‘Selfish’: House, Disability, and Agency

I’ve been rather behind on my television viewing lately, and I only recently caught up on ‘Selfish,’ the second episode of the new season of House (please be advised that this post contains significant spoilers for said episode). After watching it, I needed several weeks to ponder it before I could write about it, because it was an awful episode, and it had a whole lot of problems going on with it. I knew I wanted to open up discussion about it here, but had trouble getting a handle on how to begin.

The episode opens with a scene of a skateboarder in an indoor facility, showing off tricks for a group of wheelchair users and seemingly nondisabled adults. ‘Shredding for a Cure,’ a banner hanging in the facility alerts us. The skateboarder comes to a halt and volunteers to push one of the wheelchair users, who turns out to be her brother, around.

My hackles went up pretty much immediately. House, like seemingly every other show on television, can’t wrap its head around the idea that wheelchair users play sports. A quick YouTube search turns up a whole slew of videos of wheelchair users skating, and the opener would have been dramatically different if we’d seen someone using a wheelchair instead of a skateboard. But then, of course, we wouldn’t have had the neat hook, allowing the skater to collapse while pushing, thus setting up the medical mystery for the episode: What’s wrong with her?

Over the course of the episode, a series of diagnoses are tested and discarded. At one point, they think she needs a bone marrow transplant and a discussion about harvesting marrow from her brother is held. He, of course, is naturally excluded from this discussion, and she refuses to ask him for a donation because she thinks he ‘has it hard enough already.’

Eventually, it is determined that she has sickle cell trait. She also needs a lung, because during her rapid onset of illness, one of her lungs was very badly damaged and replaced with a transplant that started failing almost immediately. Lo and behold! Her brother is a match for a partial lung donation, but is a poor candidate for the procedure because he has muscular dystrophy, and losing a lung would shorten his life and probably degrade his quality of life.

Della, the skater, insists that she doesn’t want to ask her brother for a lung. He eventually overhears an argument and insists on donating a lung to her. Ah, how heartwarming!

Throughout the episode, her brother is repeatedly denied agency. He is told to leave her room when they discuss the need for a lung, and the parents of the children have a ferocious debate about whether they should ask  him to give a lung to his sister; no one considers approaching him to talk to him about the situation and ask him how he feels about it. I am reminded that in the United States, minors have no rights when it comes to medical care, and can be compelled to undergo procedures even if they don’t want to.

There are a whole slew of issues with the framing of this episode. Let’s start with Della, who claims to be ‘living the life her brother can’t,’ reminding us all that being a wheelchair user is The Worst Thing Ever and you are Completely Useless for Life if you use a wheelchair, but, hey, at least you’re inspiring. Obviously he could never do things like joining the science club or playing extreme sports! House reflects social attitudes when it comes to framing and thinking about disability, and this episode is a prime example of exactly the kind of message I wish pop culture would stop sending: That disability is a tragedy, that you will never be able to live the life you wanted if you are disabled, that everyone around you will have to live for you because obviously, you can’t live your own life.

And then there’s the issue with the complete denial of autonomy and agency to Hugo, the brother. He is excluded from all discussions about his sister’s medical situation that might involve his participation. People talk about him, about whether he should be asked for marrow and later a lung, about how they feel about it, but they do not talk to him. He is left to sit in the corridor. They say this is for his ‘protection,’ completely eliding the fact that he is a human being, capable of making his own decisions. Likewise, Della is denied a lot of agency; House refers to her as a ‘mindless teenybopper’ and says she’s clearly incapable of making decisions about her body and medical care.

This is not the first time House has depicted minors as patients and has made sure to remind viewers that minors are all clueless and completely unable to make sound decisions, even if they were legally able to exercise control over their medical care. It usually goes very badly, and there’s usually something infuriating and disability-related going on too; I’m reminded of the episode featuring a Cochlear implant, for example, where the patient’s mother forces her son to go through surgery even though he doesn’t want the implant. On House, disability is always terrible, and minors are always subjugated by their parents ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’

I’ve barely scratched the surface with this episode here, in the interests of not producing a small novel; if you watched it, what did you think of it? What other issues in the episode troubled you? And was the week of 27 September the worst week ever for disability on US television  (House was not the only show running a disability storyline and doing it very, very badly)?

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, s.e. smith. I watch “House,” too, and the whole business about debating whether to take a lung from Hugo to save Della, without Hugo ever being in the room or having anything to say about it, until he randomly walks in on them talking about it, seriously creeped me out.
    Lindsay´s last blog post ..Green Paua Shell Necklace

  2. I was also kind of annoyed that Science Club was brought up as evidence that she was following the interests of a teenage boy, rather than a teenage girl. Because a girl couldn’t possibly like science on her own.

  3. Yes this episode was very problematic… the idea that “she lives because he can’t” was messed up, as though “living” = everything you can’t do in a wheelchair.

    I felt like the entire episode was set up to make viewers cry, but in a really manipulative and unnecessary way. Like “oh no, they didn’t figure out her diagnosis until right after she burned through a lung meaning she will die without shortening her brother’s life, so all the options are devastating…” Plus the whole “sister dedicates her life to making her brother happy [by doing things he can’t do — for the disabled!]” (sniffle sniffle) and “brother sacrificing himself so that his sister may live, finally giving his sad life some meaning” (sobbb it’s so touching…)

    UGH. It was so pointlessly manipulative and problematic that I was too annoyed to be moved by it.

  4. My biggest problem with this episode was that the had HUGO say that giving his lung to his sister will finally give his life meaning! ARG! Seriously??? I can kinda of accept having the people around him being idiots about his disability — if you go with the idea that tv is simply reflecting reality, not trying to show how reality could be — because people ARE often idiots about disability. But by having HIM say they’re right? WHAT?

  5. I don’t know how it usually works in hospitals (Cuddy basically said they wouldn’t have asked, but who knows), but asking the parents to decide if they wanted to almost kill their son to save their daughter made me rage. What an awful decision to have to make, and having to live with that your entire life. And even if it wasn’t them doing something that wouldn’t be done IRL, they did it in such a godawful way.

    Not to mention House constantly telling them that it was an easy decision, implying their son was barely a person anyway.

  6. I hated that episode. House has had plenty of ablism (of many kinds) in its history but it really came to a head here. Especially the scene where Dr. House insults the parents for even possibly thinking their son’s life could be worth what their daughter’s life is. (I know House acts like that all the time… but no one really refuted it in the course of the show, not even Hugo himself.)

  7. Hated it here too, for all of the above reasons, and the personal reason: we have two kids, a disabled son and a nondisabled daughter. If anyone even started to think of having such a disgusting conversation with us, or with either of them, I’d … I don’t know what I’d do, but it would be bad, and security would have to be called.

  8. And the idea that she must be living for her brother because why else would a teen girl want to skateboard and be on the science club.

    Thank you for writing about this. It’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one offended by this episode.