Theme of Stigma in the Movie Philadelphia

Essay on the theme of stigma in the movie Philadelphia

Philadelphia (1993) was an American motion picture released in 1993 which was directed by Jonathan Demme. The movie provides the backdrop to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United states of America (USA) circa 1993. Movie opens with a competent and promising attorney Andrew Beckett, who gets terminated by his employer under a pretence of ‘work related incompetency’, which Andrew considers as a wrongful one and considers the termination to be a result of the homophobic and stigmatising mentality of the law firm’s board. This essay examines the stigma associated with sexual orientation and health conditions such as HIV, which has afflicted the protagonist of the movie. While examining the thematic contents and the protagonist’s introspective narratives in the movie, it will be parallelly examined through the lens of the sociological theories like Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma (1963); review of Goffman’s theory by Carnevale (2007) and several other qualitative studies.

There have been some changes in the public’s attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) when compared to early 1990s. In early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Australia; the social conservative and religious fundamentalists demonised the gay cohort by accusing that illicit drugs use, and sexual nonconformity led to the emergence of the HIV epidemic (Robinson & Gelden 2014).  In a qualitative study done by Robinson and Gelden (2014) among two generations of 56 gay men in Australian, three themes emerged; such as self-regard, sexual self, and self and others. With regard to one of the themes “self and others” and its relevance to the character, Andrew Beckett, who was wrongfully terminated and was determined to fight against the injustice and while doing so, he got support from his partner, his other homosexual friends and most importantly his family; which created a “protective capsule” for him. Goffman (1963) argues that families can create such protective capsule in home, where a child can feel that they are no-less than a normal family member. Participants of the Robinson and Gelden’s (2014) qualitative study mentions that, they found support from the members of the gay society and liberal community amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic; which they believed invigorated the gay communities.

The protagonist, Andrew Beckett is a homosexual male, but he has closeted himself from this identity and does not want its shadow to cast over his professional life, until a board member notices a lesion (a Kaposi Sarcoma, KS- lesion) on his forehead, which is a visible symptom which appears as the HIV progresses. In the analysis of a qualitative studies related to HIV/AIDS and stigma by Chambers et al., (2015), they have identified

visible health

as one of the dimensions of HIV related stigma, where the visible symptoms of HIV seropositivity is seen among the survivors. According to the qualitative study by Brener, Callander, Slavin & de Wit (2013); they conclude that having visible symptoms, often appears to make PLHA more vulnerable to perceiving stigma and evoking the feeling of shame, rejection, awkwardness and blame. Theoretically, Goffman (1963) uses the term

‘discreditable’ and ‘discredited’

to define these attributes, according to him, discreditable are those person who possess a stigmatising characteristics; but had not yet been discredited because such discrediting attributes has not yet been revealed, however, to Andrew, KS lesion in his forehead made him vulnerable and exposed, as he could be discredited due to a visible symptoms of the illness and discreditation could mean getting marginalised and socially judged by his surrounding world.

In another qualitative study of Social meaning of HIV/AIDS by Judgeo & Moalusi (2014); one of the theme was

‘to tell or not to tell’

, where his participants were shrouded with dilemma on whether to reveal or conceal their HIV status as there could be an ominous implication and repercussions arising from two serious issues, first, it would be about managing the information about one’s own failing and the second would be on managing the tension when making social contacts. Their findings showed that the coping mechanism used by some ‘discreditable’ individuals included non-disclosure; while those who are discredited asserted that they have a fundamental right to be treated with human dignity and respect as any other individual. When Andrew’s illness is revealed and gets terminated; he comes to a conclusion that he was terminated under a false pretence and thus files a law suit to remedy it, this was his way of asserting that he has a fundamental right to be treated with respect and dignity like any other colleague.

Since the beginning of HIV/AIDS epidemic; gay people with/without HIV/AIDS were cornered and stigmatised. Initially termed as acquired immunodeficiency disease, it soon was colloquially termed as Gay related immunodeficiency disease (GRID) (Altman, 1982), even though many other affected were heterosexual people. Susan Sontag (1978) in her seminal book ‘Illness as Metaphor’ writes that giving meaning to a disease is punitive, a measure which is unparalleled to anything. Similar social backlash was evoked against the PLHA (especially homosexuals), who were already a minority and a vulnerable group and tagging them with HIV/AIDS, further alienated them. To protect oneself and one’s ego from such punitive and scrutinising measures concocted by the society, the ‘discreditable’ individual/s often resorts to a self-protecting tactics, which Goffman terms as


