House: The Ultimate Woman is a Man

I watched an episode of House called “Skin Deep” last night, and instead of having to look for potential meta-messages, I found the message right in the dialog: “the ultimate woman is a man.”

House is treating a 15 year old female supermodel who turns out to be chromosomally male. Don’t ask me about the science: according to this website about intersex conditions, the science was wrong and offensive, anyway. But to give you the story’s context, House talks about how we all begin as female, and then the Y chromosome differentiates male fetuses, but sometimes it doesn’t work. In this case, the compensatory estrogen had created an astoundingly perfect woman from genes designed for a male. In addition to looking perfect, she was described as never getting angry, and she’d made a habit of sleeping with men in order to guilt them into letting her have her way.

The ultimate female stereotype, then, is a man.

The writers’ intent was, I believe, to point out how very thin the line between male and female biology is (true enough), which is the traditional counterpoint to the argument that men and women are biologically destined to think and behave differently. The character in the story was a woman (and a stereotypical one) because that’s what she’d made of herself, biologically and behaviorally.

Even in physiology, gender is not a black and white determinant of what we are, want, believe or can do.


  1. aizjanika says

    That’s a really interesting point, especially since there are so many studies that seem to show that men and women are inherently different physically and psychologically.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sorry if this rambles, but you hit on something I’ve been reading about lately. :)

    Yes, and the scientists making these reports about how those differences are as predisposed to see difference as the rest of us. As objective as they may try to be, they don’t always realize how many of our most basic assumptions don’t exactly have a tested basis. A book I’m reading talks about how Darwin, working during the Victorian Age, allowed his perception of animal sexuality to be tainted by his assumptions about humans: that females are passive receptors, not aggressors in mating. In many animals, this just isn’t the case, and that invalidates aspects of some of his conclusions. Of course, I’m not convinced this is true of humans, either – we exhibit a wide variety of the mating strategies you’d see in the animal kingdom, so I don’t know how you can state that there’s One Correct Way for human males and females to behave sexually, and you know it, and that’s the end of it.

  3. Glaivester says

    Two things to realize:

    (1)General statements are general statements. Saying that men are on average more sexually aggressive than women does not mean that the number of sexually aggressive women is vanishingly small.

    (2) I think my general theory is that men and women are different, but a lot more parallel than we think they are. For example, men on average are more interested in visual erotica and women on average on written erotica, but both display interest in similar themes, e.g. girl-on-girl porn vs. slash fanfiction. (I call this phenomenon heterohomophilia – interest in homosexual activity in the opposite sex).

    I will say here that, not having seen this episode , I can’t be sure, but I’m not certain that the science was as wrong as all that. House insisting that chromosomes made the man was likely just him being a jerk.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Saying that men are on average more sexually aggressive than women does not mean that the number of sexually aggressive women is vanishingly small.

    Yes, but it does dismiss without testing the possibility that women are more sexually aggressive than men, but have been conditioned to behave differently. And the point the book is making is how hard it is to test theories like this when assumptions are in the way. For example, at one time it was generally thought that testosterone led to aggressive behavior and estrogen was calming. Which of course explained why men were aggressive compared to women! Except with all the research into hormone imbalance and so on, they’ve learned lots of things – such as, testosterone plays a major role in female sexual arousal. So does that mean women are more aggressive when aroused? “Oh, heck no,” concludes the scientist who can see for him or herself women aren’t aggressive. “We must be wrong about the testosterone/aggression connection.”

    This is probably a lousy example full of holes, but do you see what I mean about assuming that what you observe is what it appears to be, and neglecting to test it?

    Here’s a simpler example. I ask a scientist why my hair is such a boring shade. He launches into an explanation of genetics and family history, maybe even diet and hormonal influences on hair color. But the real answer is: I dyed it that color to appear non-threatening to him. ;)

    As for the show, I can’t say whether it was accurate or not, but I sure can say it wasn’t explained in as much detail as some of the other conditions the show deals with. I just needed to explain House’s conclusions in order to explain the story, but I didn’t want to repeat something I don’t understand and can’t confirm as if I know it to be accurate.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Just to be clear, I don’t necessarily think your theory in #2 is wrong. For example, it seems to me that if men are physically stronger than women, women would have evolved their strategic and problem-solving thinking better than men – assuming the commonly-held belief that animals rely on the easiest option available until it fails is correct. By that logic, men of average or higher strength would tend not to use their brains as much, and women in general would be more strategic, better at long term planning, etc. And of course, I can look all over life and see anecdotal backup to my conclusion that women are smarter than men, which is what sociobiologists are actually doing. It’s a very dangerous, soft science when you think about it.

