[For my first take on this series, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/22/masters-of-sex-and-70s-feminism/%5D
By an odd coincidence, the last episode of Showtime’s hit series Masters of Sex (10 August, 2014), took on the problem of race relations in St. Louis Missouri at the same time that the suburb of Ferguson was exploding in looting and confrontations between “militarized” police and blacks.
This blog is about the double bind white liberal writers are trapped in, given the particular history of race relations in the US. Should they rescue the black population from bigotry (e.g., Huckleberry Finn, Intruder In The Dust, affirmative action/multiculturalism/whiteness studies) or is it up to blacks to save themselves (e.g., the Black Power movement “by any means necessary”)? (For my blogs on the black power movement see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/15/index-to-black-power-blogs/)
In the last episode of Masters of Sex, Courtney Vance plays Dr. Charles Hendricks, the head of Buell Green, a “Negro” hospital in St. Louis, who has hired the twice disgraced William Masters, expecting him to carry out (Vance’s) specifically “integrationist” project. But Dr. Masters doesn’t see that convincing his white patients to follow him to a dubious neighborhood in the era of segregation is not his, but Hendricks’s priority, a point missed by the Los Angeles Times recap (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-masters-of-sex-recap-racial-tension-flares-at-bills-new-hospital-20140810-story.html.) Masters tells Hendricks that he has his own battle ahead in pursuing his tabooed research on the physiology of sex, while handing off to his mistress the task of persuading his old patients off to follow him to an all black hospital. Virginia, stereotypically enough, is more emotionally attuned and hence more manipulative than he is. The last shots show “Hendricks” leaving in a huff, for the second time pulling down a flyer that Virginia Johnson had put up, soliciting volunteers for the sex study that she and Bill had initiated, and that is, like her, “ahead of her time.”
[Earlier in the episode, Masters had shown himself to be unusually empathic with blacks by chastising his reactionary wife “Libby” for forcing her black maid to wash her hair (under the delusion that “Coral” had brought lice into the house). She half-heartedly apologizes to Coral’s protective ‘boyfriend’, who classifies her with hopelessly insensitive “white people.” Yet both Bill and Virginia are seemingly floored by the request to adjust their priorities, putting militant integrationism ahead of their sex project.]
The producers and writers of Masters of Sex are nothing if not present-minded, inventing situations and characters that are the essence of political correctness. Seizing on snippets of the real history of the Masters and Johnson collaboration and then their ultimately failed marriage (divorced in 1992), the creators populate their series with assertive women struggling against the odds, repressed authoritarian males, closeted lesbians, tormented homosexuals pretending to be straight then seeking “conversion,” aging women, prostitutes, oppressed but passive-aggressive blacks, outspoken blacks—all characters who have starred in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s; the target audience is presumably fascinated by the transformations they believe they have wrought via their activism.
But with the presence of the ardently integrationist “Charles Hendricks” (who sees himself as a pioneer like William Masters) Showtime has placed itself in a political quagmire, for the American polity (both Left and Right) has no idea how to proceed in the romantic project of making up for generations of slavery, then Jim Crow. The real history of the Masters and Johnson collaboration is interesting enough, but present-mindedness (judging the past through the lens of present mores) is the real spoiler. Like the shows on HBO, Showtime delivers soft porn and the frisson, whatever literary merit surfaces now and then (and it does in the episode where, through Virginia’s skillful extraction, Bill exposes his relations with his cold, abandoning father).
(PS. I could find zero pictures on the internet showing angry confrontations between Libby, Coral, or her ‘boyfriend’ Robert (really her half-brother as we will discover in episode 6), even though these tense encounters are in the script of episode 5. Real life does not imitate art.)