…Or at least, that’s how it should be written.
I’ve been watching House for years now. When I first started watching, it was sometime between the end of season two and the beginning of season three, and I burned through the first two seasons very quickly and then showed it to my best friend and then-roommate, K, who eagerly awaited season 3 with me. We would stop all our other activities and watch it together when it came on. Sometimes other people would come over to watch it with us, and we’d have little “House parties” but more often, we’d just shut the door and get quite annoyed when other people would disturb us in the middle of the show. As the seasons have worn on the show has held my interest, but it’s been waning more and more. I no longer eagerly await each episode and watch it as soon as I am able. Now weeks or months will pass before I think about getting caught up again. But I’m still watching, even though I am losing confidence in the writers.
Last week, I happened to check the AVEN home page as I (too infrequently) do, and saw that an upcoming episode of House would feature an asexual couple. I watched the preview clip with a mix of hope and deep, cynical dread. I wasn’t surprised at all to see House opposing the existence of asexuality. I was glad that Wilson said it was a “valid sexual orientation,” although the preview (terrible as usual) proved to be misleading, because he was quoting a magazine article when he said that. The show’s formula includes House being nearly always right—could the writers really take the risk of showing House being wrong about this? (Spoilers below the cut.)
No, of course not. I didn’t think so.
For those of you who didn’t watch it, here’s the short version: the husband isn’t asexual because he has a brain tumor; the wife isn’t asexual either, she’s just been lying to her husband this whole time because she knew that being with him “meant making certain sacrifices.” She went on to explain that “a girl has needs, you know.” As an aside, I find it some ironic humor in that line, as I was told in a fiction workshop this past fall that the line “Everyone has needs” is very unrealistic. Apparently the writers of House find it just as realistic as I did. But that’s besides the point.
The episode’s writer, Katherine Lingenfelter, has been answering questions about the episode. Here are some of the things she has said to asexuals who have expressed their disappointment:
I am trying to communicate with several of the people of the asexual community who were displeased, so forgive me if I repeat myself. I did a lot of research on asexuality for the episode. My original intent was to introduce it and legitimize it, because I was struck by the response most of you experience, which is similar to the prejudice the homosexual community has received. People hear you’re asexual and they immediately think, “What’s wrong with you, how do I fix you?” I wanted to write against that. Unfortunately, we are a medical mystery show. Time & again, my notes came back that House needed to solve a mystery and not be wrong. So in THIS CASE, with THESE patients, it was a tumor near the pituitary. But I hoped I could (now it seems unsuccessfully) introduce asexuality to the general public and get them asking questions. All they need to do is one google search and they can see for themselves it’s a real community of great people. Originally, part of my dialog included thoughts about whether as a species we’ve grown past sex. Any time we tackle a subject, we risk the possibility of not doing it justice. I apologize that you feel I did you a disservice. It was not my intent. Asexuality is a new topic for me and definitely one I find fascinating. It is a subject I would like to continue to explore here or ..on future shows I write for. I think it speaks to where humans are now and where we are going. I will do my best in the future to do it justice. Thank you for feedback and please share any and all thoughts.
I appreciate your frustration. I can only say to you that through my research (Which included long visits to http://asexuality.org), I have my eyes opened to your community & if I did you a disservice here, I will try again in the future because I think your community is one that is growing and says a lot about what it is to be human today (tho historically there have been aces a plenty). Again, I’m sorry to do your community I disservice. I wanted to get a dialog going w/the public about asexuality but there are many masters to please in TV. I am open to any and all comments, suggestions, critiques. (This does remind me a a frustration for a writer for the CW who vented that they could never cast African American characters as criminals because the network was too afraid of offending them. Not a direct corollary, but perhaps speaks to the day when ppl respect asexuality as an orientation enough that we can do a story with the medical condition and it won’t discredit it all). Thank you for letting me explain myself/ramble.
These quotes were taken from this thread on AVEN, in case anyone is interested in reading more. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole thread, just the last couple of pages.
If what Lingenfelter says is true, and I have no reason to doubt that it is, it’s a pretty good demonstration of the reason why I think writing about asexuality in fiction is extremely difficult to do at this stage, if not downright untenable in some situations. Her original intention was good, laudable even, although a couple of quotes indicated to me that she may still have had some misunderstandings about asexuality herself—more on that later. Where it sounds like she went wrong—and I don’t really blame her for this too much, given her situation—is not sticking up for her idea enough in the editing process, not vehemently defending asexuality as a legitimate orientation enough to convince the other writers that it would be a better story, a more honest story, if House turned out to be completely in the wrong.
And no doubt it would have been a better story if House had been wrong. I can’t even begin to describe how much more compelling the story would have been if House had been wrong about this, even putting aside my own feelings about my already terribly misunderstood sexual orientation being portrayed in such a negative light. I don’t want to watch a show where the main character is always right. I want to see him struggle and FAIL sometimes. To the writers’ credit—and this is why I have continued watching—sometimes he does fail. Sometimes he does get things wrong. But it’s not nearly often enough.
