Gregory House Is Part Of A Pattern

From Petpluto at Art at the Auction:

House is problematic in the way above, but also for the reason articulated by MaggieElizabeth, a poster at Television Without Pity:

Ninety percent of the time, the woman gets to be the normal one.
Sure, she’s competent, she’s tough, and she’s strong — but she’s ordinary, and all the while she’s surrounded by weird and unpredictable male characters with funny, charismatic personalities.

House is the eccentric; he’s the genius, he’s the mastermind, he’s the guy who does not conform to society’s standards and doesn’t have to because he’s so damn brilliant. Cuddy may have been the youngest Chief of Medicine around, but she is still nothing special when compared to Gregory House. This isn’t House’s problem, not really. I’m not advocating a world in which men are always the normal ones and women get to be the weird, charismatic unpredictable ones. Just like the problem with a movie isn’t that it in particular can’t pass the Bechdel Test, but that most don’t. The problem isn’t that Star Wars in particular doesn’t have two women discussing something other than men; the problem is that a significant portion of the films made don’t. The problem isn’t that House is a surly misanthrope genius, but that there are a bevy of male characters in House’s shoes and very few women. The problem with the genius man or the man with incredible gifts is that there is no counterbalance. The Pie Maker on Pushing Daisies with his power to wake the dead; Chuck from Chuck having the incredible ability to see and remember hundreds of data-encrypted pictures; House; Walter Bishop; the guy on The Mentalist; the guy on Lie to Me; the guy on The Eleventh Hour; the guy on Journeyman. The women who are on these shows are sometimes capable, sometimes not, but almost always ordinary as well.

Petpluto acknowledges some exceptions (Buffy, Starbuck, etc) but adds:

But these shows (most of which are off the air) don’t carry enough weight to strike a proper counterbalance to the overall spectrum of shows where the opposite is true. And that is the issue with most of these problems. On their own, a show with stronger male characters, or smarter male characters, is not inherently problematic. But when most shows employ that narrative, it becomes more so.

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26 Responses to Gregory House Is Part Of A Pattern

  1. 1
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Actually, while Star Wars doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, I do have to say that Leia Organa is probably the best female character you can find in science fiction of its day.

    But yeah, the weird Holmes-esque trend of “super-genius man and the people surrounding him” shows is kinda weird. I mean, CSI/CSI:Miami, Law and Order Criminal Intent, House, Without a Trace, etc.

    And yes, the super-genius-guy is always male.

    At least House occaisionally follows the Holmsian approach that the protagonist is this inscrutable force of nature that isn’t’ really a character so much as an unstoppable force of havoc that the people surrounding him have to work with. Sometimes. That makes it a refreshing change from other such shows that really just invite the viewer to bask in the protagonist’s awe-inspiring abilities.

  2. 2
    Ali says:

    Bones is the only show I can think of on TV right now with a woman super genius (taking into account I don’t have cable so I have a limited pool to work with). And probably Echo from Dollhouse will end up the same but 2 shows compared to how many of the opposite? yeah.

    That’s another reason why I like Big Bang Theory so much. Yeah it only has one main female character and has it’s own set of stereotypes, but it’s completely different from the standard buffoon husband / main male character and smart, practical, ordinary wife / main female character.

    ETA: I just remembered, there’s also the lab tech (Abby?) from NCIS and Penelope (the techie) from Criminal Minds. Neither one are the main characters from their shows, but they definitely fit the eccentric genius (at what they do) mold.

  3. 3
    PurrpleGrrl says:

    What about Bones!? She is definitely the weird genius, and she is also quite emotionally wonky, to the point where Booth has to explain proper reactions to human emotions to her.

  4. 4
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Actually, I think Big Bang theory follows the sitcom trope quite typically. I mean, its a good show, but all the male characters are the typical freakish over-the-top stereotypical buffoons. Notice how Johnny Galecki is constantly trying to look like French Stewart from 3rd Rock from the Sun.

