Written by Katherine Murray.
Masters of Sex is not a great show. It’s awkward and safe and seems to think that we’re impressed by watching people masturbate. But it’s also this really strange, kind-of cool story all about the masculine ideal and a time traveler who tries to break the cycle of self-hatred that supports it.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Bill, Virginia, and the terror of human emotion[/caption]
Masters of Sex, if you haven’t been watching or hate-watching it, is a fictionalized account of the work done by of real-life sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the late 1950s. Officially, the series is about the study they conducted and the breakthroughs they made in our understanding of human sexuality. Unofficially, it’s a love story, too.
We know from history that the real Masters and Johnson eventually married, and the tension in Masters of Sex isn’t about whether they’ll get together. The tension in Masters of Sex is about whether Virginia can rescue Bill from his sense of self-hatred by freeing him from 1950s gender norms. She is the hero, and that is her quest; if she succeeds – and we think she’ll succeed – her reward will be his love.
Most of what we’ve learned about Bill, so far, has been in service of explaining Virginia’s quest to save him. He’s smart and sensitive and, basically, a good, well-meaning person, but he has a tragic backstory involving an abusive father, and an internalized sense of shame around his own emotions. With his wife – he’s married when he meets Virginia – he acts out the gender roles he’s learned. That is, he treats her kindly, but like something that’s foreign to him; a creature from another planet that he can’t quite understand. He doesn’t feel that he can talk to her about his troubles; he thinks that she depends on him to be a stable presence. He would like her to admire him, and thinks that he would damage their relationship by revealing his true self.
The reality, of course – and this is dramatized well by Masters of Sex – is that Bill’s wife would like nothing more than to be emotionally intimate with him – to know what he’s thinking and feeling, to have a sense that they’re on the same team. Unfortunately, her own ideas about gender are just as antiquated as Bill’s, and she is, in fact, alarmed when he shows signs of strong emotion. She also treats him like something foreign and unintelligible, hiding her own feelings, and acting like he’s more of a guest in their house than someone who actually lives there.
Virginia, just as stereotypes would have it, is the mistress that Bill can be his true self with. It’s a little bit because he looks down on her, a little bit because he respects her, and a lot because Virginia is a time traveler from 2014.
As the character the audience is most invited to identify with, Virginia is the mouthpiece for most of our beliefs. Masters of Sex is awfully proud of itself for telling us things like “the clitoris exists,” but its target audience is people who already know all this stuff. Specifically, the target audience seems to be women like Virginia – smart, single, independent, self-supporting, sex-positive women with liberal values and a soft spot in their hearts for closed-off men. Virginia is us, wearing a dress from the 1950s, and we get to vicariously rescue the 1950s, and Bill, from the backwards social taboos of the time.
It’s a story-telling strategy that’s sometimes extremely annoying, and other times strangely effective.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Virginia, with Lillian, who overcame Being a Woman to also become A Doctor, and then get killed by being a woman, because she has cervical cancer[/caption]
On the annoying front, Masters of Sex doesn’t usually challenge us. Despite the fact that it’s supposedly about two people who had radical ideas for their time, the show’s pretty safe by today’s standards. It takes the bold stance, for example, that gay people shouldn’t try to turn themselves straight with electroshock therapy. And that women can have careers outside the home. And that people can have sex for recreational purposes. And that you shouldn’t be a dick to someone just because they’re black.
None of these are radical ideas by today’s standards, and we’re invited to look backwards at the 1950s with a sense of satisfaction about how much things have changed. At least so far, there’s very little attempt to examine racism, sexism, or homophobia from an angle that would highlight ongoing problems today. It’s all done retrospectively, like, “Can you believe what people were like?!?” And we share Virginia’s bewilderment and exasperation. She’s essentially A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with a social rather than technological advantage. If we identify with her, we might enjoy the sense of feeling forward-looking and superior, but we don’t learn very much about ourselves.
Masters and Johnson’s actual research, as presented by the show, isn’t exactly a bag of surprises, either. We watch all of the characters freak out over discoveries like, “women can have multiple orgasms” and “people curl their toes during sex.” Were you aware that not everyone who has sex does so in the missionary position? Or that sometimes they think about something other than the person they’re having sex with? If so, you won’t learn anything new, here.
