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In Development

The Media Project Honors Accurate Portrayals of Sexual Health on Television

by Chael Needle

Celebrating twenty years, The Media Project is set to welcome nominees and supporters to the SHINE (Sexual Health IN Entertainment) Awards, given out every year in recognition of television programming that develops complex and accurate portrayals of sex and sexuality, including those dealing with HIV/AIDS. As a Los Angeles-based organizational arm of Advocates for Youth, the only national non-profit focusing exclusively on adolescent reproductive health, The Media Project works year-round with television producers, writers, and directors who need technical assistance with developing story lines that deal with sex responsibly. The Media Project offers a myriad of resources, ranging from the latest stats to research assistance to on-site consultations. For instance, The Media Project recently worked with The WB’s new show, Jack & Bobby, providing  technical assistance to develop a teen sexuality story line.

But October 16 has been set aside to look at what has been accomplished this past year. Accomplishments abound. The 2004 SHINE Awards this year had the most entries of any year. In terms of AIDS-related programming, says Melissa Havard, the organization’s executive director, “there have been some amazing shows, from documentaries to youth programming, like A Walk in Your Shoes which takes an HIV-positive young boy and introduces him to a homophobic, fearful older teen who has no idea of what it’s like to live with HIV.” After they’ve befriended one another, “you see a metamorphosis happen in this young boy and his ignorance.” Other HIV/AIDS-related highlights among the nominees include Primetime Thursday’s “Oprah in Africa,” Pandemic: Facing AIDS looked at India, and MTV presented “The Social History of Virginity” as part of its Fight for Your Rights: Protect Yourself series. Comedies like 8 Simple Rules and Grounded for Life took up abstinence-only sex ed while the drama Law & Order: SVU dealt with the dangerous trend of the down-low.

Youth-related programming was so exceptional this year that The Media Project decided to split the category in two. Also this year, The Media Project decided to honor HBO Films for its body of work, including Angels in America [A&U, December 2003]. Says Havard: “We figured if we tried to pit everything against Angels, nobody would win anything! Didn’t want to discourage the other entries! So we’re giving HBO Films a special, all encompassing award for their terrific work.” Spanish-language television had its own Angels-type programming, with Canal 2 Nicaragua’s Sexto Sentido, “Puntos de Encuentro,” receiving the Special Award of Excellence.

In general, The Media Project would like to see television programming nurture “the normalization of sexual health. Sometimes when we show young people and sexuality, we seem to couch it in [terms of] disease or trauma,” says Havard. “That’s not always the case. We would like to see sexuality destigmatized and made to be a part of the healthy, normal development of a person.” Havard cites Europe as a good example that proves open-mindedness and open discussion about the normal, everyday experiences of sex do not necessarily lead to increased rates of STD transmission and teen pregnancy, as some critics claim.

The increasing gap between the onset of puberty and the average time when young adults commit to a sexual ethos means that adolescents need more self-awareness about sexual health and their choices and more representations of sexuality as “organic” to the show: “We believe it’s not an unnatural thing to show [these realities] and it doesn’t always have to be a soap opera moment. If a [character] goes to the store, he or she might pick up milk and condoms.” Havard adds that The Media Project would like to see gays and lesbians—as well as people living with HIV/AIDS—portrayed more matter-of-factly and not as an “issue” that drives a plot: “The more it’s normalized on television, the more it will be normalized in real life.” Sometimes, the issues don’t reflect reality; case in point, teen pregnancy story lines on television more often than not end in miscarriage rather than depicting abortion or other choices. “We’re in challenging times right now,” says Havard, referring to the attack on a woman’s right to choose, among other things. “We know what needs to be done in terms of prevention, comprehensive sex ed, and risk factors and it doesn’t jibe exactly with what this administration is proposing.”

Hosted by Julie Brown (Earth Girls Are Easy, Clueless), The Media Project expects around 350 attendees at the House of Blues for the event, which also functions as a fundraiser for Advocates for Youth. This year, Trojan is the first Angel Sponsor ($10,000 or more) ever. Debi Mazar [A&U, May 1996] and other celebrities will be on-hand to present and a gospel choir will sing “Seasons of Love” from Rent, a fitting tribute to twenty seasons of The Media Project and responsible programming.

For more information, please log on to www.themediaproject.com. To find out what shows took home a SHINE Award, click here.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

October 2004