"House" Gets It Wrong

Classification: News

Last night I was shocked and horrified as I watched the plot of Fox’s popular medical drama, “House,” unfold. Fans of the show stay tuned each week to see Dr. Gregory House take on medical mysteries with a sarcastic wit and his own special personality. Last night’s episode, entitled “Skin Deep,” proved that much more is flawed about this show than the protagonist. It was, without a doubt, one of the most offensive and hurtful portrayals of people with intersex conditions that I’ve ever seen.

For those who didn’t see the show, allow me to summarize the painful episode. A 15 year old supermodel presents with mysterious symptoms, such as erratic behavior and uncontrollable twitching. Throughout the show, much is made of her feminine physique, with comments about her beautiful breasts and buttocks playing a lead role in the dialogue—even among the doctors. In the course of searching for a diagnosis, the medical team discovers that the young woman has been using heroin and that her father sexually abused her once while he was intoxicated. After ruling out effects from the heroin and possible post traumatic stress disorder resulting from the sexual abuse, House finally reaches the conclusion that the young supermodel must have cancer and a series of scans reveal internal testes that are malignant.

When House enters the hospital room to tell the young supermodel and her father what the team has found, he immediately questions the young woman’s sex identity, calling her “him” and announcing that he will schedule “him” for surgery. In what appeared to be an incredibly bungled and inaccurate explanation of AIS, House tells the young woman and her father that she is really a man because her DNA says so. He refers to the young woman as a male pseudohermaphrodite and callously comments that the ultimate woman (the supermodel type) is really a man. When the young woman becomes upset and protests, crying out that she is a woman and ripping her hospital gown off to show her body to the doctor as proof, House quips that he’s going to “cut her balls off” and then she’ll be fine. In a final offensive twist, House tells the father that he supposes knowing his daughter is really a man will keep him from sexually abusing his daughter again because doing so would now be “gross” and would mean the father was a “homo.”

From the use of the supermodel stereotype to represent a woman with AIS, to the backward assumption that chromosomes reveal the “truth” about sex, to the refusal to listen to the young woman when she clearly states that she is female, this episode mocks both people with Disorders of Sex Development and the work that the intersex community has done to end shame. The frequency of Disorders of Sex Development is grossly under-estimated in the program at one in 150,000 (one in 1,500 is a more accurate frequency). Dr. House also claimed, inaccurately, that ovaries differentiate into testes. And, of course, there’s also the trivialization of sexual abuse and the homophobia inherent in House’s comments about why the father won’t abuse his daughter again. Frankly, the episode was so flawed that I can’t even begin to address all its sins in this blog.

ISNA Board Member, Jane Goto, happens to be a woman with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the condition likely referenced in the “Skin Deep” episode of House. Jane found this program particularly disturbing and states “My biggest fear is that some poor gal with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or a similar condition is going to watch this program and be profoundly damaged as a result, wrapping herself in a shroud of shame, avoiding medical care and the excellent peer support currently available. Shame on the producers of this show and medical consultant/writers including David Foster MD for not only being mean-spirited but squandering a golden opportunity to inform.”

ISNA is asking that you let Fox know what you think about this episode. We believe that such wrongheaded and insensitive portrayals are harmful to individuals with Disorders of Sex Development and to our work to better educate the public. You can voice your concerns by visiting the show’s message boards and posting your thoughts. You can also send email to the network at askfox@foxinc.com

Please take a moment and post on the message boards or send an email.