So. That House episode, huh?
I admit, I’m not a regular watcher of House. I don’t watch much TV, honestly. So for those people who haven’t been paying attention, yesterday the television show House aired an episode called “Better Half,” written by Kath Lingenfelter, in which (among other things) in which an asexual couple is heavily featured. A lot of people went into this episode feeling really enthusiastic on the strength of a promotional clip that appeared to treat asexuality positively.
What they actually got was an episode in which two doctors (House and Wilson) make a bet as to whether one can find a medical reason for an asexual patient’s sexuality. In the end one part of the asexual couple is shown to be suffering from a brain tumor and the other is revealed to be faking it to be with him. In the reveal, in fact, Wilson explicitly compares asexuality to homosexuality when deciding whether to attempt to cure the man with the tumor–and House reiterates that they are, in fact, dealing with a brain tumor, not a valid sexual orientation. The narrative supports House, not the first doctor. When the man is presented with the knowledge of his brain tumor, his wife essentially pressures him into receiving treatment despite his discomfort and reveals that she was not only actually ace but that all along she had been craving sex that he couldn’t give her. The storyline concludes with House collecting his money and remarking on the extra win of “correcting two people’s wildly screwed-up world views. Not bad for a day’s work!” I think that more or less sums up the episode’s perspective on asexuality.
I wasn’t surprised by the episode, though (or Moffat’s recent quote on Sherlock’s asexuality, the other current piece of media discussion going on). I have to admit, I expected something like this to happen. Admittedly, I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad, but I was frankly expecting it to be insulting at best and… well, as it was at worst.
I would like to say that I expect more. I would like to say that the one page of positive asexual perspective in Guardian of the Dead didn’t reduce me almost to tears when I read it and nearly made me cry again when that asexual character’s orientation was respected for the length of the third of the story that he appeared in. I would like to say that my favorite ace character, one of the most respectful portrayals of my sexuality I’ve ever seen, isn’t one who is also explicitly portrayed as having that orientation because of a gang rape and a clerical vow. I would like to say that when Poppy on Huge came out as ace two years ago, my heart didn’t leap for joy–and drop just as quickly when the show was cancelled a few episodes later, having never mentioned her sexuality again.
You know, I’d like to say these things. I’d like to say that I treat asexual characters being respectfully portrayed as humdrum, because shouldn’t respectful portrayals of asexuality be the default? Shouldn’t I get to expect basic human respect on the (incredibly rare) occasions when my sexuality turns up in media?
But the fact is, I don’t expect that. What I expect instead is for anyone tangentially mentioning asexuality in the mainstream media to immediately attempt to delegitimize it. I expect to be told that really I must be sick, or repressed, or broken in some way. Characters in media are treated the same way–characters can’t be ace for the sake of it, but they must be inhuman, or ill, or traumatized. And frankly, given the quality of reactions I expect to hear from people around me when encountering asexuality for the first time, I expect media portrayal to get worse before it gets better. As asexuality becomes more well known, I expect more people to bring it up in media–and I expect more of those people to handle it in an offensive way for cheap jokes, as happened in “Better Half” while the characters got around to showing that really, people who identify as asexual are “either sick, lying, or dead.” (This is a direct quote. Hey, the only one we didn’t get to see in the episode was the dead ace! Maybe next time.)
The writer of the episode, Kath Lingenfelter, has this to say about the very critical reaction aces have had to her work:
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.
Speaking for myself, the idea of Ms. Lingenfelter tackling asexuality in her work again after this initial showing is something I find appalling. Particularly given the quality of this particular apology, which suggests that Ms. Lingenfelter is “sorry that [asexuals] feel [she] did a disservice.” There is no feeling here. She undeniably did a huge disservice to my community. Instead of writing against the pathologization of asexuals, she used her large and well-connected platform to reinforce and entrench that pathologization.
If Ms. Lingenfelter needed a medical mystery to solve for House, I understand that. What I do not understand is why this mystery had to be directly related to the asexuality of the couple featured on the show. I’m an asexual woman, myself. I’ve been sick plenty of times. Aces are not mysteriously resistant to all unusual diseases except those pertaining to asexuality. Why, if she genuinely wanted to be an ally to the asexual community, did she make the choice to portray her characters’ asexuality as a disease and a lie? Was there some sort of reason that her asexual characters couldn’t have a completely unrelated disorder?
I’m not a writer, but it took me about thirty seconds to come up with a plotline that simultaneously included a respectful portrayal of an asexual character and a medical mystery for House to solve: An asexual character presents with assorted symptoms. House assumes the asexuality is a symptom and comes up with a list of disorders based on that as his primary symptom. Turns out it’s none of those, and instead is a completely different disorder unrelated to the character’s sexuality. Whoops, they wasted all that time on trying to diagnose a character’s sexuality when really the actual problem was something totally different! It’s not only respectful, it’s an accurate portrayal of the issues that asexual people going to the doctor for anything experience. She could have made social commentary on asexual pathologization a central part of the storyline. Instead, she chose to make the storyline pathologize asexuals explicitly.
You know, maybe I’m a bit sensitive about this because the last time I was told that I should have my asexuality checked out by a doctor was three weeks ago. By my mother, no less, to whom I’ve been out for years, and who knew this was an offensive thing to say to me when she said it. It’s not the first time I’ve been told to have my sexual orientation investigated by a physician, and it won’t be the last. In fact, after this I’m more or less expecting to have pathologizing responses increase in frequency, which means I (and other aces like me) will be saddled with the thankless task of undoing the misconceptions this episode spreads so gleefully.
I’m disappointed that a popular television show has chosen to encourage people to pathologize asexuals and treat our community with such disrespect. Ms. Lingenfelter?
If this is the best justice you can do asexuality, please stay the fuck away next time.