    So (1) I stay open to the possibility that this is all based on incorrect, seemingly self-evident assumptions about evolution, and it’s errant to assume if one gender developed strength X the other must have developed strength Z, and (2) in any case, I’m more interested in what we make of ourselves than what nature made us. It’s natural to hit someone for looking at you funny, but most people have made a choice to step down aggression in favor of species-wide cooperation. Even the choice to change our nature may be a natural part of evolution.

  6. blue epiphany says

    For example, it seems to me that if men are physically stronger than women, women would have evolved their strategic and problem-solving thinking better than men – assuming the commonly-held belief that animals rely on the easiest option available until it fails is correct.

    This reminds me of something I read (sorry, can’t remember where) about how oppressed groups are better at picking up non-verbal cues in communication – are better at reading body language. As I recall, this was a study conducted in the US, and the findings held true for women of all ethnic groups and African-Americans, male and female (can’t remember if other groups were studied). It’s really fascinating to think – if they’d only done the comparison by gender they probably would have said, oh, women are more sensitive and better communicators, reinforcing a female stereotype. By including race as a factor they found it wasn’t gender, but dominance that was affecting the ability to interpret body language. Their thinking was that, when you’re communicating with someone who holds more power in an institutional fashion, all your life, you have to pick up subtle cues to figure out if you’re in danger, if you’re being lied to, etc.

  7. says

    Blue epiphany, that’s a fabulous example of the problems with “science” that determines women and men are biologically, inherently different: it can’t eliminate all cultural programming. In the study you’re talking about, it sounds like the people behind it were smart enough to brainstorm for other possible reasons, which enabled them to come up with a far more credible (and common sense) result.

    But a lot of studies are funded by people looking for evidence of certain things. Or are conducted by people who really aren’t great at brainstorming the possibilities. I’m reminded of a joke:

    A scientist tells a frog, “Jump, frog!” and it jumps so many inches. He cuts off a leg and says “Jump frog” and the frog jumps fewer inches. He repeats this with the third leg, and the jump is even shorter, then the fourth. He says “Jump, frog” and the legless frog sits there. Conclusion? Cut off all four legs, and the frog can’t hear.

    I’ll have to link to your comment in the future when people try to argue that science has proven how men and women are biologically different (and therefore feminism can’t change anything).

  8. Greg says

    Hi people, first of all, I apologize in advance for my lousy grammar since I am a spanish speaker (and writer).
    I’m a medicine student, and I want you to know that the tv show house m.d. it’s very unpopular between the medical community due to things that I won’t discuss in here. Nevertheless I wanna say what I think House meant with this phrase. The patient in the show had testicular feminization syndrome due to an androgen insensivity wich means that the body of the patient is able to produce androgens (testosterone mainly) as any other human being, women included, but his/her body is unable to ‘process’ it due to a failure in the synthesis of receptors so it is not affected by the action of androgens. We all begin as women but with the course of pregnancy we are exposed to androgens, if the quantity of androgens is enough we become men. These patients are not affected by andogens at all, in spite of normal women who are exposed to lower quantities of this hormone than men, but still exposed. This hormone its the responsible of some of the characters of some women that according to our society makes them ‘non-pretty’ (facial hair, big shoulders, big nose, small breasts). ipso facto a women or men, that has never been exposed to androgens will become a ‘perfect women’ because he/she has no single masculine characters (except for the testis in this case). The ultimate woman is a man. For me House is talking about pure physiology.

  9. says

    Greg, your grammar is fine, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. In that scene, he discusses how physically ideal she is for a woman, with great curves and clear skin and so on. Then he notes that her condition is what caused her to have the very features that are idealized in women. The irony is that this ideal has been achieved not by someone with two X chromosomes, but by someone who would not be accepted as a “woman” by most people, if they knew about her condition.

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