I already ranted about this here and there last night, but turns out the medical mystery show House—which I generally like!—took potshots at asexuality on its latest episode, and the community is in an uproar about it.
On the House episode, a woman is at the doctor with some symptoms, and because the doctor wanted to do a pregnancy test, she mentioned that she and her husband are asexual and don’t have sex. This raised Dr. Wilson’s eyebrows, and he happened to mention it to his doctor buddy House, who’s famous for being pessimistic about human nature and being able to diagnose very weird things. House immediately said there had to be a medical reason why they didn’t want to have sex. Thus began the investigation.
Ultimately, the first half of the episode said all the right things—it’s an orientation, 1% of the population is asexual, it’s valid, blah blah blah. But then the man turned out to have a tumor near his pituitary gland which had been interfering with his ability to become aroused (excuse me? Erectile dysfunction isn’t asexuality), and furthermore, his wife had been lying about being asexual too so she could spare her husband’s feelings, and alluded to having been masturbating to address her own desires (excuse me? Some asexuals DO masturbate and experience sexual arousal). So basically, the show introduced asexuality and then debunked it in not only one but two patients, suggesting House is right to immediately suspect anyone who’s not interested in sex as having a medical disorder. Or lying, of course.
This is very very very bad, guys. I’m sure the writer has been dealing with her share of flak over it, and she’s apologized (more in the “I’m sorry you got offended” than the “I realize I did something wrong” way, though), and she claimed that she did do research and originally wanted to introduce asexuality in a more positive light, but that the producers insisted on there being a medical mystery to be solved. It still makes no sense to me why BOTH asexual people in this episode turned out not to be asexual. Let’s see if I can hit you with my analogy here.
Suppose homosexuality was relatively unknown. Then a gay guy showed up on House. House, because of lack of exposure to the idea, decided all guys like vagina, so therefore, the gay guy must be mistaken. Investigation commences; gay guy is exposed as secretly straight and/or suffering from a hormone problem that made him gay; gay guy is treated and becomes straight; House nods sagely and communicates to his audience the following message: “See, I was right; all guys need vagina.” Problem? I think so.
The writer of the episode has protested that just bringing up asexuality on such a popular show will lead to more awareness (even though it was debunked with offensive stereotypes!), and actually, she’s right … some people think there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But I disagree. First off, some asexuals might see themselves in this description, Google the word, and find asexuality.org or something. Sure. But more likely, since “if you are human and healthy, you want sex” was reinforced here, people who already have asexual friends and family members who have been doubtful and dismissive toward their asexuality are now facing a serious problem. “But it might be a tumor!” And considering people already have such a hard time understanding that asexuality is not low libido (though a person can experience both and still be fine), this show introduced further confusion and reiterated the already common trope that asexuality is more likely to be a medical disorder than an actual orientation. If it actually does affect 1% of the population, you’re going to see it in the real world more often than you’re going to see tumors. Wouldn’t it have been an interesting exploration of human conflict and relationship mediation if the man turned out to have erectile dysfunction and an actual asexual woman ended up having to decide whether she could still be married to a guy who wants sex if he turned out to want sex after his surgery? Better yet, have the woman have the medical problem and the man be actually asexual (since people have more trouble “believing in” asexual men)?
The asexual community was very excited about this episode coming out, and they were biting their nails over how we were going to be portrayed. I participated in the discussion a little, suggesting that I had high hopes but that I wasn’t super optimistic after seeing the way they portrayed an intersex character in an earlier season. (A girl who had an androgen insensitivity issue had XY chromosomes but female presentation because she was immune to testosterone. She turned out to have testicular cancer. House made many references to how she was “actually a man” despite having female gender identity, accused her dad of being gay because he molested her, and made a joke of her having to recuperate in the psych ward.) I was really sad to see the community’s hopes dashed. Some are even panicking about how closely the episode echoed the dismissive statements their own friends and family are always making, and wondering how many of their loved ones are going to point to this episode as a way to back up their suspicions.
Offended folks have already hammered the writer of the episode with frustrated letters, angry tweets, and public blog entries, but the damage has been done. Asexuality isn’t often in the media and when it is it affects how people see us. Asexuality has been featured on the current New Zealand soap Shortland Street; the biromantic asexual in question, Gerald, does sometimes get suggested to have been “made” asexual and obsessive-compulsive because of the way he was raised, but he’s generally portrayed positively and his struggles from discovering asexuality toward the beginning to his attempts to handle romance and sex are usually realistic. (Well, for a soap.) Guess what? New Zealand has one of the largest asexual communities in the world. And then the (canceled) Canadian show Godiva’s has a heteroromantic asexual named Martin, and he’s disgusted by other people having sex, but later takes “hormone treatments” at one point. Then on the (canceled) American show Huge, camp counselorPoppy is an aromantic asexual, and her asexuality is brought up only once and never gets addressed as something that needs to be cured. (According to something one of the creators said in an interview, it’s possible she was based on me. Haha. Savannah Dooley said she got the idea from watching an asexual girl on YouTube, and nowhere near as many people were doing it when the show was being written—and considering both me and the character are sometimes described as “fairy-like,” I have to wonder. ::snort:: Anyway, enough digression.)
Point is, how we’re portrayed in the media—especially the mainstream media—has a HUGE effect on how people see and treat us and what ideas they are open to. The show was WRITTEN—I’m reminding you of this because some people seem to have trouble understanding that the outcome was not inevitable. Someone chose to make this the story the episode told. It wasn’t just how it happened. Someone consciously made up these circumstances and enforced them.
The writer, the show, and the network did us an incredible disservice by putting this episode out the way it is. I don’t think it would be too much to ask to get someone who has the conditions described in the episodes to review them and weigh in on whether the portrayal is accurate (or offensive, or misleading, or not handled sensitively—and I’m not saying I want House himself to become sensitive, because I know he’s supposed to be a dick). There is no reason both asexuals had to be “debunked” the very first time the show bothered to discuss asexuality. We all know what is going to stick in people’s heads. The damage is done. I’m disappointed, and I don’t think there’s anything they can do to fix it now. It’s too much to hope for that maybe someone who’s asexual might show up on that show again and NOT get debunked. I can imagine a storyline where that happens—I am after all a writer myself—and I can even think of a way House himself could be dismissive and disapproving in a way that “remembers” the continuity, but I very much doubt the writer, the show, or the network has any intention of cleaning up the mess. They’ll deal with the angry letters, tell people to check out AVEN, and apologize behind the scenes, but they won’t correct their mistake in front of their audience (I don’t think). But maybe they’ll surprise me someday. Who knows?