Love and AIDS in the Afternoon

Curator's Note

 In 1995, General Hospital broke ground with its HIV/AIDS storyline centered on 16-year-old Robin Scorpio and her first love, Stone Cates. Robin and Stone had unprotected sex before Stone discovered he had contracted AIDS from a previous relationship. Robin learned she was HIV positive shortly before Stone’s death, a death still considered one of the saddest in daytime. Robin and Stone’s storyline received great praise for contributing to HIV/AIDS education and became one of the genre’s most memorable examples of incorporating social issues into storytelling.

Although the primary goal of a soap opera is to tell stories, using social issues gives soaps the opportunity to educate viewers as well, and the soap’s unique structure allows these stories to play out in real time. The genre can trace its use of social issues back to Agnes Nixon, creator of the recently departed One Life to Life and All My Children. Over the decades, soaps have featured storylines revolving around rape, abortion, cancer, addiction and so many more issues relevant to the everyday lives of women and men. But in the 1995, HIV/AIDS wasn’t relevant to millions of soap viewers until little Robin Scorpio was diagnosed as HIV positive.

Robin’s unique position on the General Hospital canvas made her diagnosis all the more shocking. Not only was she the daughter of a popular supercouple, but viewers had also seen Robin and her portrayer, Kimberly McCullough, age naturally from a child into a teen, a rarity in soaps. As a non-drug using heterosexual white female, Robin fell into a minority demographic of people infected with HIV at the time. However, by making an established character HIV positive, General Hospital brought HIV/AIDS directly into viewers’ homes at a time when misinformation and prejudice was rampant.

Not every socially relevant storyline on soaps is handled as well as Robin and Stone’s was. Soaps do run the risk of misrepresenting issues. Characters with cancer are suddenly pushed to the backburner, or addictions develop and are overcome within a week. These missed opportunities to properly educate viewers can be harmful, but is it more harmful that these opportunities are disappearing as more and more soaps are cancelled? Could the education and awareness that resulted from Robin and Stone’s HIV/AIDS storyline have been possible outside of a daytime soap opera? Can the talk shows replacing soaps have the same educational and emotional impact on daytime viewers?

Comments

Sandy Camargo's picture

Teens and Soaps

 The story of Robin and Stone occurred at a time when GH was very popular with teens and college students, who had been attracted to the soap by the return of Luke and Laura in 1993, so the educational impact of the storyline was particularly important in reaching that demographic. Today that demographic doesn’t watch as much TV. Alexis’s menopause storyline is thus a smart move. Robin’s HIV status was addressed when she and Patrick became sexually active and when she became pregnant with Emma, which were important extensions of that educational function. Unfortunately, the storyline is being reactivated to prepare for Kimberly McCollough’s departure from the soap, so will probably not end well.

Sandy, I was 9 years old when

Sandy, I was 9 years old when this storyline played out, and you’re right, it did have a huge educational impact on me. Nine year olds don’t exactly learn about HIV and AIDS in school, so this was my first in-depth exposure to the issue. A few years later came Elizabeth’s rape storyline, and that was the first time I was educated about rape and sexual assault. I don’t know if soaps’ teen stories have the same impact today, not only because fewer teens watch soaps but also because they’re simply not written as well. A couple years ago, GH wrote a teen abuse storyline focused on the character Kristina, but it fell short when her abuser was killed off prematurely. I agree that soaps should write storylines for the audiences that are actually watching. I understand the desire to attract new, younger viewers, but that’s not going to happen with half-hearted attempts to reach out to them, especially when there are so many other viewing options today.

As far as what’s happening with Robin’s exit story, I’m not really sure where GH is going with it. My fear is that the soap will have her die of AIDS, but Robin has always been a symbol of hope, a positive example of someone living with HIV. It’s a storyline that’s making me very nervous.

 

Karen Petruska's picture

watching Robin and Stone

I was really excited when I saw this clip.  I was a teenager when I watched this storyline unfold, and I remember feeling absolutely devastated by it.  Robin and Stone danced to a song once, and I still think of them when I hear it—so the story stayed with me for years thereafter.

Thinking back, trying to recollect how I felt other than despairing (was her life over?  would she ever have sex again? would anyone else ever love her?), I now think of the storyline a bit differently.  Is it unique that this storyline was in some ways so disconnected from the soap’s usual unstoppable drive toward coupling?  

Of the other social issues you mention above, I’m intrigued by how this issue, in particular, resonated widely beyond Robin and Stone.  Every single person in her life was impacted by her diagnosis—it forced difficult conversations with so many people (as noted by your clip here) and the diagnosis continued to demand those types of conversations throughout her life.  GH also embraced a fight against AIDS on a level that seemed incredible at the time—didn’t they portray a ball every year to raise money for HIV study and treament?  

It seems rather ironic to me that Stone passed the disease to Robin through lovemaking—the soap’s climactic moment for every couple.  Yet the meaning of her HIV status ended up developing much deeper resonance apart from this central sexual act.

Elana Levine's picture

The Nurses' Ball

 Karen, yes, GH held an annual "Nurses’ Ball" that was a talent show to raise money for HIV/AIDS research each year. It’s a great part of the 1990s GH, but one that I believe became too costly to continue.  Soaps still deal with social issues, of course, but all soap storytelling is so rushed these days that it is difficult to give these stories the time to play out as best suits them. 

I’m very anxious about Robin’s exit. Part of me thinks that they dare not make her "death" permanent, in case the show is canceled. I imagine in that case McCullough would be willing to come back, at least briefly, to leave the character in amore satisfactory state. And yet this may be all too much wishful thinking for me, who is having a VERY hard time accepting that Robin could die. I well remember her first appearance in Robert’s living room in the 1980s. "Hi. My name is Robin" when she was about 6 years old. 

Sam Ford's picture

What Only Soaps Can Do...

Truly, this clip—and storyline—highlights what soap opera (as opposed to telenovela) style storytelling can do that no other genre can: make a pressing social issue relevant to its viewers by having something happen to someone you’ve known for years…Only on a soap opera, where viewers have watched Robin grow up (and played by the same actress), can someone who may not know anyone with HIV "in real life" go through this with a character they’ve known for years…While I’m happy about all the ways soaps have helped inspire new paths for storytelling elsewhere, this is one aspect of storytelling that no other genre has really (as of yet) been able to replace.

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