I have chosen to critique a particular episode of the popular US drama series, House. I believe it relates well to the subject of ‘Identity’, in terms of the common stereotype, prejudice and expectation we have encountered when forming identities of others, and the manner in which we hinge our recognition of an individual on what we expect to see, rather than what could, or should be seen.
In this episode – ‘Skin Deep’, from Series 2, Episode 13 – the main protagonist and expert diagnostician, House, treats a teenage supermodel who has collapsed on a catwalk. At first he believes she has a heroin addiction, an attribute that is believed to be prevalent in the modelling industry.
After disqualifying this theory, then numerous others, the extraordinary diagnosis is that the supermodel has male pseudohermaphroditism (specifically, androgen insensitivity syndrome), also known as testicular feminization syndrome), and the tumor is located in her testes which, due to the syndrome, had never come to drop. In layman’s terms, women with this syndrome often have primary and secondary sexual characteristics typical of other women; however, they are genetically XY and have internal testes, rather than ovaries.
Thus, at the end of the episode, when the surgical removal of the tumor is set, a consult with a psychiatrist is scheduled as well – showing that for this particular character, as for all individuals, the discovery of a changed, complicated sexual nature is difficult to take in.
Moreover in this instance, it is shown that not only does the viewer take physical identity for granted – there is no question that this character was judged on her feminine beauty throughout the episode until the diagnosis – so does the individual.
The supermodel, when told of her complaint, is distraught; because she has effectively lost her identity – and thus, simultaneously, her occupation – as well as her gender, since all her feminine activities have been a ‘lie’. This illustrates how much we base our lives around our identity, and how others view us; when this is destroyed, often we have nothing left, and must rebuild our lives from the very foundations.
Additionally, the added layer of sexuality – another key part of identity – in the plot line demonstrates the extent to which there is still anthropological unease over misplaced identity in this context. This particular episode treats the question of sexuality in society with intelligence and reality, showing a society that sexualizes a teenager, treats her as an adult, then castigates those who look at her as a sexual being, without sympathizing with either side. The added dimension of ‘mixed’ gender adds to the feeling of identity ‘exclusion’ even more.
Once again, the very fact that this critical facet to one’s identity can be fundamentally different to what one expects, and medically modified in an instant (given this illness), the superficiality of beauty, gender and identity in twenty-first century society is reinforced.
Despite being a television drama intended for public rather than academic viewing, House is always thought provoking due to its exploration of ethics, morality and philosophy, as well as unique medical diagnostics. Additionally, with each episode being based on a true story, the drama looks at issues that have been raised at some stage in reality, adding to the authenticity of its plot lines, and accentuating the existing moral questions that are difficult to resolve in relation to these issues.
Concurrent with the conclusion to this episode, there is no comfort or reassurance that House will save the day; the patient will live; and everyone will be happy; more often than not, the viewer and the character are left with more questions, which is both disturbing, but also truthful, of today’s medically and ethically tangled world.
I believe that this episode is particularly stirring in this respect since it invites us to look below the surface, past our expectations and past our stereotypical view of beauty and identity. As we have examined in our lecture and seminar investigations, examples of identity and forms of identification throughout history have all reaffirmed the concept of physical identity, and identity on the surface, as being the most crucial elements in day-to-day identification. These are beliefs that should evidently be altered due to the continuous ‘human errors’ in judging ‘by the skin’.
The title of the episode, ‘Skin Deep’, is a perfect illustration of how we tend to take the physical outside of individuals for granted, rather than actually stopping to analyse the inside, or the unknown, before we make assumptions.
In this manner, the basis of identity, or misplaced identity, and our apparent lack of regard for knowledge and understanding over physical identity, has remained constant for decades.