Representation in House M.D.

House M.D. is a TV series that is rated 8.9/10 on IMBD. The first season was launched in 2004 and aired by the Fox Broadcasting Company and On TV until the last season, season 8.  The show is produced partially by “Heel and Toe Films, Shore Z productions and Bad Hat Harry Productions in association with NBC Universal Television Studio” (, n.d.). House M.D. is one of the shows that has over one million views worldwide. It is one of the shows that have been nominated for 105 awards and successfully received 38 of them (Preece, 2012). The show is extremely famous to the extent that its content influences its audience to a large degree. The fame that the show has accomplished makes the myths and underlying stereotypes that it presents a normal thing to accept and even integrate in our lives. However, despite it being a medical drama show, one does not really need to know anything about medicine in order to understand it (Omen, Dalmas & Weyers, 2014). There are eight main characters in this TV show but the ones that are relevant for this research paper are Gregory House; the hero of the show, Dr. Eric Foreman; an African-American neurologist, Lisa Cuddy; the team’s boss and finally Dr. Allison Cameron, an intern at Mayo clinic and part of the team (, 2011). Therefore, this research paper will analyze House M.D. using two theories of representation. The two theories are de Saussure's semiotic theory and Barthes' discussion of myth.

Saussure is a Swiss linguist who created the semiotic approach of language in which he defined language as a system of signs. He further split these signs into two different forms. One is the signifier which is the actual form (in this case would be shouting, rude words, male, female, limping etc) and the signified which the concept triggered in our head (in this case would be females being weak and inefficient, doctors are patients themselves etc.). He also concluded that the signifier earns its meaning through a system of differences that he considers is the difference between the signifier and the signified (Hall, 2012). Some of his critics referred to the latter as binary opposites (Mill & al., 2013). This concept will be used to compare how males and females and placed beside each other and contrasted in their behavior and performance in an indirect manner. Moreover, Saussure summarized that the signified changes over time and is never fixed. This will be demonstrated by analyzing how the “Black” African American character is presented and how this shift in representation contributes to shifting the connotation of black from being bad to being good.

            The French critic, Ronald Barthes used Saussure’s creation of langue and parole in which langue was the social part of language and representation to interpret the underlying meaning behind content. In other words, Barthes focused more on the langue of content instead of its parole. Barthes used the terms denotation to refer to Saussure’s signifier and the term connotation to refer to the signified (Hall, 2012). The difference between Barthes’ discussion and Saussure’s theory is that Saussure analyzed language systems while Barthes used the Swiss Linguist’s concepts to analyze activities and objects. Both theories mentioned above will be combined to understand the meaning behind certain behaviors and assigned roles in the show.

There are many themes and underlying stereotypes presented in House M.D. The most significant myth portrayed is that doctors are ill themselves and need treatment to function like normal people (Elly, 2012). One way through which this myth is stated implicitly is through the personality of Gregory House. House is the main character presented to be the most important doctor and former head of department of diagnostic medicine. Despite House’s great success in treating his patients there are many flaws in his personality. This includes “him being aggressive, arrogant and self- righteous” (Preece, 2012). Putting Saussure’s and Barthes’ theory into practice, the concept of him being all of these three adjectives are signified using very specific signifiers for example through insulting his co-workers, being very moody, the inappropriate language use with patients and employees, his tone, body gestures and his voice.

Moreover, the show created the signified connotation that doctors are ill themselves and need treatment by presenting Dr. House as a drug addict who needs narcotics to medicate his pain away as the signifier. In this case, the word pain not only refers to his physical pain due to having a “myocardial infraction in his leg” that makes him limb but also the emotional agony that he tries to eliminate with the help of his narcotics (Malconn, 2011). The show presents Dr. House to consume his narcotics very frequently to the extent that the audience cannot neglect the fact that he is an addicted doctor who tries to treat other patients. Plus, this signified connotation has been stated explicitly as well by Dr. House himself in season one, in a dialogue between him and his colleague Cameron in which stated in specific that “Gorgeous women do not go to medical school unless they’re damaged as they are beautiful.” He asks her a couple of interrogative questions by saying “Were you abused by a family member?...Sexually assaulted?....But you’re damaged, aren’t you?” (Springfield Springfield, 2004)

The latter leads to the next major signified stereotype in the TV show which is anti-feminism and again this signified has been portrayed implicitly and explicitly. First of all looking at the main cast of the show, out of nine characters only six of them are women and that shows how males are more dominant in the show in contrast to females. The show also devalues women in many other ways including making jokes about how inefficient they are in everything (Angelini, 2006). For example going back to the conversation between Dr. House and one of the main female characters, Allison Cameron, he not only puts her under the stereotype that all doctors, specially females, are damaged themselves but he also degrades her effort to be a doctor and her skills by stating that he hired her only for her looks and by comparing her presence in the hospital to having a “nice piece of art in the lobby” ((Springfield Springfield, 2004)).