    The female characters have their quirks, and yes they’re geniuses (the whole point is that everybody on the show is one), but mostly serve to play the sarcastic straight-men to the crazy antics of the male characters.

    In terms of gender roles, it’s basically the same as Everybody Loves Raymond or Home Improvement, but with nerd culture references.

    That being said, I love the show.

    edit: Grey’s Anatomy would be an awesome counterexample if not for how utterly disgusting the show becomes whenever a “serious” romantic relationship starts. The writing is hilarious and the characters are priceless.

    I mean, all the characters – including the female ones – are spectacularly quirky on the show. Unfortunate that it appears to be written for highschool girls who sit around looking to meet some hunky older dream-boat in a power position.

  5. 5
    FilthyGrandeur says:

    all my favorite shows are this way: Monk, who does have his female assistant, but she’s just there to be (essentially) a mother to Monk, helping him function. Psych, with two quirky male leads, as well as a male detective. The Chief is a woman as is the other detective, but they serve the official side of things, symbols of good cops keeping the menz in check. Nip/Tuck, with its two male doctors. The women in this show are just to have sex with or covet or lust after; there is one lesbian doctor (SPOILER ALERT) but now she’s marrying one of the lead doctors (supposedly he’s the only man who can get her off; not sure how i feel about this turn). And yes, it goes on and on…

    now that i’m reflecting on all the shows i watch, i don’t think there’s one with a female lead. similarly, i’m not fans of any female singers…i do have a lot of favorite female actors, but my all time favorite actor is male…hmm…i have some thinking to do….

  6. 6
    Mandolin says:

    “Leia Organa is probably the best female character you can find in science fiction of its day.”

    Good lord, please qualify that statement.

  7. 7
    Ali says:

    Silenced, good points. I was thinking more of Penny and how while she definitely plays the straight man (at least most of the time) she’s not the “mother figure” who keeps the guys in line. She’s the common sense voice but the guys aren’t looking to her to get them out of messes every episode.

    Between comments I also remembered Allison from Medium, and went to the linked article and noticed petpluto alreadymentioned Bones (doh!). I’m bring these up not as counterbalances, just sort of thinking out loud about shows with strong interesting female leads. I still wholey agree with the post point:

    On their own, a show with stronger male characters, or smarter male characters, is not inherently problematic. But when most shows employ that narrative, it becomes more so.

  8. 8
    LindaH says:

    Leverage also has a quirky female genius, Parker, who is a genius thief. To be fair, Leverage is fairly close to an ensemble cast, and all the characters are quirky and the best at what they do. Tim Hutton is the lead of the series and his character is the most normal of the lot, although he is portrayed as being a functional alcoholic.

  9. 9
    Silenced is Foo says:

    How do you mean? Leia kicked ass, delivered her lines hilariously, and had personality. Isn’t that the basics of a strong female character? Competency, independence, and personality? I mean yeah, she fell for the bad boy, and yes, she played back-seat to Luke’s little Jedi vendetta even though she was theoretically just as much Vader’s kid as he was… but Carrie Fisher breathed so sarcasm and bad-assery into that character that it’s hard to forget her.

    Either way, on the topic of House, the worst part was that they DID have an *interesting* female character (Drs Cameron, 13, and Cuddy are well-performed but bland). An utterly amoral doctor who made House look like a little boyscout, generally known as Cutthroat Bitch.

    They killed her off.

    Women in refrigerators strikes again.

  10. 10
    Doorshut says:

    Might LOST also fit this? There are eleventy billion characters, but it seems like all of the really mystical, significant ones are men. Compare Locke with Kate, both are really intelligent and have survival skills, but Locke is some kind of divine character, and Kate has a horse.

