Red Ribbons Don't Tie Wearers Into Neat Little Political Packages

W hen Billy Crystal emceed the Academy Awards on Monday night, we were surprised to see that he wasn't wearing the red ribbon that symbolizes AIDS awareness. Ah well, we thought. To each his own.

The next morning we heard several radio shows abuzz with the to-wear or not to-wear (an AIDS ribbon) controversy. Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, for one, called Crystal "the bravest man in Hollywood" for not feeling like he had to follow the herd. Which got us to thinking: Does wearing an AIDS ribbon set you apart, confirm that you're one who cares? Does not wearing one make you look indifferent, uncaring?

SHE: Since the arts crowd first began to wear the red ribbon, I have been at once touched and saddened by it. On the one hand, I admire the courage it takes to make a symbolic stand against the devastation of AIDS. The red ribbon is a brilliant communication tool.

On the other, I think of the pink ribbon worn by breast-cancer awareness groups and realize I have never seen one at a significant arts event. Rosalind Russell, Lee Remick, Jill Ireland, Carolyn Jones, Vivian Vance and hundreds of other actresses lost their lives to breast cancer. Why hasn't the arts community united against this horrible disease that also kills its own?

I'll probably wear a red ribbon when there is also a ribbon for Alzheimer's disease, cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, atherosclerosis, sudden infant death syndrome, mental illness, stroke, the rest.

HE: You're right. No sensible person will deny that AIDS is one of the more terrible plagues to hit society in a long, long time, and that it deserves widespread research and funding, but there's a subtle danger inherent in the bandwagon campaign it's generated.

According to figures published fairly recently in Harper's, funding for AIDS research in the United States has far outstripped that of cancer research. And--so far at least--cancer is by far the more insidious and common killer.

By all means, wear the red ribbon. But don't assume that if a person isn't wearing one that he isn't sympathetic. He may have divided loyalties.

SHE: Did you notice the purple ribbon on Denzel Washington? He wore it, he said, to "to bring attention to urban violence in America." I also noticed that Morgan Freeman wore a purple and red ribbon. Someday we're going to need ribbon color decoders.

I thought Elizabeth Taylor's teensy red ribbon made a big fashion statement: I am wearing a stunning buttercup - yellow gown and a larger red ribbon would distract.

HE: I don't think there's much chance of seeing the population at large festooned with ribbons in every color of the visible spectrum. The celebs at the Oscars wore them for the same reason Richard Gere got on the stump for Tibet during the broadcast: pure worldwide visibility. If you want to get in your licks for your favorite cause, there's no place on Earth better than the Oscar telecast.

Somewhat paradoxically, the wearing of the ribbons on the show--and on other widely broadcast show-biz events--may actually have the opposite effect from that which the wearers intend. Overexposure is almost worse than no exposure at all.

SHE: Have you ever worn one?

HE: No. I've been to AIDS benefits before and would have liked to have worn one on those occasions, but they weren't available. That brings up a question that nagged me while I was watching the Oscars: Where did all those people get all those ribbons? The ribbons all looked exactly the same, as if they'd been mass-produced, not individually made by the wearers.

SHE: AIDS awareness foundations create them. So do some vendors for department stores.

Locally, they are made by the Aids Services Foundation of Orange County. A spokesman there said the ribbons are created to "let people know that AIDS is right here in our community."

It's easy to go into denial about AIDS, he said, think of it as a Big City disease.

Wearing the ribbon in Orange County brings the message home. Since the epidemic began, more than 2,000 cases of AIDS have been reported here.

HE: Certainly there are populations, here in Orange County and elsewhere, that are still not getting the message that AIDS respects no social or cultural boundaries. And because of that, education about the disease should be vigorously pursued. I hope, though, that that pursuit doesn't crumble into mere lip service that places more importance on whether people wear red ribbons than on whether they live responsible, healthy, compassionate lives.

Wearing the ribbon doesn't necessarily indicate commitment, any more than not wearing one indicates indifference. The ribbon is a PR tool, and a good one. It shouldn't become a political icon.

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