YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 26, 2015

Masters of Sex, second wave feminism, and the ratings game

masters-and-johnson-4140196600[Update: the third season finale left me infuriated, for “Bill” cannot escape his father’s whippings so as to pursue Virginia who is running off with her new lover. As psychoanalyst Henry Murray once wisely  wrote, the variation of the myth where the hero fails to beat the monster is “unendurable for a small child to endure.” The small child in me was disappointed and agitated. But perhaps that is what season finales are designed to do: cliff hanging, but it struck an unnecessarily pessimistic note about the human capacity to ever overcome the traumas of childhood. I think that Thomas Maier is uncomfortable with this series.]

I have written about this series before, twice. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/08/16/ferguson-mi-masters-of-sex-and-the-dilemma-of-the-white-liberal/, with link to the first one.)

The second episode the third season of Masters of Sex  threw me for a loop, so, especially in light of the controversy over Planned Parenthood, I thought I should write a blog about it.

The series about Masters and Johnson’s path breaking studies of the physiology of the human sexual response (1966) takes great liberties with the facts of their lives, in my view, because of the need to appeal to an audience which is already “liberated” but which also might retain many social conservative viewers, or sadder but wiser ex-feminists.

Michelle Ashford (b. 1960), the creator of the Showtime hit series, was hip to the sexual revolution, and appears to have taken advantage of the second wave of feminism, along with the gay movement, and the early civil rights movement, but this season she seems more attuned to broadening her audience beyond aging veterans of 60s social movements.

First, a word about the character of Virginia Masters (played by Lizzy Caplan), who is constantly billed as “ahead of her time,” because as a former night club singer, she is neither frigid, nor hung up on monogamy, but participates in non-committed sleeping around. In other words, she behaves like a single heterosexual male. (This is only attributed to ‘feminism by conservatives, for many second wave feminists were indeed doormats for men, but were more often interested in breaking into male-dominated professions and businesses.)

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

But this season, the chickens come to roost, and the (fictionalized) children of both chief characters are teen agers, and predictably defiant and critical of their parents’ unavailability. This causes Virginia’s underage son to enlist in the military (during Viet Nam!), and leads to comfort sex with her first husband, which leaves her pregnant, just in time for the release of the Masters and Johnson book on the physiology of the human sexual response.

Since Bill Masters (played to perfection by Michael Sheen) won’t leave his wife, Virginia remains unmarried. She tells Bill that she is about to have an abortion, but as the abortion is about to take place, she abruptly decides to bring the baby to term. (A hat tip to pro-lifers? Or a way to advance the plot, for Bill is now aghast at having a pregnant unmarried co-author who will come off as a slut, marring the respectability of their twelve-year endeavor?)

So Virginia and husband #1 remarry to save the book, much to George Johnson’s discomfort, for he wants a real re-marriage.

Now comes the part that shocked me. Perhaps under the influence of pregnancy hormones that have aroused her maternal instincts, Virginia has a fit of self-incrimination, as she declares that she was never there for her two children, and should have chosen devoted stay-at-home motherhood instead of her career. I don’t know an intelligent woman who has not had these same doubts.

Indeed, my own conclusion is that we, the gifted women, are doomed, should we want both children and the full development of our ambitions to achieve outside the home.

The episode ends with Bill driving off after looking at the new baby, a girl, and the first husband hangs around the nursery with Virginia, gazing at their new child. I sense a double triangle in the next episodes, or more likely Virginia will sleep with a new character played by Josh Charles, prompting Bill to finally leave a sexless, old-fashioned, marriage.

In real life, Masters and Johnson were married until 1991, when Bill left her. For author’s Thomas Maier’s comments on these characters see http://time.com/3880364/the-real-masters-of-sex-life-with-masters-and-johnson/. (Maier does not comment on the pandering in the Showtime series to the soft-porn audience along with hot button social movements, but does raise the possibility that Virginia never loved Bill.)

masters2

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