  11. 11
    Elkins says:

    The one great exception to this rule would have to be the romantic comedy film, in which the roles always seem to be reversed. The template for those movies is: “ordinary Joe meets Sooper Speshul Awesomeness Girl, who inexplicably comes to return his love.” Very often, in those movies, it is the female romantic interest who is the eccentric, wacky, brilliant, skilled social rebel, while protagonist guy is Mr. Ordinary (who is often taught a ‘life lesson’ about rejecting conventionality and ordinariness by Wacky Magic Awesomeness Girl by the end of the movie).

    God, I hate those films.

    Of course, the way in which both of these templates are exactly the same is that in both cases, it’s the guy who is the protagonist, while the female character is merely there to reflect light back on him.

  12. 12
    Kai Jones says:

    You’re looking in the wrong place, try cable. On Saving Grace, Holly Hunter plays the genius cop who also sees an angel *and* her best friend, played by Laura San Giacomo, is the genius medical examiner; on The Closer, Kyra Sedgewick plays a genius detective who has a special ability to fool people into confessing; on Burn Notice, although not the lead, Gabrielle Anwar plays a wacky gun runner and explosives expert.

    On Big Love (HBO) there are several strong/wacky/genius women characters with major plot lines, and arguably the male lead is the “normal” one.

  13. 13
    sistercoyote says:

    Olivia on Fringe, as of the episode “Ability”, may or may not be ending up in the “quirky” range.

  14. 14
    FilthyGrandeur says:

    elkins, i’m with you. i’m so sick of those movies.
    anyway, i wanted to point out the show Lie to Me. The quirky guy who can tell if anyone is lying is partnered with a sassy woman who likes to believe that despite people’s dishonesty, there is still good in the world. she’s also highly intelligent and is also able to tell if someone is lying–yet somehow can’t tell that her husband is hiding an affair from her, or is choosing to overlook it. there’s also the other woman who is a “natural” at finding if someone tells lies, but she doesn’t have the book-smarts to back it up, a point which is portrayed as making the main guy jealous, but all that serves is for him to be tougher on her. then you have the douchebag guy who believes in the truth so much that he does this quirky “radical honesty” thing, which basically boils down to him telling really attractive women he would like to sleep with them and that he’s mediocre in bed. yay sexual harassment in the name of comedy!

  15. 15
    PG says:

    I figure these shows about extra-genius men with social problems are meant to fulfill Larry Summers’s ideas about men and women on the bell curve, i.e. that there are more men at the extremes of intelligence.

  16. 16
    Ampersand says:

    Well said, Elkins. Did you read the post about Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends last August?

    Kai, that’s interesting. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that these aren’t shows on the big networks?

    Regarding Big Love: Mandolin has recommended it to me, so I’m thinking of giving it a try. (I watched the first two episodes when they came out but didn’t get into it.) A friend told me in email that “Big Love” passes the Bechdel Test very easily. He wrote (tongue in cheek), “Guess you have to go to patriarchal polygamous Mormon heretics to get real equality.”

  17. 17
    Elkins says:

    Hah! I guess I missed that one. “Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriend” is an awesome descriptor for that particular character cliche.

  18. 18
    Mandolin says:


    The era in question is the time of some of the greatest work by seminal feminist SF writers. The qualification “in the movies” would do it.


    Still recommending Big Love, but grumpier about it than yesterday. (The global plot is DEFINITELY AT A SCREAMING PITCH and is bugging me.)

  19. 19
    Emily says:

    I also thought of Medium, which my husband loves.

    AND, I was really pissed when they killed off that female character in House. She was the only one who was a sort of equal sparring partner for House and their interaction was really fun to watch, in addition to her relationship with the sidekick doctor (can’t remember his name right now). I thought it was a really bad move for the show when they killed her, and mostly stopped watching it. I also didn’t like the episodes where that state trooper was all after House.

  20. 20
    Zula says:

    I’d like to point out that Olivia Dunham on Fringe has recently started developing psychokinetic powers, which certainly puts her up there on the uniqueness scale.

