Editor’s note: This piece by Margaret Liu McConnell appeared in the December 14, 1992, issue of National Review.
The outset, A Conversation with Magic seems the kind of show any parent would welcome. What a relief that Nickelodeon, home of Lassie and The Little. Koala, came up with this “special edition”– produced during the months Earvin “Magic” Johnson spent as a “spokesman for the AIDS virus”–to teach children about AIDS! And what better person than Magic to answer whatever questions a group of ordinary children might have on this difficult subject? Magic is adamantly heterosexual and has a religious grounding that allows him to talk easily about God. He was called a hero by President Bush and had been appointed to the National Commission on AIDS.
Johnson had been championed for the appointment by AIDS activists ostensibly because of his potential to reach city teenagers. But it was his appeal to more general audiences that was of most use to those intent on convincing the public that we are all at risk.
In the video’s opening moments, settled comfortably amidst a dozen children, with producer Linda Ellerbee practically at his feet, Magic talks of God giving him strength and about his love for his wife and their baby-on-the way. He conveys a natural respect for the children’s innocence with his gentle, delicate manner.
No wonder the video was so well received at its debut in March. After playing on Nickelodeon to high praise from the press, it was distributed to PBS stations across the country, which were equally enthusiastic.
But the show is not as sweet, or as safe, as it seems. Linda Ellerbee starts by telling parents that their children will be seeing an “unscripted, unrehearsed conversation” between a group of kids and Magic Johnson. In fact, because of her various interventions, the program assaults its young audience with frank discussion of sexual intercourse as though AIDS must claim childhood itself as its victim.
Consider the condom demonstration. Miss Ellerbee takes the children through a series of Socratic questions during which it emerges that “pretty much” the only ways one can get the virus are needle sharing, as a baby born to an HIV-infected mother, and from “unprotected sex.” Which leads to the obvious question from a very thoughtful little girl about what exactly “protected” sex is.
In response, Miss Ellerbee thrusts second and third fingers into the air and draws a condom down over them:
LE:… You roll it down the penis and that protects the man when his penis is inside the woman’s vagina. It protects him during sex. And it protects her. It’s not 100 per cent. The only 100 per cent way to protect yourself for safe sex [sic] is to not have sex.
MJ: That’s right. He seems uncomfortable, clearing his throat several times.] . . The safest sex is no sex and until you’re married or something you should be thinking about not having sex.
LE: . . . nobody is saying, Hey kids, now you know how to wear a condom you should rush right out and have sex. The truth is you shouldn’t …. What we’re saying is that there’s going to come a day, when you grow up some, and you may–if you choose to have sex then, then you should know you’re not immortal.
This is all spoken very sweetly, particularly Miss Ellerbee’s homey locution, “There’s going to come a day, when you grow up some.” The trouble is, the “some” is left entirely up to the children to decide. A good many adolescent boys would begin having sex the moment their hormones kick in. This obsession of young men is an age-old phenomenon, and its counterpart has been the age-old obsession of parents with ensuring their daughters’ safety. The condom theory would have it that a simple sheath of latex will change sexual intercourse into something no more consequential than a game of ping-pong.
But disease and pregnancy are not all one becomes vulnerable to through sexual activity. Girls especially are vulnerable to exploitation, to being hurt emotionally, to losing self-esteem before even having had the chance to build a sense of self. Now comes Linda Ellerbee telling children, “Remember you have a right to know the answers. You can ask your parents. You can ask the school nurse. You can call information and ask for the state department of health.”
But this offhand rejection of parents’ primary responsibility–and right–te instruct their own children in such matters is not the only harm this video does. At a critical point, Linda Ellerbee makes a major error: If you practice unsafe sex, you may get HIV, doesn’t matter who you are. If you share dirty needles, you may get HIV, doesn’t matter who you are. Any action that allows blood from one person to get inside another person’s body can transmit the virus. It’s not what group, it’s what behavior.
The children are then treated to a rap video by Scar.