To open the fall season,
Viewpoints features Negative Bunny (1994), a video by Nayland Blake (U.S., born 1960) that engages questions of intimacy and fear within the cultural and social context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In this video, Blake—from off-screen—gives voice to a stuffed bunny that repeatedly declares his negative status in hopes of sexual affection. The incessant cajoling, at first humorous, ultimately evokes the emptiness of rejection and unfulfilled desire.
This presentation includes commentary by Christine Harold, Associate Professor, Department of Communications; Jane Simoni, Professor, Department of Psychology; and R. Scott McClelland, Professor, Departments of Medicine, Epidemiology, and Global Health and Associate Director, Center for AIDS Research International Core.
-Christine Harold, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Communication
In the classic children's story The Velveteen Rabbit, a sick boy's cherished plaything is discarded after the boy's doctor deems it a "mass of germs" that must be "burned at once!" The risk of infection separates the Velveteen Rabbit from the boy and threatens his chance at being loved, which the rabbit learns is the path to becoming "really real."
Similar to the Velveteen Rabbit, the Negative Bunny of Nayland Blake's video also has a desire to be loved that is thwarted by the specter of infection. Throughout the video, Negative Bunny, voiced in Blake's incessant whine, attempts to convince his partner thathe is HIV-negative and that physical intimacy is safe. His persuasive strategy includes an arsenal of pop psychology clichés: "Face your demons. . . . Fear eats the soul. . . . It's like a fire walk. . . . You should follow your bliss." Ultimately, such positive-thinking platitudes prove useless in assuaging his partner's apparent doubt. Increasingly infuriated, Negative Bunny resorts to outright begging: "C'mon! C'mon! Just let me!" We see him as negative indeed, but not necessarily in the way he intends, as his own fears—of infection, of solitude—drive him to a darker mode of influence. His tone vacillates between desperation and repudiation: "You're like that death star in Star Wars and you're sucking the energy right outta me!" The unrelenting cajoling exhibits an abject worry of contagion, of being unlovable and, ultimately, of "vanish[ing] from the face of the earth."
Blake's video is exasperating by design. Negative Bunny's unrequited desire and unconvincing pleas for love evoke the utter futility of negotiating with the all-too-real menace of AIDS.
-R. Scott McClelland, MD, MPH, Professor, Departments of Medicine, Epidemiology, and Global Health; and Associate Director, University of Washington Center for AIDS Research International Core
Nayland Blake's Negative Bunny (1994) provides a window to an earlier era in the AIDS epidemic when being "negative" was a central part of some people's sexual identity. In the early 1990s, a positive test for HIV foreshadowed inexorable decline toward illness and premature death. Because HIV can be passed from person to person by sex, stigma and fear of HIV-positive people was intense. In this context, being "negative" carried significant weight in sexual interactions. Here, Negative Bunny is determined to leverage this label, as he tries to persuade someone to have sex with him, insisting, "I'm really, really, negative!"
Viewing this video in 2015, it is interesting to consider how advances in HIV treatment and prevention have influenced sexual identities. Confirming HIV status in 1994 required an experienced laboratory and took days;Negative Bunny lies about getting tested just two to three hours ago. Today, rapid HIV testing yields results within minutes, and can be performed anywhere. Treatment of HIV with a single pill once a day can transform the infection to a chronic, manageable health condition. Effective treatment of people living with HIV also makes it very unlikely that the infection will be passed to other people. Anti-HIV medicines taken by people who are HIV-negative can greatly reduce their risk of becoming infected. With this expanded set of effective treatment and prevention strategies, the lines that separated "negative" from "positive" as sexual identities in 1994 are less distinct today. These developments are undoubtedly shifting the dynamics of intimate relationships and sexual encounters, particularly in the communities most impacted by HIV.
-Jane M. Simoni, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Psychology
Fear—especially fear of death—is universal but we all respond differently in the face of it. We may become paralyzed into inaction, act decisively in anger or self-protection, or simply deny its very existence. Denial is easier when the source of our fear is ambiguous, when we are not certain how dangerous it really is. Denial, then, can protect us psychologically but is ultimately a risky option.
In the 1980s, HIV fomented formidable fear and doubt. The new affliction was stigmatizing, disfiguring, and life-threatening. There was no diagnostic test and no one was certain how it was spread. Driven by anxiety and fueled by homophobia, the public response approached hysteria. There were calls for quarantines and discriminatory legislation. Bumper stickers declared: "AIDS kills fags." But fear can have a galvanizing impact, as well. Grassroots groups rallied and organized mass protests aimed at increasing visibility and support, and lobbied for federal funding for research and expedited drug approval.
Gay men have been forced to face their fears and doubts about HIV in the more intimate arena of their sexual lives, as illustrated in Nayland Blake's video. Negative Bunny pleads with his potential partner to have sex with him, assuring him he's HIV-negative—"really, really negative" —because he was tested just two months ago, just two to three days ago, just a few hours ago. So really, he has to be negative— really, really. The incessant entreaty has the paradoxical effect of instilling more doubt. Is it really safe? How can I know? Do I deny the risk of death and disease, and assent? Or deny my desires, capitulating to the fear?
Fear. Doubt. Death. Pleasure. Intimacy. Denial. In the periodic silences in the video, Blake invites us— implores us—to face our fears, confronting existential choices in contexts well beyond the specter of AIDS.