My biggest problem with House is that it’s too formulaic, and while on special occasions the writers do write episodes where House fails, most of the time they’re not willing to take the risk of breaking their formula. Often, the formula works well enough. But come on, guys, it’s season eight. By now I am so sick and tired of House being right all the freaking time that my interest in the show—despite the fantastic acting, despite my continued love for these characters—is seriously flagging. And especially in cases where House would be very likely to get things wrong, like this one—I think it would, in fact, have been completely out of character for him to view asexuality as legitimate—he SHOULD. From one writer to another: if you ever find yourself saying that your main character “must be right” then you need to stop, take a step back. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You’re character is coming dangerously close to becoming a Dreaded Mary Sue. You can write a character who is obsessed with being right, like House, but you don’t want to write a character who Must Be Right. If you won’t even at least consider the possibility that your character could be wrong, why write it at all?
And look, since there were two “asexual” characters, House could have even been just partially right and it still would have been a vastly more compelling story, although I would have preferred if he was just flat-out wrong about both of them. If the rest of the writing team just absolutely HAD to have House be right about something, why couldn’t he have been right about only one of them?
Here’s the thing: while I understand that writing workshops are tough sometimes, and especially in a group writing situation where you’re not in charge you can be easily overruled, intent still isn’t magic. And this episode is not just offensive, it actually does tremendous damage to the asexual community. (Protip: “Sorry if I offended you” and similar phrases are classic not-pologies that show that you do not actually understand what was wrong with what you did, and you should never say something like that.) It reinforces negative stereotypes and prejudices the audience—many of whom surely have never heard of asexuality before and put undue trust in medical drama shows even though they are fictional—to think that asexuality has been “debunked” by House. While it’s all sounds well and good to say that “all they have to do is google it” to find the community, this 1) overestimates the number of people who will actually be inclined to do so and 2) overestimates how likely they will be to a) find the actual asexual community instead of finding communities of people who hate us (like certain communities I won’t link to on Tumblr) and b) agree that it’s a “great” community despite their prejudice. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears mentioning again that people are very likely to pay attention to things that confirm their existing attitudes and ignore things that don’t, so if they think that people only “claim to be asexual” and really must have something wrong with them, they’re much more likely to seek out things confirming that opinion than things contradicting it. And probably the majority of viewers will not seek out any kind of verification at all, and will just take House’s opinion at face value.
This post? This is damage control. I sincerely hope the writers of the show will read this and take it to heart, but even if they don’t, I hope at least some people who see the show and decide to google asexuality will see it and understand what’s wrong with the cowardly “debunking”—which would certainly not stand if this were homosexuality we’re talking about.
I won’t get into too much detail about each point, but here’s a list of reasons why this portrayal was awful:
- Does it even medically make sense? Asexuality is usually lifelong, and we know that this guy has been identifying as asexual for more than ten years, at the very least. He has either been asexual since puberty, or he once experienced sexual attraction and then lost it due to the pituitary tumor. If he has had this since puberty, even if it is slow-growing, shouldn’t there be some other symptom besides a lack of libido? I’m not a doctor, so this is a genuine question, and if anyone wants to inform me, please do. But it seems dubious to me.
- Asexuality is a lack of sexual ATTRACTION, it is NOT a lack of sexual interest or sex drive. I feel like a broken record saying this yet again, but it needs to be said. This distinction is not made clear in the episode. Quite likely the writer did not understand it herself. Some asexuals DO want to have sex for various reasons, and yes, some of us even ENJOY it (gasp!). You can have a sex drive and still not feel any kind of sexual attraction, so the treatment might not even make this guy sexual anyway, as was implied.
- Since some asexuals want and enjoy sex, why the deceit? You made this character lie to her husband for over a decade about her sexual orientation. That is a VERY LONG TIME to be lying about such a serious issue, and it paints us in a VERY BAD LIGHT. This is probably the very worst thing about the episode. Real asexuals? Real asexuals tend to be extremely hesitant to come out to people, especially to doctors, because of the way that people endlessly harass us about what they think “must be” wrong with us. It’s trivializing to show a character who so glibly “comes out” to a doctor and then, equally easily, admits to her husband that she’s been lying to him about her sexual orientation for over a decade. Worst of all? If someone can’t find a convenient excuse for why our asexuality must not be real, if someone can’t find anything wrong with us to explain it away, you’ve just given them an out. You’ve given them a reason to continue to be suspicious about our orientation. If they can’t say there’s something wrong with us, they’ll just say we’re LYING. Or delusional. Not that there wouldn’t be people who would say that anyway, but you seriously don’t need to reinforce it. Making reference to how Everybody Lies is a cheap shot in this circumstance, and it is SO NOT WORTH IT.
- Asexuality is not anti-sexuality, and asexual elitism is BAD. Upon learning that he has a tumor, Asexual Guy insists that he doesn’t want the treatment and that he’s “not one of them.” This implies that asexuals see themselves as somehow being “above” sexuals. Even more troubling, the writer notes that, “Originally, part of my dialog included thoughts about whether as a species we’ve grown past sex.” Seriously? Only a small minority of asexuals think anything like that, and these are soundly trounced by the rest of us when something like that comes up. We don’t think we’re better than sexual people, even if some religions treat celibacy as somehow more “transcendent” and godly and so sexual people sometimes just automatically assume that we do. Also, evolution is not teleological—in layman’s terms, that means that there is no “end goal,” there is no destiny or sentience of any kind involved—so it is wrong to assume that asexuality is the “next stage” as the idea of us “growing past sex as a species” implies. It is equally wrong to assume that asexuals will die out, not least because of the whole “it’s about attraction, not behavior” thing.
