The Real Problem with Hollywood's Depiction of Herpes
A brief history of unfunny and inaccurate representations of herpes—a virus that the majority of the population lives with.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Whether the virus is being compared to glitter by Demetri Martin because it "doesn't go away" or called the only thing that doesn't stay in Vegas in The Hangover, herpes jokes are everywhere. For people living with the virus, these comments can reinforce damaging stigma.
Despite what the shame-based narrative in movies and television might lead one to believe about herpes, the majority of people have it. A study by the World Health Organization found that two out of three people worldwide have herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six people have genital herpes (HSV-2). The stigma surrounding herpes is often much worse than the symptoms of the virus itself, which are usually limited to occasionally recurring sores on the mouth, genitals, or anus that go away on their own or treated with medication. While some people experience nerve pain, numbness, or tingling in the genitals, many people with the virus show no symptoms at all and some may never have another outbreak after their initial one.
Even as research reveals how common herpes is, not much has changed about the discourse surrounding the STI over the last few centuries. One of the earliest references to herpes came from William Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, he wrote of the spread of oral herpes: "O'er ladies lips, who straight on kisses dream, which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues, because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are." Though it wasn't until 1893 that French scientist Emile Vidal showed that the virus was transmitted from person to person, as the Bard suspected. Shakespeare describes the herpes blisters as "plagues" and the person who has them as "tainted" (poking a hole in the theory that herpes stigma was created by antiviral drug companies in early 1980s).
Since Shakespeare's time, this narrative has moved from the stage to the screen. When Stewie and Brian get herpes on Family Guy, they not only make tasteless jokes true to the show's fashion, but depict Brian transmitting the virus through his blood. This is inaccurate; HSV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact and plots like this only serve to further the misinformation that already abounds regarding the virus.
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While on a Hunger Games press tour, Jennifer Lawrence joked that she and her co-stars had all gotten herpes, then added, "Sorry, herpes is not a joke, it's a disease that ravages the world"—a dramatic statement for a virus that mostly results in occasional blisters. And in Pitch Perfect, Rebel Wilson's character comforts Brittany Snow's about her vocal nodules by saying, "at least it's not herpes," implying that herpes is the worst thing she could have.
Even on supposedly progressive shows, herpes is the butt of the joke. John Oliver compared herpes to terrorism on the grounds that it's "impossible to get rid of." The protagonist on The Mindy Project, who's an OB-GYN herself, told a group of teens in a fear-mongering sex talk, "You're obsessed with forever... It's probably why you love those vampire movies. I'll tell you what's forever: herpes." And the "joke" on Bob's Burgers is that getting herpes would be worse than getting killed, conveying to the millions of people living with the virus that they're better off dead.
Aside from negatively impacting how people with herpes feel about themselves, this shame and stigma make people with herpes less likely to disclose their HSV+ status to partners, putting more people at risk for contracting it. In that way, negative representations of herpes can affect people's physical health as well as their mental health.
Some shows are making progress, though it's slow. When Michael gets a cold sore on The Office, it's awkward in the way The Office always is, but there are no jokes at Michael's expense, aside from his own overreaction—something typical of the character. On Broad City, when Ilana's former fuck buddy asks her if she's calling about the herpes he potentially gave her, she simply responds, "no" and moves on.
Even better is the new show Strangers that's streaming on Facebook. In the first episode, the main character, Isobel, is researching whether or not she has herpes. The show worked medical information about the virus into the script, mentioning that many people who have HSV are asymptomatic. It's one of the few shows to tackle the virus with facts instead of sensationalist misinformation.
Still, representations of HSV+ people navigating relationships, dealing with stigma, and discussing STIs with their partners are scarce. If such depictions became more widespread, they could go a long way toward combatting popular notions of herpes as funny at best and catastrophic at worst. Doctors and medical providers today understand that HSV is a common virus that most of the population carries; it's time for our culture to catch up.