I stopped watching House a long time ago for various reasons. But since I’m on Tumblr to be involved with the ace community there, it would’ve been hard for me not to hear about the other night’s episode.
Spoilers beyond this point and warning for ace stereotypes and medicalization of asexuality
Here’s a summary of the episode from an AVEN user. There was an eye-rolling-looking emoticon at the end but I can’t copy the animation and don’t know how to type it out. Also if you click the link, you have to click “Show” to show the spoiler text in the comment.
A lady with a bladder infection attracts the attention of House, who tries to prove that she and her husband aren’t really asexual. Watson stops him, so House investigates the husband, who turns out to have a tumor causing his lack of libido. Treating it, which is necessary for him to live, but make him sexual. The wife ends up revealing that she lied about her asexuality because she likes sex (Because all asexuals are repulsed).
I’m amused at the Watson/Wilson mixup but I will also say — I don’t care that Wilson said House was wrong at the beginning of the episode. The final impression left about asexuality isn’t going to be a couple of minutes at the beginning of the episode, it’s going to be how the episode wraps up. The conclusions that the brilliant Dr. House reaches about asexuality. That’s what people will take away. When House disproved the asexual characters, he also disproved Wilson.
There are so, so many things wrong here. The writer of the episode responded to criticism on Twitter. But that doesn’t really make it better.
Note: On Tumblr this is all one paragraph, on AVEN it’s two, and the second is a response to further communication.
“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.”
I’m going to address part of this first: Lingenfelter says “Originally, part of my dialog included thoughts about whether as a species we’ve grown past sex” and “I think it speaks to where humans are now and where we are going.”
I’ve seen this pointed out on Tumblr in a few places, and this is really creepy. We are not the next evolutionary stage in human development. Some asexual people are repulsed, some are indifferent, and some are enthusiastic about sex. So I think she might be conflating sexual orientation and libido and personal willingness to engage in sexual activity. Also kind of putting aces up on a pedestal, maybe. Which I never like.
But onto the big issue.
The thing most people are pointing out is that she had two asexual characters to work with and both of them got invalidated. I can understand the pressure from the network that there had to be a medical mystery. But having the medical mystery did not mean that the wife’s asexuality had to be faked. That’s lazy writing. That’s lazy thinking.
I don’t know if Fox forced her to change the second one as well, Lingenfelter didn’t comment on that. I assume, since she said that the network told her to change the husband, that she would’ve mentioned being told to change the wife. But she didn’t. So I’m putting responsibility for the wife’s representation to Lingenfelter.
Two of the biggest responses ace spectrum people get are “You’re sick” and “You’re faking.” This episode chose to play into both stereotypes that prevent people from being accepted and respected. It did not leave an asexual character “alone” to show that ace people are real. Instead it chose to yank the floor out from under both of them.
Honestly I don’t care about Lingenfelter’s intentions. Sometimes a writer’s intentions do matter, but that can’t do a single thing to erase the actual harmful effects they end up producing. Problematic material that was meant to be good does not get an excuse for being problematic. Not at all.
Lingenfelter took a minority and wanted to represent it. The network told her to change it, and the changes they wanted were incredibly problematic. If Lingenfelter had really done “a lot of research on asexuality” she should have known just how problematic. I’m not saying she should’ve stopped writing about asexuality all together, but she should have put more effort into the second ace character. It makes me doubt how much research she actually did, or how much she really understood what she read.
People are not curious. They’re going to say, “Oh, this is what asexuality is.” People who come out as asexual are already told, “Oh, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?”, a character who’s mocked in-show for his lack of sexuality along with nearly everything else about him. He’s a character who frequently removes himself from humanity, and has the show comment about how he’s a different species. Not the best reaction for people to get. Now people are going to be told, “Oh, you might have a tumor, like that guy on House.” Or “You’ve got to be faking it. Or sick. Like on House.”
People are already telling aces on Tumblr that we’re complaining too much about the episode. These are people who are sitting at a computer with internet access and the word asexuality right in front of them. These are people who could open an extra tab and search for asexuality information and learn about it and they are not. Why should I expect people not even hearing aces complain about the episode online, with immediate access to search capabilities, to do more than the people who are?
People who are asexual, gray-a, and demi, but have not connected with ace communities, also had a huge road block placed between them and the opportunity to Google and find other people like them. Why would you want to look up asexuality after being told in no uncertain terms that half the people are sick and half of them are faking?
If 13-year-old me had been watching House, I would’ve thought “Oh, so asexuality means broken.” When I web-searched asexuality as a teenager it was because I felt alone. I felt like I was the only person in the world like myself. But I would not have been prompted to find other people from this episode. I would’ve expected any results I found to be “I had X disease” and “I was faking it but I saw the light!” I would’ve felt sick, like I was fooling myself, and even more alone.
And there’s no reason for most of the audience to know who Lingenfelter is, to see her Twitter or anything she was saying on it afterwards. I don’t care about the apology most of the audience will never see.
It doesn’t matter if you try to represent a minority well if you then fill that representation with harmful stereotypes. If you present an obscure minority of people, you have an obligation to not use every minority character to confirm stereotypes about those people. If every minority character is a stereotype, then the stereotype is going to be what people believe. Because people are lazy. They like confirmation of what they already would’ve believed — and widely, people regard asexuality as a disease, a personality defect, a holier-than-thou complex, or faked.
Am I glad Lingenfelter apologized? Yes. Do I think she actually understands the harm she did? No. Not from that apology. Not from reading her twitter feed. This update says “Intention was to tell story for THIS couple, not all asexuals. Apologies that it seemed generalized.”
If a writer isn’t aware enough to realize that representing a extremely small minority of people with numbers around 1% of the population is necessarily going to generalize people’s reactions to them, they are not a very good writer. But Lingenfelter seems to still think she gave people a chance to really learn about asexuality by mentioning a word that might make them curious enough to do an online search. She gave the audience homework. That’s not how writers should write, ever. Writers should not not leave important information vital to understanding something out of the material. They should not expect people to recognize that they’re writing stereotypes about a minority they’ve most likely never heard of before.
Do we say that a show’s given people the opportunity to learn about gay or bisexual or trans people if the characters are all stereotypes? Did we say Glee gave people the chance to learn bisexuality was real, or that Work It gave people the chance to read about gender, sexism, transmisogyny, etc.? No! Because we don’t expect anybody to do independent research and come to conclusions that a show represented characters badly. And that’s what last night’s episode did. So I cannot think that a significant portion of the audience will believe anything but what the episode told them.
And what the episode told them is that asexuality is never real. There’s another explanation behind every asexual person’s assertion of their sexuality. Don’t believe people when they say they’re asexual. Tell them to see a doctor. Ask who they’re faking it for. Help them understand they’re wrong.
That was the show’s message. An apology owning up to that, I could accept.