13 Reasons Why’s HIV storyline failed its young audience

The Netflix drama's first and only HIV plot falls way short of the realities of the virus in today's world, says Liam Beattie of the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Cast of 13 Reasons Why, including Brandon Flynn as Justin

By: Liam Beattie, Terrence Higgins Trust

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The fourth and final season of 13 Reasons Why dropped on Netflix this week – and unfortunately our big red spoiler alert warning has to be that its first HIV storyline falls way short of the realities of the virus in 2020 with the death of series regular Justin.

From the very start, 13 Reasons Why – set in the aftermath of character Hannah Baker’s suicide – has pushed the boundaries on what is acceptable to feature in a high school drama. The show has attempted to shine a light on the issues that many young people face in school, from mental health and bullying to sex and relationships.

The show hasn’t always got it right but its latest storyline about one of its young characters dying from an AIDS-related illness completely distorts the reality of HIV.

When Justin Foley, played by Brandon Flynn, collapses at the high school prom he’s quickly rushed to hospital where he is tested and subsequently diagnosed as HIV positive. It is suggested that he may have contracted HIV because of his injecting drug use or while he was a sex worker. His condition then deteriorates within a matter of days and he quite quickly dies.

We will always call out things like this that lazily sensationalise HIV for dramatic effect. Justin’s story arc couldn’t be further from the reality of HIV for the vast majority of people who receive a positive diagnosis. And, as a message to the show’s young audience, is potentially really damaging if they’re hearing about HIV for the very first time.

Justin in 13 Reasons Why
Justin in 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

One fan on Twitter succinctly summed up the situation, saying: “Producers had an amazing opportunity to teach people that HIV is no longer a death sentence. Instead, they chose to kill Justin off, after they gave him the biggest character development???”

While it’s great that some fans took to social media to point out the inaccuracies and potential damage of this portrayal, for many people it’ll inform their view of what is already a much-misunderstood condition. Netflix’s reach is huge – and the wrong information is being given out.

Scientific progress in the HIV response has been one of the biggest success stories of modern day medicine. Effective treatment means that HIV is no longer a death sentence and people can expect to live a normal and healthy life. We’re now even in the position to say with absolute confidence that people on effective HIV treatment cannot pass on the virus to others.

In the UK we are now looking at the real possibility of ending new HIV transmissions within the next decade. This is something the Government has committed to doing and we’re determined to make this a reality.

But it’s not the science that’s holding us back. It’s tackling misinformation and stigma when it comes to HIV, which is why we’re keen to set the record straight on 13 Reasons Why. Polling commissioned by Terrence Higgins Trust found that 50 per cent of UK adults wouldn’t feel comfortable kissing someone living with HIV, despite there being zero risk of transmission. While – to put in context the damage of stigma and misinformation – people living with HIV are twice as likely to experience depression.

13 Reasons Why Justin

That’s why changing attitudes really matters and TV plays an important part in this. Big HIV storylines such as the Mark Fowler story in EastEnders and more recently Ste Hay testing positive in Hollyoaks (both of which we advised on to ensure accuracy) help to bust misconceptions about HIV and humanise a virus that is still so stigmatised. Because Mark or Ste, who you’ve watched for years, are characters you care about and see in your living room night after night.

Despite 13 Reasons Why having many openly LGBT+ characters and black actors – two of the groups that continues to be most affected by HIV – its only HIV storyline was sensationalist and lacking information about the realities of the virus in 2020.

Across the UK there are around 7,500 people who are living with HIV but remain undiagnosed. Fear of having an HIV test is one of those barriers, and the 13 Reasons Why storyline risks compounding those fears.

The show had a real opportunity to inform and educate its young audience about the realities of HIV, but instead it chose fear over reality.

Everyone has a part to play in ending the HIV epidemic once and for all. Television has its part to play by choosing science over distortion and stigma – and viewers deserve nothing less.

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13 Reasons Why is available on Netflix. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide