How Liberal TV Shows Continue to Perpetuate Herpes Stigma – Rafaella Gunz
“You could get yourself killed, or worse! STDs, Tina, have you heard of them? Have you heard of herpes? Have ya? Do you know what herpes feels like on your mouth?”
That’s a quote from Louise, my favorite character on Bob’s Burgers. In episode 6 of season 1, she volunteers to be her older sister Tina’s “Kissing Coordinator” in preparation for Tina’s big birthday kiss with Jimmy Pesto Jr., her long-time crush. That line might just seem like a funny joke, but to someone with herpes, it reeks of the fear-mongering that’s constantly perpetuated around a common skin condition.
Unfortunately, this was not the only time the liberal, and arguably feminist show, has bolstered herpes stigma. In season 3, episode 17, Jimmy Pesto Jr. is jealous that Tina has a date to the school dance after he only said maybe to going with her and tries to guess who her date is.
“Who is it? Lenny?,” Jimmy asks Tina.
“No,” she responds.
“I mean, he’s good-looking, but he’s not that good looking. Plus looks fade,” Jimmy retorts.
“It’s not Lenny,” Tina affirms.
“Was it Nate?,” Jimmy asks.
“No,” Tina replies.
“Cause he has herpes,” Jimmy says defensively, as if he’s trying to convince Tina that Nate isn’t someone she should go to the dance with because of that.
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As someone living with genital HSV-1 (or “oral herpes,” only down below), these jokes in the midst of one of my favorite TV shows makes my heart sink. Two-thirds of the world’s population has HSV-1, according to the World Health Organization. So while Bob’s Burgers is ground-breaking in terms of its depictions of young women’s sexuality, it’s still lacking when it comes to ending STI stigma, which should be an important part of sex positivity.
Bob’s Burgers is not the only liberal TV show that perpetuates the stigma of herpes for cheap laughs. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a popular comedy news show on HBO with a progressive slant. In this segment about pennies and how they’re worthless, Oliver says, “There are certain things we know are impossible to get rid of—terrorism, herpes, and Guy Fieri.”
Yes, the herpes virus is incurable and sticks around for life, but that doesn’t mean it’s always active. In fact, it mostly lays dormant, only reactivating during periods of heightened stress or illness for most people. And as time goes on, the virus reactivates less and less, and the symptoms become even more mild.
Additionally, in the episode about sex education of all things, Oliver still managed to alienate those living with STIs such as herpes. While he talks a lot about how to prevent STIs, he pays very little mind to what happens when someone actually contracts one. “The best safeguard against STDs is protection. Unless you already have an STD, in which case you’re going to need medicine or some shit, I don’t know,” he says casually. Ella Dawson, a fellow HSV+ woman, wrote a great takedown of the episode on her blog.
While shows like Bob’s Burgers and Last Week Tonight are important and relevant for this generation, I wish they’d be more sensitive to viewers living with STIs, insteads of throwing us under the bus as the butts of jokes. Additionally, I feel it’s necessary that they don’t continue to demonize banal conditions like herpes and instead spread awareness in order to alleviate the perpetual and uncalled for paranoia surrounding them.
Rafaella Gunz is a senior at The New School in NYC, majoring in journalism and minoring in gender studies. She has a passion for feminism and LGBTQ+ issues.