tandem – they always have. Both are defenses of the dominant form of heterosexual masculinity enshrined in marriage, a masculinity that oppresses women and gay men alike” (King 265). With this, Johnson became the forgivable victim, while the women involved became the predators responsible for infecting the sports hero.
Johnson set the record straight by explaining how he became HIV-positive, but the media also used this as an opportunity to demonize the women involved. As we saw earlier with the hierarchies of sex, Johnson was forgiven because he redeemed himself with his monogamous relationship with his wife. However, the women who came before her did not have the same luxury, although they faced the same risk. Johnson’s superstar status put him on a sexual pedestal. “Johnson admits that the women he had sex with comprise a large number. He said in an interview in Sports Illustrated that he did his best ‘to accommodate as many women as I could, most of them through unprotected sex.’” (“Magic Johnson” 48). Johnson received some flak for that statement, and later attempted to rephrase his words, regardless of how true his comments might have been. Once again, Johnson was redeemed by also pointing out, “‘But you know, I respect women to the utmost, and everybody that I’ve dated can tell you that’” (“Magic Johnson” 49). Sure he had lots of unprotected sex, but he was still a good boyfriend. Beyond that, Johnson was just doing what any man in his position would have done. “Often, male sports stars are excused from wrongdoing by the term boys will be boys and are valorized for their sexual conquests of women. Ironically, the media often frame these events so as to privilege and protect ‘excessive’ male heterosexual activity through the classification of women as the aggressors, the ‘problem,’ or the temptation upon which any ‘normal’ man would act” (Dworkin and Wachs 2). Given this idea, Johnson was just making lemons out of lemonade and couldn’t be to blame for his promiscuous ways. King points out that while only 2.2% of HIV cases were thought to have resulted from transmission from women to men, blame had to be placed upon one of Johnson’s sexual partners. “The blame (for blame must be placed in AIDS discourse) is therefore displaced onto the bodies of a readily available ‘other.’ Because groupies are categorized as prostitutes and therefore as evil carriers of HIV, it is ‘obvious’ that they infected Johnson, the innocent recipient” (King 266). In Johnson’s case, the discourse on male and female also became one of good and evil.
After it had been established that Johnson had become HIV-positive through “heterosexual sex,” the women involved with him became the problem rather than possible victims. Dworkin and Wachs explain that instead of questioning Johnson’s heterosexuality, the media used the situation to reaffirm his desirability to women. “Magic Johnson’s unprotected sexual activity is not problematized as his ‘responsibility’ or his ‘risk,’ but rather, is blamed on female groupies. As McKay (1993) argues, the media privileges and protects virile male heterosexuality in sport while making consistent references to aggressive women who wait for the athletes” (Dworkin and Wachs 7). Here we see the “boys will be boys” attitude. Johnson was an innocent athlete who was sexually desirable, but it was the women who actively pursued him. Women within AIDS discourse have very limited categories into which they must fit. “Women are portrayed as either nurturers and mothers or as seductresses and prostitutes, the former good and natural, the latter bad and unnatural; these images serve only to limit the autonomy of women. The good women are those who care for the HIV positive, the faithful wives of infected husbands … The bad women are those seen as actively evil transmitters (prostitutes or stereotypically loose women) of disease to men” (King 266). Once again, we see a hierarchy. Cookie was good for being married to Johnson and for taking care of him while he bravely faced the disease, while the “groupies” were bad for preying on Johnson and being promiscuous. In Dworkin and Wachs’ analysis of 100 articles written on Johnson in the months following his announcement, they only found three articles mentioning the risks he posed to the women he slept with (Dworkin and Wachs 9). Jet was one of these articles, but while it mentioned that Johnson had contacted former partners and encouraged them to get tested, it also mentioned that Johnson and his camp were doing so in an attempt to discover who infected him. Johnson’s hypersexual status remained to his benefit until he became HIV-positive. Despite the fact that sex is a two-way street, the focus of risk and blame was placed less on Johnson and more on the “predatory” ways of female groupies.
Johnson’s situation placed the blame on women and also detracted from gay men with the disease. Dworkin and Wachs say that Johnson was lauded for showing the public that AIDS was not restricted to gays and could be transmitted through “heterosexual sex” (though the media never felt the need to explain what that means since the identity is meant to explain the act). “Once we learn that he contracted HIV/AIDS through ‘heterosexual sex,’ articles report ‘shock’ and ‘surprise’ and repeatedly use exclamations such as: ‘startling,’ ‘totally mind blowing,’ ‘seems ridiculous,’ and ‘stunning’” (Dworkin and Wachs 6). While during the early 1990s it is still reasonable shock occurred that a heterosexual man could become HIV-positive, it nonetheless reinforced the idea that it was only “natural” for gay men to get the disease. Dworkin and Wachs found 100 articles about Magic Johnson after he announced he was HIV-positive, but they found something much different for gay diver Greg Louganis. Only six articles were written about his announcement. While it says something about the differences in popularity of their respective sports, it says something greater about the weight the media placed on sexuality. No one in the media questioned his contraction of the disease because in mainstream groupthink, the terms gay, promiscuous and risky behaviors go hand in hand. In Johnson’s story, the focus was placed on his sports-induced sexual appetite and his redemption through his marriage to his HIV-negative wife. Nowhere in any of the six articles on Louganis was there any mention of his long-time partner, or of the fact that said partner was abusive and cheated on him multiple times (Dworkin and Wachs 9). Simply because of his “sexual orientation,” Louganis was understandably associated with HIV. In the hierarchy of sexuality and sport, Johnson was the surprising and redeemable counter to Louganis.
Twenty years after his announcement, Magic Johnson is still alive and lauded. He is known more for his basketball heroism and charitable work than his HIV-positive status. While he brought a new face to the discourse on HIV/AIDS, his story easily fits into a heterosexist and misogynistic thinking. His promiscuity but eventual return to heteronormative monogamy led to his quick redemption and the villainization of the “groupies” he put at risk. In setting the record “straight,” the media persisted in the thought that it was unsurprising for a gay man to become HIV-positive. Johnson’s situation is less a story of the change in AIDS discourse, but rather, a story of the perpetuation of masculine dominance.
Dworkin, Shari Lee, and Faye Linda Wachs. “‘Disciplining the Body’: HIV-Positive Male Athletes, Media Surveillance, and the Policing of Sexuality.” Sociology of Sport Journal 15 (1998): 1-20. Print.
King, Samantha. “The Politics of the Body and the Body Politic: Magic Johnson and the
Ideology of AIDS.” Contemporary Issues in Sociology of Sport. Ed. Andrew Yiannakis and Merrill J. Melnick. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. 2001. 259-68. Print.
“Magic Johnson Reveals That Despite HIV Virus, He and His Wife Still Hug, Kiss and Have Sex.” Jet 10 Dec. 1991: 46-49. Web.