Battle Metaphors: Victims and Assailants

Photo by alexskopje/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by alexskopje/iStock / Getty Images

Recently, I came across an extensive feature from the San Francisco Chronicle detailing the lives of gay men who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. The title of the feature," Last Men Standing," invokes two notions: 1.) to have AIDS is to be in a battle and 2.) to live with AIDS is to survive. Such a bifurcation exists throughout the feature. Phrases such as, "when the first man succumbed to a disease that did not yet have a name," ascribe agency to a force that is intangible, framing it as an entity with a particular goal: to overtake a victim. Other moments in the feature do similar work: "But AIDS could still grab hold. The drugs kept Ganymede alive, but they couldn’t save Steven. The virus in his body was too deeply rooted, his immune system too broken." Here, drugs used to contend with AIDS are also ascribed agency—as with the agential ascription before—and given the task of saving the victim from the assailant. Many metaphors are at work here, but the effects are the same: one is attacker, and the other is the attacked.

This all fascinates me because, like with other medical discourses, the idea of a battle and the dichotomy of assailant and victim are at play in a disease that has historically affected gay men in the United States. This group has also historically been marginalized by the medical community in the U.S., which has some implications in the battle metaphor. The one that stands out most to me is the idea of metaphoric transformation. Although we know that metaphors can transform, how can they be transplanted? The biologics of AIDS as a disease aside, the cultural treatment of AIDS is what interests me here. AIDS during the beginning and through much of the crisis—which continues today—is known as a gay man's disease. Gay men were not afforded battle metaphors by the medical community as a different, non-deviant population might. (OK, maybe they were, but these battle metaphors were meant to help a gay man overcome his deviance—to overcome his gayness).

With that said, what might the affordance of the battle metaphor tell us about the way gay men are considered by the overall cultural group today? I feel much work is available here to tease out. What do you think?

NOTE: I highly recommend reading the feature and watching the trailer for the movie on which the feature is based.