Warning: this post contains a) triggering material and b) spoilers.
Screaming at the screen really hurts. And no amount of frosty fruits cool that equivalent amount of rage.*
I am sure that writing about how politically incorrect the actual character of House is would be easily dismissed. Well of course…we’re supposed to hate him! He’s an anti-hero!
No fucking duh. I get that House is intended as a jerk-face. This is the entire basis of his character arc. He says sensationalist things that show a lack of empathy and humanitarian insight. He is abusive to women – well, everyone, but especially women – is queerphobic or queer-titillated, is flamboyantly racist, he violates consent constantly, he chronically abuses drugs while in a position of care over other people’s lives and wellness and he is wilfully ableist (for a doctor, that’s particularly well done). The character is mainly problematic in that the show contextualises his actions inadequately and has internal justifications that erase meaningful response to them – he is always right in the end, so that renders the damage he leaves in his wake somehow ok.
Not really. Just because you cure someone of leprosy doesn’t mean you didn’t traumatize the shit out of them by stabbing them in the leg with a giant syringe when they’ve said “no”. Medical erasure of consent is a serious issue – something I’ve experienced – and House constantly essentialises and reduces the reality of this complex issue by reverting to the old “yeah well, you can worry about your hurt feelings with all the years of that life of yours I’ve just saved.” Saving lives is good, yes. But I reject the House model that anyone who cares about consent and tactful handling of patients is a bleeding-heart liberal who doesn’t care about getting shit done.
But it isn’t the first time we’ve had despicable characters on television. While watching such an amazing jerk prance about in a position of authority drives me batshit crazy, this isn’t my main problem with the show (which I will italicise to distinguish from the character).
My key issue with House is actually that the show in general deals with issues with the clanging lack of sensitivity and reality that is often typical of shows that are intended to fall under the ratings gaze of Middle America.
Some of the worst infractions of the show are not even when this sideshow of a misogynist white man is on-screen, though he helps it along. I’ve watched Season 5 while I’ve been sick (read: I’ve been on an I.V drip of House, ice blocks and potato chips). I’m an erratic watcher of House which means I’ve watched Season 1&2 and parts of Season 3 and now I’ve skipped ahead to 5 – mostly because I wanted to scoot through the boring intern changeover thingy. Really, I don’t care about medical students clambering over each other for the artificial approval of an idiot. I’m interested in the pathos and the individual patient stories.
But what has emerged for me is that Gregory House is not required on-screen for this show to offend and disgrace itself. Take, for instance, the discussion of Taub’s wife’s separate bank account. House has in this season recruited a private investigator to collect information on his staff, friends and anyone else he’d care to manipulate (just…yeah. He is a jerk. I’m not gonna say it again, it’ll get boring.) House reveals to Taub that his wife holds a separate bank account, with the imputation being that she has had sex outside of their monogamous sexual contract. Taub maintains staunchly that he trusts his wife, but a little information on the side for you here – Taub has had an affair. This is known to House and most members of the team. Here’s where shit gets jerky.
In a conversation with Taub while inspecting a house for toxins, Kutner questions Thaub’s trust in his wife. “Are you saying my wife is a slut?” “I’m saying I’d want to know if my wife was a slut.” Similar themes are repeated later in the episode, and he eventually questions her as to what she is doing. The whole episode is weighed down with a tension of suspicion around her actions.
Please don’t dress that up in tinsel and tell me it’s Christmas. Here is a man who has already broken his sexual agreements with his partner – a fact known to the men on his team – and they are more concerned with whether the wife is sexually deviating from the said contract or not. Awww, hai outdated sexual politics. Cheating men are totes ok – they probably have reasons! and we should feel bad for them! because they have man pain! – but cheating women are S.L.U.T.S. And just like facebook says, we should throw bricks at sluts.
Does House present these and other politically dubious concepts with any kind of self awareness, self-reflexivity or critique? No. This is pitched at Middle America. A little slut shaming would barely raise an eyebrow there (or here). This is not placed in a context of rebuke or question – it just gets served up to us. And to assume that the audience “gets it”, with some kind of ethical narrative adjacent to the show while watching is a bit hopeful. I don’t mean to sound rude, but most people are ignorant dickheads. In a show as dynamic and weighted in rabid discourse as House, throwing bad politics out there with no inbuilt counterpoint is either lazy or indicative of those views being inherent.
Queer and ISGD (Intersex, Sex and Gender Diverse) people are largely invisible on House, despite the rampant homo-erotic relationship between Wilson and House. (I mean guys, come on – STICK IT IN ALREADY. I have unrealistic queer hopes and dreams for that friendship. There’s so much charge and sparkle. The ‘admit it!’ scene at the funeral of House’s father was worth it’s weight in slash-provoking gold. Here’s an idea, Wilson: next time, rather than throwing a bottle through a church window, ruffle that grumpy man’s hair with your fingers and go for deep tongue. It’d make a lot of us able to focus on the procedures again, because unresolved sexual tension is tres irritating.)
But I got distracted. Where was I? Queer and ISGD invisibility, yes. Anyway, it seems like the scope of the queer and ISGD world is almost absent from House except for the odd gay patient or the occasional patient story that makes being queer or ISGD seem like the worst, most shocking thing in the world (never just a part of who a person is, and not really central to their storyline/treatment – that would be nice).
I haven’t in my watching travels come across a positive ISGD story, or many at all – the only one I recall was in the earlier seasons and involved an intersexed young person who was working as a (raped and exploited) female model, managed by her (rapist) father. Watching this story was an exercise in pain – and this young person’s pain and distress was inadequately dealt with or supported.
