Television

It’s a Sin Failed to Give Women Their Rightful Place in the AIDS Story

Jill deserved a life beyond caring for the boys.

A woman in a pink sweater holds a pile of envelopes as she stands in front of a British mailbox.
Lydia West as Jill Baxter in It’s a Sin. Ben Blackall/HBO Max

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here. It contains spoilers for the HBO Max limited series It’s a Sin.

HBO Max’s new tear-jerker of a limited series, It’s a Sin, was probably destined to be a boys’ affair. Chronicling 10 years in the lives of a cadre of young gay Londoners, the Russell T. Davies joint relishes in the exuberance of queer nightlife before unfurling the devastation the AIDS epidemic wrought in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s only natural that this tragic story would center gay men, and how stigma alienated them from their families and careers. But those aren’t the only AIDS narratives, and as an amateur queer historian, I’m always hopeful for more thorough and inclusive ones.

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That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to see a young woman intertwined with four guys on the show’s poster. Between its multiracial cast and a presumed leading lady, It’s a Sin seemed poised to offer some welcome diversity and nuance to the mainstream AIDS artistic canon. Perhaps this character would offer insight into the oft forgotten yet essential role lesbians played during the AIDS crisis? Alas, after watching the series’ five often gorgeous and moving episodes, my hopes for an AIDS story that made space for a young Black woman—with all her own dreams, aspirations, and a real inner life—were ultimately quashed.

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Jill Baxter, played with clear-eyed vibrance by Lydia West, stands admirably for the countless caretakers who devoted themselves to looking after the dying in the early days of the epidemic and fought like hell to help them pass on with dignity. She offers hot meals and warm company to HIV-positive friends at a time when there was no consensus on how the virus was spread. She devotes herself to political activism too, encouraging her reluctant friends to join an ACT UP–style die-in. She even has a boundless fountain of empathy for HIV-positive strangers in hospitals and on the other ends of phone calls to a help line. Where Davies’ show goes wrong, though, is when it doesn’t allow her to be anything more than that. Jill is a selfless saint, a den mother for the buzzing flat shared by the show’s ensemble, and a death doula—but she doesn’t get to be her own person.

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From the moment she’s introduced, Jill is working wholly in the service of someone else. When she catches the still closeted Ritchie (Olly Alexander) eyeing her dashing friend Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) at college, she insists on setting the two of them up. In that same episode, we also watch Jill help Ritchie muster enough confidence to abandon the parentally approved academic track of law to pursue his acting dreams alongside her in the drama department. West’s performance shines so much in the first episode that you could almost forget that you know next to nothing about Jill herself.

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When Gregory (also called by the campy nickname Gloria) begins to get sick, he retreats from the larger friend group and turns to Jill. Despite her fears of the then-mysterious virus, Jill commits herself to serving her friend in any way she can. She delivers groceries, hides Gloria’s secret from the others, and even assumes the role of a desperate Cassandra. She warns her friends of the dangers of the virus and tracks down information that wasn’t so easy to come by in a pre–social media age, but they refuse to listen. It’s worth mentioning that around this point in the show I became curious about Jill’s sex life and the precautions she might’ve taken to protect herself when she had such intimate, early knowledge of AIDS. We are never offered these answers, however, because Jill never gets to pursue romantic or sexual relationships throughout the show. Indeed, in one scene, Jill uses a doctor’s appointment about a birth control prescription as a ruse to … ask the doctor more about AIDS so as to better help her friends.

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The pattern continues when one of the flatmates, Colin (Callum Scott Howells), starts suffering seizures and learns that he is HIV-positive. In between her shifts at an AIDS-support call center, Jill is shown tracking down the resources necessary to hire a lawyer after Colin is held in the hospital against his will. She is the one offering assiduous care to Colin’s mother as she watches her child wither away. She even answers the call on behalf of the entire friend group that informs them Colin has died.

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We watch Jill play this part again when Ritchie, the Tory-voting protagonist, falls ill, but by this point we’ve largely habituated to seeing so much of her and still knowing so little about her. While I understand that her position in the show is to play the role of the caretaker—a real role assumed by tons of real people during this moment in history—it shocked me that the show still offered so little of her life beyond the bedside of a dying friend. While Ritchie gets to daydream about playing all kinds of different characters on the West End or in films, Jill is relegated to a chorus position in some hokey musical. Ritchie even gets a handful of scenes on set and in meetings with agents as he pursues his acting career; Jill remains in her ensemble stage role for the entire series.

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Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of how It’s a Sin treated Jill is the fact that she was inspired by Davies’ dear friend, Jill Nalder, who’s also featured in the show as her namesake character’s mother. Clearly, Davies recognized that Nalder, and other young caretakers of AIDS victims, deserves tribute; but his show only makes it halfway there as it attempts to canonize Jill, instead of humanizing her.

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As Ritchie nears death, his homophobic mother, Valerie, comes back into his life. Aghast at the news of his AIDS diagnosis as well as the fact that Jill kept his identity and illness secret, Valerie confronts the young woman and verbalizes an ugly thought I (shamefully) had as well. “This is what you are,” she spits. “A chorus girl, running around after these boys with no life of your own.” Given all we know about Jill and all we’ve seen her do on screen, the scene offers a bracing moment of clarity about how the show has treated Jill’s character. She doesn’t refute Valerie. She just dodges the personal affront: “Well, I don’t think this is really about me.”

The reply seems meant to call out Valerie’s familial homophobia, as well as to solidify Jill’s altruism and devotion in our eyes. But for me, it served as a final infuriating reminder of just how much the show failed her, giving us a sacred relic rather than a real person.

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