Shattered Mirrors: Our Search for Identity and Community in the AIDS Era - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Shattered Mirrors: Our Search for Identity and Community in the AIDS Era


By Monroe E. Price. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0674805903

The AIDS epidemic in the United States created a conflict for many who turned away from the monogamous lifestyle of marriage in pursuit of sexual freedom as well as society’s failures to reach and educate the citizens lost to drug addiction.  In the first years of the AIDS crisis, finding proper preventative tactics without betraying America’s sense of individual freedom and autonomy was a subject of much debate.  In Monroe E. Price’s Shattered Mirrors, the author gives a detailed account of the numerous issues at play when trying to inform the public on AIDS prevention.  Shattered Mirrors is a sociological study that shows how mass media, freedom of speech, and modern technology shaped American identities and how the AIDS epidemic brought each into question.

The book begins by discussing the media to explain how American identities are ever changing and shaped through the television programming and movies viewed.  The movie business had a personal interest in how the disease was portrayed since many of Hollywood’s brightest stars were the first to put a face to the AIDS virus (36).  On television, the Federal Communications Commission and corporate sponsors filter the messages broadcast into living rooms.  Television programming shapes and follows the nation’s personal identity or feelings on current subjects, but often only reflects society’s norms.  Limited only by a rating system, the movie business was capable of displaying the high-risk population affected by the disease.  Television however, in 1989, had yet to accept homosexuality and the complexities of drug use in impoverished populations. Since television was the main source of media for a majority of the country, the great question was how the government should properly shape a message of safe sex practices without suggesting a moral premise (23).  Price feels that the government must find a voice in this marketplace of ideas.  The benefit to government involvement is the structure of the forum and being able to deliver a single consistent message.  Unlike a century ago, when a speaker could take to a corner to spread a message through a single village, there are no corner soapboxes left.  Now people turn to television and newspapers for their information and although the message has to be consistent with the sponsor’s ideas for the public or marketing strategies, the message reaches the entire nation simultaneously (51).  Although in 1989 homosexuals represented a large majority of the infected, Price never discusses the issue of homosexuality’s place in modern media.  To give an example of the media’s responsibility in education, Price tells of his own family dynamic, a wife and three children, while discussing where children are receiving their moral education from in modern society.  Since Price feels he is part of the norm in American society, his book gave no suggestions for how to portray homosexuality in modern media.

After detailing American’s identity and its relation to media the author discusses the dangers of discrimination and public ostracism toward AIDS infected citizens.  Price’s views are in-depth, well thought out, and highlight the main concerns for a public facing an incurable disease.  This is where the book makes assumptions that come to be true in the following decade.  Price believes that self-generated participation, or community organizations, in educating the nation on prevention of the AIDS virus are more effective than state coercion (96).  In the 90’s, the dangers outlined in employment discrimination and hospital quarantine zones were actually handled through public participation without the need for government intervention.  The AIDS virus is still a public threat, but through public prevention efforts and greater awareness in media, the government has never had to consider violations of individual freedoms such as tattooing or quarantining infected citizens.  Employers took the moral ground themselves seeing that mandatory testing would only lead to ousting of infected individuals, and hospitals released AIDS infected patients with the hope that they be responsible for not spreading their disease.  Shattered Mirrors may not have been the guiding voice for this change but it embodies the changes our nation underwent in the crisis of AIDS.

Monroe E. Price is widely published author on the subject of public television and mass media.  Price’s insights on media and its relationship to identity explain well how Americans are constantly updating their self-image.  The book raises many questions that are “dated” by today’s standards, but needed debating in the early years of the AIDS crisis.  Shattered Mirrors is successful in outlining many social obstacles to proper preventative education and the methods needed for slowing the spread of AIDS. 

Francis Tannie Arnsdorff 
Armstrong State University

About the author

Tannie Arnsdorff, a senior history major, a member of Phi Alpha Theta and Undergraduate Research Assistant to Dr. Jason Tatlock in the history department.

Recommended citation

Francis Tannie Arnsdorff, review of Shattered Mirrors: Our Search for Identity and Community in the AIDS Era, by Monroe E. Price, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no.2 (Aug. 2012).

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