Their abuse was handled with the least possible tact by House and some other staff and their father’s shame at discovering their child had body parts and hormones different to their expectation was actually scripted to overshadow the fact that this man raped his child. The episode ended with a circus-freak treatment of the young person, with them screeching and exposing their breasts to the hospital, beseeching them to find them/her beautiful. The heaviness of the gender-deviant shame simply tumbled off the screen and made me feel quite distressed. What made me feel even more uncomfortable was the idea that I wager most people would have reacted to this story with the intended feeling of “how horrible to find that out about your child! what a horrible situation!” not “oh god, this kid is a rape victim and is now grappling with a newly discovered ISGD status and is now stuck with an abusing shaming parent. NO.”
Well done, House. Super well done.
As for queer characters? Oh god. In Season 5 we have Dr Hadley – or as House likes to call her, 13 (all the male characters have names. Just sayin’). Guess what kind of character stereotype she is? You guessed it – the troubled bisexual tacky tramp! While I’m used to this cultural meme by now (‘used to’ not being the same as ‘okay with’), for some bizarre reason I expected better of House. But Dr Hadley is here in all of her glory, a drug addicted party girl with a debilitating disease that will shorten her life. Who “goes both ways” as House likes to put it, and mostly cruises. Her cruising is heavily critiqued early on in Season 5, where it interferes with her work and ability to be a good doctor. Because that’s how bisexuals roll – their greedy sex with everyone totes makes them unreliable and irrational. Better to be straight, amirite?
My partner pointed out also that House treads the line with the conservative right by not only demonising her, but making sure she doesn’t enter a meaningful relationship with a woman. She just has lots of sex scenes with them that we get to see, but not much meaningful long term exchange. “Women fucking women is hot,” my partner said. “But women having relationships with other women is just threatening.” Despite all her witty returns to House’s lecherous porn-ification of her personal life, Hadley ultimately falls prey to a boringly ‘nasty bisexual’ storyline – treading the grey no-man’s land of being desired for spectacle, but ultimately rejected for a ‘deviant’ sexuality.
The first meaningful relationship she has is with a man, by the way. Pre-fucking-dictable. Because everyone knows girl-on-girl is just foreplay for cis-male penile penetration and marriage, right? Gay until graduation to real sexuality. Yawn.
The final – and rather infuriating turn of events was something I didn’t come across until last night, and that’s how House deals with sex workers. I mean, my sex worker friends would probably tell me I’m really fucking naive for expecting something better from almost any form of media and they’d likely be right. Sex workers are not handled well by media, and I’ve noticed they’re handled particularly badly by medical and procedural shows. In this context they’re almost always presented as tragic victims, riddled with disease and drug habits. And the only way in which they’re acceptable is if they’ve seen the errors of their ways and are engaged in redemptive transformation (which is usually serving the purpose of a man who is saving them from themselves and thus the storyline is actually about how great men are. Not about the sex worker.)
Now, take a drink for every whore-phobic clanger you spot.
Anyway, this particular episode of Season 5 involves Wilson and House playing practical jokes on each other. In order to “get” House, Wilson tells him he has a new girlfriend. He doesn’t even bother sharing her name at first (one shot) – he shares the fact that she’s a sex worker (he uses the word prostitute). Well was a sex worker. (two shots) She’s made some mistake (three shots) but she’s making good choices now (shot four! light-headed?) and well, she’s just so smart and capable (shot five. oh dear. drink water now, this train’s not stopping).
House leaves judgingly. (no shot for that; that’s just a given).
Of course, later in the show we overhear a conversation with the private investigator who says he’d dig up embarrassing stuff on Wilson, but when he’s starting from an already embarrassing place, he’s not got anywhere to go. (DRINK.)
To wrap it up we cut to Wilson revealing his prank. “Did you really believe I’d date a hooker?” he says (I’m paraphrasing, there). And House responds with some shit that is so vile that I was yelling through painful tonsils and a fever at it and so I don’t remember it fully now. It was judgey though.
Oh House. Just…why? Sex workers are just workers. It is perfectly possible to be a boringly-everyday or fabulous or any-other-thing sex worker, because sex work is just work and a range of people with a range of experiences do it. Continually scoring false shame into the fabric of a script that involves sex workers for giggles is not clever, is not cool and is lazy. Othering sex workers is not new – but for a show that manages to be so “edgy” in other ways, surely a simple acceptance of sex work as valid work and leaving the whore-phobia aside – or challenging it, somehow! – is not such a stretch?
Oh and did I mention the rape jokes? Yeah.
I’m still puttering my way through Season 5 and I’m already enraged. Where House fails is where it founders in turning the ascerbic tongue of the main character on itself. The razor needs to fall somewhere on the skin of the writers craft again, to draw a little more blood with love in it. Right now, as compelling as it is, I’m seeing all the ethical dynamism of a tadpole’s wriggle.
I love the show, don’t get me wrong – I am a fan. But I am also of the opinion that the best fans are the toughest critics. I don’t boycott shows. I just blog about how shit they are at times.
Now I’m off to fire up some more Season 5 and suck on another frosty fruit.
I’m sure if House were here he’d make an innuendo about that.
*(Why watch then? I am largely addicted to the futility/poisonous love of the House/Cuddy ship, hence why I continue watching. And the epic potential gay of Wilson/House. Shipping always keeps me fixated on even the most infuriating of shows. Having been caught in a few OH DEAR GOD NO love-stories myself, this is gratifying in a Schaudenfreude sense. I also enjoy watching Dr Hadley’s almost constant season 5 derision of House – “I’m sorry, he mistakes immaturity for edginess.” Not that she ever wins, but I like seeing her give a punch.)