In some ways, this backward-looking orientation is most frustrating when the show is just barely unable to address information that’s actually useful today. There is, for example, a really topical B-plot about cervical cancer that can’t communicate the most important fact we now know about cervical cancer – that it’s caused by HPV, and that there are vaccines for that. The bitter irony of leading the audience to think about cervical cancer each week, without telling them the one thing they might need to know, is almost too much to take. Instead of learning something that might be of actual use, the audience is invited to feel good about the fact that pap smears are now a common practice.
We’re generally invited, through the benefit of hindsight, to see 1950s America as misguided and conservative, and to see Virginia as a hero who’s fighting a noble battle to achieve the future. We know that, in most cases, history is on her side, and we see that she faithfully represents our values. Somehow, she hasn’t internalized any of the bullshit in her culture. That makes her annoying, sometimes, but it’s also what makes her the perfect champion for Bill – she stands outside of everything that makes him hate himself, and offers the perspective that only a (highly improbable) outsider can give.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Bill and Virginia engage in a little after-sex metaphor-making[/caption]
The root of Bill’s self-hatred is the masculine ideal. The cornerstone of any really excellent/terrible patriarchy, the masculine ideal is the notion that there is only one really desirable Way for a person to Be. Women are automatically excluded from being that Way, but so are most men. In the USA, and cultures like it, the masculine ideal of the 1950s required things like: heterosexuality; skill in physical combat;
avoiding the outward display of any emotion except, perhaps, anger; and courage in the face of physical danger. Trying to meet the requirements of that ideal – trying to be a “real man” and win approval from one’s peers – could lead to aggression, misogyny, homophobia, and the construction of a private emotional prison where normal feelings like sadness, embarrassment, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, and fear could fester until they got twisted.
The 1950s – the era that present-day conservatives harken back to when they talk about the good old days – is really a peak in the backlash against equal rights for people who weren’t straight, white men. It was a doubling down on rigid ideas that we now understand can hurt everyone – even the straight, white men who supposedly benefit from them.
Virginia, as a time traveler with values from the future, can give Bill something that nobody else – including his well-meaning wife – can deliver. She can give him a space where it’s safe to let go of all of the things he’s been taught about who he should be, and find out who he is underneath. It’s like Idina Menzel on that mountain.
“Fight,” the series’ best and most critically lauded episode so far, is nothing but a really heavy-handed treatise on this point. Bill and Virginia meet to have sex in a hotel, and a hugely symbolic boxing match on television leads Bill to confess, for the first time out loud, that his father used to beat him as a child and that his only form of protest was to take it “like a man” by not allowing himself to reveal how much it hurt him.
Virginia, who is horrified by this, tells Bill that she won’t raise her son to think that that’s the way to be a man.
The episode uses boxing as a metaphor for several other things, but the point it eventually drives at is that the ability to be vulnerable in front of other people is a strength. This is an idea that’s decidedly 2014, where we’re starting to understand the cost that comes from raising people to suppress their feelings, and shifting to a greater emphasis on mental and emotional health.
The idea that a woman can “save” a man by teaching him to talk about his feelings has become a cliché in the genre, but it’s one that makes sense in this setting. Virginia is the spokesperson for a future where feminists have already largely succeeded in challenging the masculine ideal – where everyone has benefited from discovering that there is more than one right Way to Be. Bill’s anguish and emotional isolation are a reminder of why no one should want to go back to the so-called golden era where men were “real men.”
The informative part of the series – “this is how anatomy works!” – isn’t telling us anything new, and the social values it promotes aren’t very challenging, but, if there’s something relevant buried deep within Masters of Sex, it’s the pointed view it takes of masculinity. It shows us how rigid notions of gender hurt everyone, not just specifically women, and highlights not just the distance we’ve traveled, but why it’s important to go there.
The series’ discussion of gender is the rare instance where its visionary characters have a vision that extends into our future. One where we stop feeling nostalgic for the 50s, and look forward to what we’ll become when we’ve let that all go.
Katherine Murray is a Toronto-based writer who yells about movies and TV on her blog.