Written Jan. 24:
House recently aired an episode called "Better Half", which features an asexual couple. Here's a sneak peek and full episode on Hulu. Reportedly, its portrayal was very negative. So it's time for another case of "Let's watch TV and judge its sensitivity to marginalized groups". Order! Order! But before I watch the show and write the second half of this post, I have some preliminary comments:
1. I am a fan of House. It is literally the only TV show I watch. Therefore, I'm inclined to be forgiving of the show, and might not agree with the negative reports.
2. Sometimes people assume that Dr. House is always in the right. Sort of the whole point is that House is a diagnostic genius, and sees through a lot of BS in society, but he can also be blind to his own BS. Typically, none of the characters in the show are completely right, they just represent different perspectives.
So for example, I found a complaint about an episode where House gets it wrong on Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. But it's unclear to me the degree of wrongness, because the complaint focuses mostly on House's behavior. Is it bad because of poor research, or is it bad because no other characters offer more positive opinions, or is it bad because viewers are likely to agree with House regardless?
3. Sometimes people expect characters of their minority group to be perfect angels. But that doesn't work in a story. In fact, it would stand out in a show where "everybody lies". Therefore, I will be tolerant of some degree of lying/drama/character development on behalf of the asexual characters. But if the asexual characters are wrong, they should be wrong in a non-stereotypical, unpredictable way. For example, instead of, "After trying sex, I decided I was really a nymphomaniac with repression issues", it would be better if it were, "I was wrong to be so defensive about my hormones, because it turns out I have high testosterone, unrelated to my orientation."
Written Jan. 31, after watching show:
Conclusion (no spoilers):
Yeah, there's really no way for me to see this story in a positive light. It's not just Dr. House being the person he is, but the factual events in the show not reflecting the reality of asexuality. Instead, the factual events played into a few common myths about asexuality, meaning that the writers failed to understand just how insensitive the narratives were. Lastly, while different characters offered different perspectives on the asexual couple, the "positive" perspective from Dr. Wilson was patronizing, and effectively a strawman.
Otherwise, the episode was okay, as far as House goes.
In this episode's side story Dr. Wilson has a married patient who claims to be asexual. Upon mentioning this to Dr. House, House bets that he can find a medical cause. So far, nothing wrong, since that's just what House would do. The problem is that, in this fictional universe, House turns out to be right. The wife had been lying to her husband for the last ten years, I guess because she believed this was necessary to make the marriage work. The husband has a brain tumor which lowers his libido and causes erectile dysfunction.
The biggest factual error here is equating asexuality with low libido and erectile dysfunction. Your typical asexual has typical libido, typical sex drive, and does not have erectile dysfunction. To spell this out, imagine someone who has fully functioning sexual arousal, but gets aroused at random intervals rather than when seeing someone attractive or even being with someone they love. Or imagine someone who gets physically aroused but doesn't connect this experience with interpersonal intimacy. If an asexual has low libido or erectile dysfunction, that would be unrelated.
In the real world, the asexual guy would have pointed out to House that his asexuality was unrelated to his libido (or better yet, point out that he already had a functioning libido). But I guess the characters in the show can't have any more of a clue than the writers do. Too bad, the extra twist would have made the story more compelling.
The worst part about it is that the factual inaccuracies play into myths about asexuals which people are already inclined to believe. Asexuals are either lying, deluded, or sick. Something must be wrong with their brain or their dick. The show referenced other narratives, such as hormonal problems or childhood abuse, which I took to signify that the writers did some minimal research. But apparently not enough.
However, I must reluctantly give points for wife's non-stereotypical motivations for lying. As far as I know, asexuals are not commonly accused of lying about their sexuality in order to maintain a relationship with an asexual partner. I mean, that just comes out of the left field, and wasn't explained very well. And for ten years too. It's a "delightful" inversion of the myth that asexuals are hiding themselves to trick sexuals into bad relationships. Only it makes even less sense.
One of the things I like about House is that each character will offer a different perspective on any given issue. It's fun to watch the perspectives interact and collide, while simultaneously developing the characters. Since it was only a side story, only a few characters commented. Probably the most positive was Dr. Jessica Adams, who went so far as to suggest House could be wrong. And then she casually gave up that line of thought because of a one-liner from House?
The other perspective came from Dr. Wilson. Wilson just didn't want House messing with his patients' marriage, and thought it might be better to leave them happy as they are. He says it's destroying a person's identity, like proving to a gay man that he's straight. He thinks they were happy, even if it was based on lies. I think this is completely patronizing. I don't want people going around trying to disprove my asexuality, but this isn't because I'm afraid of the truth. It's because people are generally ignorant and think they can disprove it when they can't.
Wilson's perspective on this issue is in character for him. But the way it's written, the conflict is, "Should we let them live a lie, or tell them the truth?" when the conflict should be "Are we really disproving a person's orientation, or are we just biased by our prejudices?" The very framing of the conflict is all wrong. I'm not convinced the writers know what a positive perspective on asexuality even looks like.
Other perspectives on this episode.
There is also an ongoing petition.