Another important, implicit way in which Dr. House signifies domination and anti-feminism is by disobeying Dr. Lisa Cuddy’s orders. For example, in one of the episodes she advices him that the patient is too fat to fit in the MRI machine yet he took the patient for an MRI test and broke the machine. Yes, it is true that the show has the one in the highest position as a woman yet, they signify how unsuccessful she is in the work place and that she can never have a successful balance between her job and her emotions. Apart from showing Dr. House disobeying his female boss, he also insults her and makes unsuitable, sexual comments about the way she dresses up and sexually comments on her body and her big derriere (McNab, 2012). The show also portrays Dr. Cuddy as unable to take action against a man (Dr. House) and fails in decision making. In fact, she does assigns him extra clinic working hours as a sort of punishment that even that he rebels and refuses to commit. Most importantly, in the later seasons, Dr. Cuddy who is supposed to be Dr. House’s boss falls in love with him. The fact that she let her emotions get in the way of her job and her decision making process reinforces the stereotype that a female can never be in a position of power, simply because she is soft hearted and will let her emotions get in the way of her job.  The signified here is not just that she merged her emotional life with her professional life but also her acceptance of having a relationship with Dr. House despite his abusive language and behavior towards her, signifies the acceptance of domestic abuse (Kotsko).

 In fact, the whole TV show is designed in an anti-feminist way by showing the relationship between the team members and co-workers (Elly, 2012). In this case, they use binary opposites by placing in many situations Dr. Cameron and Dr. House’s working styles in the same scene together. They show how Dr. House is very much task oriented while his female colleague is people oriented. This is portrayed by showing both characters in many scenes arguing about listening to patients and sharing information with them. Of course, Dr. House is portrayed to reinforce the stereotype as not trusting patients’ point of view of their illness and focuses more on getting the diagnosis than on making the patients feel better. On the other hand, the argument always puts Dr. Cameron in the soft hearted position where she fights for the patient’s right to be informed and listened to by the doctors (Bentes, 2011). The use of binary opposites is also used to show how Dr. House treats the female members of his team. The latter is done in a way such that almost everyone in the team proposes ideas or makes suggestions of diagnosis and Dr. House neglects or makes fun of the opinions and point of views of the female members.

In addition, there is an interesting observation about the commercials that are shown during the TV show. The advertisement always relates to the theme of the show not only that but it also relates to the signified. In other words, the stereotype that is portrayed in the show is reinforced in the ads displayed in the break (Kotsko, 2009) For example, during the show, a medication for rheumatoid arthritis is shown and even though the advertisement is dominated by women, they are portrayed as though they are more susceptible to getting the illness when in reality both genders are equally susceptible.

The third major connotation presented in the show is how Dr. House engages in unethical practices and yet gets away with it and even worse gets rewarded for it. This unethical practice is revealed in a number of instances (Taylor, 2011). For example he lies to his boss, Dr. Cuddy, about the diagnosis just so he can get a permission to prescribe medication to the patients even though this can possibly lead to the patient’s death. He ignores his patients ‘requests and questions, makes promises that he doesn’t fulfill and he keeps valuable information from important stake holders. This is direct and these behaviors can straight forwardly be categorized as the signifier. However, the fact that when he guesses the patient’s illness, manipulates results and tries different medications on each patient he ends up with the right diagnosis and the right treatment plan creates a connotation or a signified that these behaviors always leads to positive results just because he does not experience punishments or serious outcomes for these unethical practices.

Last but not least, the only effort to try to eliminate a previously created myth that black people are dumb and do not have the intellectual ability to pursue an education and have a respectful career is challenged. Dr. Eric Foreman is a black African-American who is portrayed to be very successful, logical and has the intellectual skills to be outperform his colleges (). The latter signified perception is conveyed by always having Dr. Foreman suggest milestones in the patients’ illness and propose diagnosis that impress Dr. House as a boss yet they downgrade the African-American later in the show by presenting him infected with a mysterious illness. In addition, Dr. House always compares how his contributions make sense and are relevant as compared to his other colleague works which is probably part of the antifeminist behavior as well. Dr. House also praises Dr. Forman the most as compared to the other male characters in the team.

The major concern regarding these myths presented in House M.D. is the fact that the show is extremely famous worldwide and these messages with no doubt leave an impact on its audience. The signified connotations this show influences the cognitive schema that help us organize and understand the world around us (Aronson, 2014).  For example, having Dr. House always rewarded for his unethical behavior or managing to reach the right diagnosis despite his unreliable techniques alters our schema and conveys the message that one can always get away with their maladaptive behavior. This is significantly in action when the audience likes a certain character too much that they are unable to identify mistakes within their character or even when the audience is not critical enough to analyze the scenes as they watch. In other words, these myths are most effectively absorbed when the viewers are passive receivers of messages.

            To conclude, the media shapes our perception to a very large extent and we do not need to realize that fact for it to have an actual effect on how we deal with matters on a daily basis. In fact, most myths introduced by the media shape how we view the world on an unconscious level. The TV show House M.D. on its own introduces three major stereotypes that according to Saussure are called signified and according to Barthes are called connotation. The show creates scenarios, scripts, behaviors and characters as the signifiers that create drama to keep the audience on the edge of their seats but unfortunately this drama comes along with many signified connotations that influence us as audience. The directors have also used the concept of binary opposites to add drama to their scenes and add connotations as well. The main three stereotypes presented in the show are doctors being ill themselves, females being the weak emotional gender and the black African-American doctor being the most intellectual and logical member of the team.