, he argues that person who has stigmatic quality controls the information or even manipulates them, so that they can fully or partly ‘pass’ as a normal individual, as being normal is often rewarding, while doing this, they often resort to living a double life. Andrew does the same, when Walter inquiries about the lesion in his forehead, Andrew immediately lies and says that he was ‘whacked in the head by a racket ball’; Andrew takes help of his friend to mask his lesions with different cosmetic foundations and his friends also happened to be sexual minorities. Andrew’s public life is portrayed as a meticulous, successful lawyer who recently got promoted as a senior associate, he is trusted by his bosses and these bosses represents the cultural elite of the USA, educated, white and heterosexual, but Andrew finds sanctuary and support amongst his friends as they share the same stigma and according to Goffman (1963), these close and trusted circle can provide instruction on ‘tricks of the trade’ as being a discredited/


person themselves; they can help in finding a way to navigate through the society; this circle of trust is a only social sphere where they can feel ‘normal’; or friends with whom to commiserate. Andrew also adapts using some


for example, he smiles at the sexist and homophobic remarks/jokes made by Charles at the spa. According to Goffman (1963); obtrusiveness of the stigmatic qualities is often reduced by using these ‘


’. In a qualitative study by Daftary (2012); among people living with both HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis (TB), he found that PLHA-TB resorted to “passing” to hide their HIV/AIDS symptoms by aligning themselves to the more socially acceptable TB only identity; while dissociating themselves from the much more stigmatised PLHA status; this strategy can also be viewed as the use of ‘disidentifiers’.

After refusal by 9 different lawyers to represent his case in the court; Andrew visits Joe Miller, who is a homophobic and is initially anxious of contracting HIV. Miller refuses to represent him saying that he does not have a strong case. The same evening, he expresses his homophobic intents and thoughts to his wife. Miller later accepts to represent Andrew’s case; when he sees him being discriminated by the librarian. Though Andrew doesn’t experience stigma from Miller after he starts working in his case, but many people under similar circumstances do. Goffman (1963) calls this a

courtesy stigma


now popularly known as ‘stigma of association’ (Ostman & Kjellin, 2002; Reeder & Pryor, 2008) where a person do not have stigmatising attributes themselves, but are associated with the people who have such attributes and might feel that their association with stigmatised person might bring shame on to them. A qualitative study involving nursing students (n=20) in an Australian Institution by Pickles, King and de Lacey (2017) identified three major themes which emerged from their study such as

othering, blame and values

, not majority but substantial participants (n=6) had a perception of PLHA as promiscuous, homosexual and a ‘bad person’ and these negative attitudes were thought to be underscored by their cultural belief and construction of othering where someone is perceived as having different attributes and is liable to socially ostracise them and blaming them for bringing the ‘disease on themselves’.

Pryor and Reeder (2011) mentions institutional stigma as one of the manifestations of stigma. Institution relates to the Government agencies or other organisation which has its own /rules/regulations. Often these institutions enforce laws which could put a group or division of people into a disadvantaged situation. In the movie; the law firm is an institution, whose board terminated Andrew under a false pretence, with the covert reason being his sexual orientation and their knowledge of his HIV/AIDS status. Eight themes emerged from the qualitative study conducted by Nadal et al., (2011) in USA among sexual minority youths. One of the themes that emerged was, endorsing of heteronormative behaviour and culture in the workplace; participants reported that they were expected to act as heterosexuals and were often not treated positively in the workplace, public circles, family gatherings and experienced lot of subtle aggression or microagression. This study was done almost 18 years after the release of Philadelphia, but still; many forms of stigma exists in the workplace and society for the sexual minorities. In another qualitative study by Grossman et al., (2009) done among LGHBT youths in their school; they also came up with several themes, the most important being, the

absence of goodness of fit

between them and the school; the school as an institution helped very rarely to cater their needs and address the issues like homophobia, heterosexism, transphobia and biphobia which according to them were rampant in both the society they lived in and in school, which were supposed to be a sanctuary and a place for learning to them.

Characteristics of the protagonist:

Andrew was very ambitious; meticulous and career-oriented lawyer; he was very focused on winning the case for the Charles Wheeler law firm; but when he got terminated under false pretences; he got determined to sue them for the wrongdoing, but he did not sit back; giving up his life and watching the un-justice being done. As discussed earlier; he had a supportive family; Andrew’s mother once says

“I didn’t raise my kids to sit in the back of bus”

; we can presume that he grew up in a family where he grew normally and without any prejudice; as opposed to the young participants from the Grossman et al., (2009) study. We can also presume that Andrew had a secure attachment with his care giver/s. According to Bosmans and Kerns (2015) when a child is securely attached; they can use the relationship with their caregiver as a secure base and safe haven at the times of distress. The child develops the cognitive pattern of the primary caregiver as loving and nurturing and views oneself as worthy of love. Despite all the adversities and stigma in Andrew’s life, he was resilient to it and determined to fight against the injustice done to him by the institution. He never took himself to be any different and/or less capable than the normal heterosexual people. When nine other attorneys and Joe Miller refused to represent his case in the court; he went to the library to refer to the legal treatise, so as to prepare to represent himself, doing which would require a deep credence in oneself.


Stigma has different types and is manifested differently in different epoch of times. Nurses have a unique role to play in medical and community settings to identify and put an end to all types of stigma and microaggression against the people who are of gender/ethnic minorities and those who have illnesses or attributes for which they are stigmatised.


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