Early discourses surrounding the outbreak of “gay cancer” [HIV/AIDS] placated the public with the assurance that it was relegated to the gay community, coining it GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). That meant it was easy to politically-activate, helping corral fundamentalist conservatives around a central issue of morality, key in electing another conservative president post-Reagan. On television, primetime news, “special issues” episodes, and made-for-TV movies slowly covered HIV/AIDS-related issues, particularly in response to its spread in non-gay communities, often to gays’ detriment. While “think of the children!” was an oft-used expression, few shows took it literally to the production level, except Captain Planet and the Planeteers, which did it first.
Writers of Ted Turner’s syndicated-cartoon series, Captain Planet, drafted an episode (“A Formula for Hate”) slightly off-brand for a series about a mulleted-environmentalist superhero. Geared toward children and their parents, it attracted a lot of controversy. Stars lending their voices included Elizabeth Taylor (already an ardent AIDS activist), Neil Patrick Harris, The Wonder Years’ Danica McKellar, Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Begley, Jr., Kate Mulgrew, and Vanna White. Because the Saturday, 21 November 1992, episode aired in first-run syndication, young viewers across the country saw it at different times during the day: some as early as 6 a.m. and some as late as 8 p.m.
In this episode, recurring rat-humanoid villain Verminous Skumm brainwashes a community into becoming a torch and pitchfork mob against local basketball star Todd Andrews (Harris) by suggesting HIV/AIDS could be spread by casual contact with him. The mob destroys his mother’s (Taylor) business, beats up his little brother, and sends Andrews into exile. He is eventually rescued by Captain Planet who lectures a jam-packed auditorium full of scared citizens on the misinformation spread about the disease (likely through the media).
While most viewers may have breezed past the conversation Andrews has with his doctor (suggesting he contracted the virus through a blood transfusion), it’s important to note that the episode never confirms this and still allows for an explicitly-queer reading. It alludes several times to an unusually-close friendship between Andrews and his friend Jeff, and a potential physical relationship between them in a way, I would argue, enables the show to show male-male casual contact (returned to again in the epilogue) without enforcing an anti-gay stance, to thus be aware of and sensitive to its gay viewers, and to avoid alienating any of its potentially proto-gay fans, myself included.