Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wildly Screwed Up Worldviews: If This Is Your Attempt to Represent Me, I'd Rather Stay Invisible


On January 23rd, the popular medical drama House aired a new episode entitled "Better Half."  The subplot of that particular episode revolved around a patient of Dr. Wilson's who came in for a bladder infection, and during the appointment, revealed that both she and her husband identified as asexual.  The promotional ad for the episode mentioned asexuality, causing asexuals across the Internet to hope that the show would accurately portray asexuals: not broken, not sick, just an orientation as valid as any other.

And then the episode aired, and every asexual who had even the slightest hope that the show could portray them well got a kick in the teeth.

I'm coming in late with a response, because I don't have cable and I don't follow House (and I'll never watch another episode after this).  The gist of the story is that Dr. House helpfully informed the audience that anyone who doesn't like sex is either "sick, dead, or lying," and bet Dr. Wilson a hundred dollars that he could prove the woman had a medical problem.  Nope!  But her husband did: a brain tumor near his pituitary gland that destroyed his sex drive.  House explicitly states that this is the result of a tumor, and not a legitimate orientation.

As for the man's wife?  Well, she was just lying about not having a sex drive to please him, of course! Because asexuals don't exist.  Dr. House takes another victory under his belt and brags about "correcting two people’s wildly screwed-up world views. Not bad for a day’s work!"

I know many, many other asexuals have already responded to this disgrace on their own blogs.  I know that they have contacted both the screenwriter of the episode, and the FOX network airing the program.  And I'm sure they have laid bare their concerns and dismay far more eloquently and much more calmly than I ever could.

But I'm still going to talk about it, because the only thing I find more distasteful than the episode itself is the explanation that the screenwriter, Kath Lingerfelter, gave for the episode:

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.

No.  I'm sorry, Kath, and I'm sure your heart was in the right place, but this doesn't make up for the damage done.  You "apologize that [we] feel [you] did [us] a disservice"?  This isn't about feeling.  This is about a popular show on a major network completely invalidating a sexual orientation on prime time television.

You're correct in your statement that many people assume something is wrong with asexuals.  Many more people have never heard of asexuality, and so Dr. House's dismissive attitude toward asexuality on a program watched by millions across the globe was their introduction to the orientation.  And odds are that now, many of those people will not consider asexuality a valid orientation, because over the course of forty-five minutes, House "proved" that the whole thing was either a hoax or an illness.

I understand your claim that it was only in THIS case, with THESE patients.  But unfortunately, that doesn't cut it when what you're talking about is something that most people have never heard of.  Now, thanks to this episode, they have heard of asexuality, and what they've heard is that asexuals are either sick or lying.

While I'm sure that the powers that be played a hand in making House disprove asexuality, the writing for the episode still shoulders some of the blame.  If there has to be a medical mystery, and House has to be right, then make a character that is asexual without making asexuality the mystery that has to be solved. I'm glad that you were concerned with the prejudice that asexuals face, but as the plot stands, it appears to justify that prejudice

Kath also had this to say about the episode:

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'm glad that you find my orientation worthy of writing about.  But asexuality is near to never represented in the media (and look at the treatment it received when it did appear). It's an orientation that is dismissed by many of the people who've actually heard of it, even in medical and LGBTQ communities, as a physical or psychological illness, the one that is considered frigidness, selfishness, or even sinful, in the eyes of those who believe it's our duty to "be fruitful and multiply."  And representations like the one on House are not helping to counter these dismissals.

I also cringed at your comment about asexuality speaking to "where [humanity is] going."  All too often, asexuals are stereotyped as mutants, like we're the X-Men.  We're told we belong in science fiction, alongside HAL 9000 and the Enterprise.

I consider myself lucky to have faced relatively little discrimination as an asexual, and I have still been told that I'm lying, that I'm selfish, that I'm sick, that I'll grow out of it, that I won't know what I'm missing until I get laid.  I've had members of the queer community tell me that I don't count as one of them, and that I was oppressing them by considering my orientation a part of the queer movement.

Asexuals are constantly under pressure from the media, society, and even their loved ones to seek medical attention.  They are told there is something wrong with them that must be fixed, that they're evil prudes trying to lure innocent sexual people into a frigid relationship.  They are told that their marriages do not count because they are unconsummated.  And now, that your representation of the orientation has appeared on television, they are told that the media does not believe they exist, and that they will most likely never have positive representation on cable.

Did you consider, while writing this episode, that someone struggling with their sexual identity may see this episode and take it as proof that they have to force themselves into sexual relationships they don't want to be "normal"?

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