DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE


By Michelle Bulterys
Staff Writer

“Dallas Buyers Club” follows the true story of Ron Woodroof, a hustler in 1985 Dallas whose seemingly ‘regular life’ suddenly crumbles when he finds that he is HIV-positive and only has 30 days left to live. His desperation to obtain the few available treatments at the time leads him to cross international borders and return with non-certified drugs to help fight the disease in a process that goes against traditional medical practices. This movie gives profound insight into a specific culture in 1985 Dallas, as well as the global medical structure at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

According to medical anthropologist WLH Rivers, medicine is a social construct “made up of beliefs and practices which only become possible when held and carried out by members of an organized society with high division of labor and specialization.” This is clearly depicted in the film, as the medical officials, doctors, nurses and patients collectively weave a network within the society. It becomes apparent, rather comically, that a network among healthcare providers is just as complex and woven as the network between the patients. Anthropologist Virchow in his paper “The Charity Physician” puts forth the concept that medicine is a social science, and that politics in general is nothing more than medicine on a large scale.

Ron undergoes character development in this movie in many ways, one of which is his transformation from a self-centered debauchee to an activist in his community. In this sense, there is a profound difference between disease and illness: disease is the psycho-, patho- or biological aspect, whereas illness is the human response and experience to the disease. The medical personnel rely on science to fight the disease by targeting the infected cells. Ron, however, becomes an activist targeting the illness in communities rather than the disease. Sick people want to take medication to alleviate the symptoms, because, as he says in the film, “you are married to your disease.”

In the 1980s American culture in which Ron lives, stigma and discrimination against homosexuality is just as blatantly obvious as discrimination against HIV-infected individuals. There is an idea of “being untouchable,” as if homosexuality and HIV are distinctively related and are highly contagious to the touch (both untrue). Not only is there cultural diversity between the doctors and the citizens, but there also are drastic cultural differences on the international scale.

Anthropologist Kleinman believes that medicine is emancipating itself from its source by ignoring the humanistic side, and this can be seen in “Dallas Buyers Club” when the doctors ignore the repercussions of telling dying people that they may, randomly, receive a placebo rather than a potentially life-saving drug. This is captured when Ron angrily asks, “so you’re giving dying people sugar pills?” As people invest in Ron and the treatment he can provide to alleviate their symptoms, Ron is able to gain their loyalty while discrediting the hospital. Professor Janis Jenkins explains this problem of political ethos in the medical community as a culturally standardized organization of feeling and sentiment pertaining to the social domains of power and interest. This manifests itself in human inequity, which is a result of uneven poverty distribution. It is very evident in “Dallas Buyers Club” that biotechnologies lead to new structures of inequality due to the ways in which doctors and researchers distribute the drugs that could save a person’s life. Within the community there are massive sexually oriented inequalities that threaten human rights of homosexuals (and also simply accused homosexuals).

According to physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer, “the poor are more likely to suffer and to have their suffering silenced.” This is made very clear especially towards the end of the movie, when Ron and Rayon talk of a ‘regular life.’ “What is a regular life? It doesn’t exist,” one says.

In this movie there is a very crucial motif: the bull. The movie begins with a rodeo bull conquering its rider, which symbolizes the disease and Ron’s life. His money and status are dependent on how well another individual rides the bull. The movie ends with Ron himself riding the bull, with control and confidence. This shows how Ron, even though he will always be married to his disease, has finally conquered his illness and has taken charge of his own life. During this moment he is able to live a so-called ‘regular life.’

Photo by Wikimedia

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