An Anxious Viewer Watches The Normal Heart


I’ve watched The Normal Heart three times over the last week.

Anxiety interferes with a lot of things that it doesn’t even make sense for it to interfere with. Like absorbing new media. Everyone knows that anxious people sometimes have trouble leaving the house, or being otherwise social; I’m not sure how many people who haven’t struggled with anxiety know that it can also make it scary to venture into unpredictable emotional territory by getting caught up in a movie or a book you haven’t read before. But that’s one of the biggest things I struggle with. If you’re the sort of person who connects deeply with character and story, watching a new movie is a lot like going to a stranger’s house for the first time. Will I like the people I’m going to spend time with? Are they going to say or do things that make my anxiety worse? Will I feel trapped there, obligated to stick it out to the end even though I’m having a really bad time of it emotionally?

With regards to The Normal Heart, I actually know a lot of people who’ve delayed seeing it or decided to give it a miss altogether, because all you have to do is watch the trailer to know that it’s going to be devastating. The Normal Heart is about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, when no one knew anything about AIDS except that it was killing gay men in droves. The story follows writer and activist Ned Weeks as he tries to raise awareness about the disease in the face of indifference from the straight world and opposition to his confrontational methods from the gay community. 

I tend to feel intense sympathetic anxiety for characters who are trying to tell the world an important truth that no one wants to listen to. It borders on being triggering. But stories about the fight for justice, equality, representation, etc., are my favorites kind of stories, so I knew I couldn’t not watch it. Plus, it’s about queer history.

A well-known problem with queer media is that it tends to be depressing as hell. I know plenty of queer people who find movies like this too upsetting to watch, just like I know die-hard Benedict Cumberbatch fans who aren’t sure they’ll be able to bear seeing The Imitation Game (trailer link) because they know how Alan Turing’s story ends. I definitely had to gird my mental loins before I sat down to watch, but I’m so glad I did, because if nothing else, The Normal Heart proved just how little queer history I actually knew.

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