Here’s a new show worth discussing, so much so that I’ve taken the time to add it to the menu (go ahead, look under “Other TV”–I love our fancy menus). Masters of Sex is about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the breakthrough sex researchers who changed the landscape of medical research on sexuality. While Alfred Kinsey had already published his first book by the time Masters and Johnson began their research, Kinsey’s research was anecdotal and observational–surveys were a crucial part. M&J were the first to take physiological measures during sexual activity, and fundamentally changed the field of sexology.
Masters of Sex is smartly written and wonderful to look at. It’s witty, it appears to be moving in a very feminist direction, it’s sexy, and it’s the very best kind of period piece, one that opens up discussion of both the past and the present. As we are reminded about how hard it was to discuss sex in the 1950s, how controversial it was even to consider such a discussion real science or real medicine, we can see how prudish we still are, even while saturated with discussions of sex.
I mean, are we even “discussing” sex? Or are we just doing the whole “nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more” routine with more explicit language? Aren’t we, in 2013, still treating any woman who is interested in sex without love as if she’s a slut? Aren’t we still treating female desire as somewhat mythical, and somewhat scandalous?
But, let’s talk about Masters of Sex, because that whole can of worms can wait.
The Pilot episode (available to watch for free on Showtime’s website), written by Michelle Ashford and directed by John Madden, is rapidly paced, which is very helpful given that a lot of what isn’t sex on the show is talk. In the wrong hands, this could have been leaden material, because there’s nothing inherently compelling in an argument between doctors about the scientific merits of a study, even if that study involves measuring orgasms. Clever use of period music, short scenes, and lots of movement keep the audience engaged. The excellent acting doesn’t hurt. BAFTA winner Michael Sheen plays William Masters with buttoned-down ferocity, and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson is continually surprising. Caitlin FitzGerald as Libby Masters takes a potentially thankless role and gives it life.
Mad Men fans will love those poofy Betty Draper dresses, so prevalent in the late 1950s. Basketcases should be advised that this show is not nearly as period-obsessed as Mad Men (but then, nothing is). Just look at Johnson’s makeup in the poster above–very modern, not at all 1950s. The look of the show is excellent, and there isn’t a lot of distracting anachronism, but don’t seek here for period perfection–Masters of Sex has other things on its mind.
The two things that are boiling below the surface in the pilot are the way that sexism affects a woman’s ability to enjoy her own sex life, and the way that a veneer of science is masking Masters’s growing attraction to Johnson. The episode ends with what is truly the worst pass ever.
In terms of sexism, the specter of being called a whore hovers over the entire proceedings until at last it’s uttered by Ethan Haas. As widely seen in the previews, Masters didn’t even know that women faked orgasm. A woman was expected to enjoy whatever, or not, because sex is male-driven. Desire on the part of a woman is threatening.
I’m reminded of 500 Days of Summer. Summer tells Tom she doesn’t want a commitment, Tom is okay with that and they enter into an uncommitted relationship. Then, when it turns out that Summer actually meant it and doesn’t want a commitment, Tom is furious and calls Summer “whore.” This is what I mean when I say that not a lot has changed–almost the identical scene appears in Masters of Sex. Ginny Johnson wants a no-strings sexual relationship, Ethan Haas agrees, and then becomes violent and calls her a whore when it turns out she meant it.
Masters is an OB/GYN, he is interested in the impact his research will have on women, and Ginny tells a co-worker that it’s the biggest breakthrough for women since the right to vote. She’s right–when we get to own our own sexuality, we get to own our selves. Hence, my sense that this show is moving in a feminist direction.
Did you watch? What did you think? Discuss!