- Asexuality is not a world view. Nor is it a lifestyle, although I’ve covered that already in numbers 2 and 3. Asexuals are diverse and have many, many different world views. Some of us even have world views that tell us that asexuality doesn’t exist, that we’re wrong and broken. Pretty much the ONLY thing that all of us have in common is that we lack sexual attraction.
And just in case the damage that this episode has done isn’t real to you yet, let me share a personal anecdote. Once upon a time, I met this guy, who I refer to as M. He is extremely similar to House, so I introduced him to the show. I liked him far too much considering what an asshole he is. He has all of House’s terrible flaws, including his extreme arrogance and need to be right all the time. He is irrational in all the same ways that House is, including the skewed view of evolution that House demonstrated in this episode (“asexuals are either sick, lying, or dead,” given House’s world view, implies that House thinks this is true because asexuals “would have died out,” as M said), while priding himself in his cold, rational, cynical view of the world. He had the same misunderstanding about asexuality that House apparently does (asexuals would have died out because asexuals apparently just don’t want sex), the same propensity to make cruel jokes about it (he often alluded to me being inhuman, just like House’s “pool of algae” comment), and the same eagerness to seek a way to find what’s wrong and “fix” it. He unethically ignored my wishes on more than one occasion, just like House routinely does to his patients. He was unwilling to listen to me about what asexuality actually is, jumping to the conclusion that my attempt to correct his misunderstandings was a “rationalization,” and he loved to get into “point-scoring” debates where his goal was not to actually have a discussion, but just to win and prove himself right. He was also “fascinated” with me in both a sexual way and in the way that House gets fascinated with puzzling cases, including the case of the asexual couple.
While M prides himself as a skeptic, he is not (or was not, perhaps, but I suspect that’s being much too hopeful) actually open to hearing evidence that contradicts his prejudices. Whether he realized he was doing it or not (and I wouldn’t put it past him to be that manipulative, he is certainly smart enough), he led a gaslighting campaign against me on the basis of his belief that my asexuality isn’t real, and that I’m just delusional “like a five-year-old cross-eyed child trying to drive.” He was exceptionally nasty about it towards the end, when instead of listening to me about the problems I was expressing with his behavior, he insisted that I was wrong and that I somehow had a “disability” (I don’t; I have completely normal sexual function, as my current partner and this study will attest). This has done considerable, long-lasting damage to me psychologically.
M is the kind of person who will find this portrayal of asexuality on House validating. He is the kind of person who will be bolstered by it and will likely become more antagonistic and abusive towards any asexual he meets. I doubt he would bother to google the response to this episode, although if he did I suppose he would probably be looking for me. I’m very glad I’ve cut off contact with him. The thing is, though, there are people out there who are even worse than M. I fear that this episode of House will embolden those people, and multiply not just the number of frightened but well-meaning people who are now certain that their friends or family members must have something horrible and scary wrong with them, but also the amount of abuse and harassment that the less fortunate asexuals face from less savory types.
So while I think that Lingenfelter got House’s (and Wilson’s, for that matter) character exactly right, the presentation of “facts” in this episode was extremely dangerous and damaging. It’s naive to say “Oh, it’s only these particular characters who are like that.” At best, really. It’s a lazy cop-out, and one that trivializes these characters’ issues at that. When the only representation of asexuality on popular TV is this one, if you actually intend to be an ally, you have a responsibility to research your subject better than that (by the way, I don’t think that AVEN is a particularly good place to research asexuality beyond very, very basic stuff), and portray it accurately. This episode had the potential to explore House’s willful pathologization of certain groups of people in a really fascinating way, while also exposing the truth, but that opportunity was instead squandered on more stigmatization.
I’m not going to say that House has Jumped The Shark (I don’t know if there was ever any such dramatic moment where the show obviously started going downhill), and I’m probably not going to stop watching entirely, although I’m sure for many viewers this episode will mark the moment where they write the show off forever. But I hold the writers to a higher standard than this, and they have fallen way, WAY short of the mark. I can’t say I’m surprised, sadly. Being a writer myself, I can understand why it happened, and I’m glad that at least Lingenfelter is listening to feedback and apologizing, even if her apology comes off as rather… well, clueless. But again, intent isn’t magic.
EDIT: There is a petition to get the exec producer’s attention here, please sign it!
If anyone wants further reading, please check out Sciatrix’s House link roundup post here.
Also, while I wasn’t thinking about the Carnival of Aces when I wrote this, it dovetails nicely with this month’s topic of media representation so I think it totally counts. I will post what I originally planned to write for the carnival later on. If you’ve written a post about this, I’d encourage you to submit the link for inclusion in the carnival.