    (I’d still be tickled pink if it just turned out Massive Dynamic has just been messing with her the entire time.)

  21. 21
    DSimon says:

    I’d just like to speak up in defence of Cameron as a well-written character; she’s my favourite out of the apprentices. It’s fun watching her balance her own better nature against the knowledge that, at least in the House universe, being an obstinate jerk (or the right kind of obstinate jerk) seems to be better for patients.

    That said, I’m still trapped in re-runs, and haven’t yet seen the last 1 or 2 seasons. Does her characterisation degrade?

  22. 22
    Silenced is Foo says:


    I kinda thought that was a given. I mean, I’m young enough that I’ve always thought of Science Fiction novels as being very progressive in terms of race and gender issues – Dad was an obsessive fan of LeGuin.

    sci fi movies, less so.


    Actually, I always thought that stuff was a Saturday-morning-cartoon cop-out. You see, in any Saturday-morning-cartoon with a male and female lead, the male lead will inevitably be straight-up heroic, and the female lead will be similarly so… but will also have some sort of whiz-bang power as sort of a bizarre apology for her being there. Or some half-assed attempt to nod to feminism by the simplest approach possible – magic. The female character will be able to talk to animals, or do magic, or read minds, or something like that, even though she is obviously meant to be the male lead’s equal in every way.

    Unfortunately the only example I can think of offhand is Buster and Babs from Tiny Toons (Buster was just a typical cartoon hero, while Babs did all sorts of elaborate costumed quick-changes), since most shows following that trope were pretty forgettable.

  23. 23
    Emily says:

    Not that it’s a good show or anything, but there’s also Jennifer Love Hewitt in Ghost Whisperer. There seems for some reason to be a niche for psychic/ghost channeling females.

  24. 24
    Ide Cyan says:

    I posted a bunch of examples of this trope at the FSF Blog last year:

    A couple of things that differentiate the Temperance Brennans and Grace Hanadarkos from the Gregory Houses and Patrick Janes are that the female characters’ quirkiness doesn’t dominate the universe around them in the same way that the male characters’ does (Temperance is always having to ask what other people mean because she’s so quirky that she doesn’t understand normative cultural references; contrast for instance Dr. Lightman on Lie to Me whose worldliness is as deep as his anthropological knowledge, or House regularly mocking the inferiority of others), and that whereas male characters have Epic Manpain and Angst, female characters feel Guilty about things, or are always made to Grow In Spite of Themselves.

    Greg House’s self-destructiveness enlists the concerns of his friends and colleagues, but is a pretty triumphant thoroughline of the series and a defining characteristic which is constantly reaffirmed as essential to his being who he is; Grace Hanadarko has a last-chance angel showing up because she’s doomed if she doesn’t wise up and, also —

    SPOILER for the S1 finale of “Saving Grace”





    she’s so fucked up because she’s a survivor of sexual abuse!




    TV shows tend to majorly enable the male characters’ quirks. They are authoritative and must be suffered by everyone else because they’re sooo lovable and/or vital to the plot. Female characters are handicapped and burdened by theirs, not glorified. And they’re all too often only granted those quirks because they’re at the service of others — from Buffy, to Joan of Arcadia, to Jaye from Wonderfalls, to Allison Dubois on Medium, all of whom are Chosen to serve others, some greater purpose than themselves which will not result in their personal glory and crowning as King of the Lab or Best Diagnostician Ever or Renowned Independent Consultant Who Names His Group After Himself.

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  26. 25
    leah says:

    While I agree, I’d also like to point out that this trope holds along racial divides, too. The quirky genius lead is always white. Sometimes a MOC gets to be the foil (example: gus on psych). I cannot even recall a WOC even getting to be the foil (unless it’s a black sitcom); WOC are quite often tertiary characters (for example: the 8’s on battlestar galactica without which, any other POCs – the male cylon and the geminon priestess- have only been in about 3 episodes total).