The Clare Spark Blog

August 16, 2014

Ferguson MO, Masters of Sex, and the dilemma of the white liberal

Imipassioned integrationist demands action from white doctor

Imipassioned integrationist demands action from white doctor

[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.”

Disgusted "Hendricks"

Disgusted “Hendricks”

[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.)

Sunny view of Libby-Robert confrontation

Sunny view of Libby-Robert confrontation

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May 27, 2013

SMASH: the perfect liberal backstage musical

Caravaggio: Amor Vincit Omnia

Caravaggio: Amor Vincit Omnia

SMASH had its “season finale” on March 26, 2013, but it has been cancelled. This blog tries to do two things: 1. To compare its optimism with some musical predecessors written from the Left (CABARET and CHICAGO) both of which stressed decadence and civic corruption; and 2. To note how SMASH catered to its liberal audience (feminists, gays) replicating the usual double binds that social democrats cannot escape. In this case, competition and compassion co-exist without strain; moreover it left unresolved the more controversial feminist and gay activist claims—on abortion, and whether or not all men are really gay, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary. (For a prior blog on SMASH see ttp://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.)

CABARET and CHICAGO, though laid in different periods, both remind us of the Weimar culture’s sardonic, mocking tone of Brecht and Weill’s THREEPENNY OPERA, a great hit in NYC when I was a teenager. I remember enjoying CABARET, but being instructed by one critic that its intertwined themes of decadence and growing support for Nazism were ahistoric and misleading, I thought about it with more skepticism. Indeed, upon reflection, one of Nazism’s appeal was to replace the corrupt, crime-ridden “jewified,” hyper-sexualized and materialist City with the wholesome simplicity of rural family values and family cohesion. Sex roles in Hitler’s Germany were clearly defined, with sharp physical and role differences posited between men and women. This was made clear enough in CABARET.

I have just described a culturalist explanation for the rise of Hitler, one that ignores his chief aims: expansion into Eastern Europe for purposes of Lebensraum, and his second but primary aim: to destroy the growing Communist Party in Germany, and by extension to destroy the Soviet Union (believed to be a “socialist” front for finance capital, which is why Nazis referred to “Jewish Bolshevism”).

[I have written before about the false belief, current among the American Right, that Hitler was a man of the Left, “proven” by the word “Socialist” in the title of the Nazi Party. But “socialism” to the Nazis meant the willingness to sacrifice one’s individuality and life for the sake of the purified racial state: “the people’s community” or Volk.]

Moving on to SMASH: this expensively funded television show was originally to be a backstage look at the business of theater in NYC. Though funding a Broadway show was one dominant theme of the series (money causes havoc with writers and casting), the writers never brought up craft unions as a factor in driving up the cost of Broadway shows and discouraging innovation and originality because of union rules. (This point applies to Broadway, films, and television. Producers are seen as the bad guys, with formulaic story lines a function of marketing to the great unwashed and unlettered. In SMASH, there is rivalry between two divorced producers: the competitive, evil and vindictive Michael Cristofer, with the good producer who elicits our sympathy, the compassionate Angelica Huston, who is so unblemished by class snobbery that she falls in love with a scruffy fellow from the lower orders.)

The theme of competition versus teamwork ran throughout the series: Katherine MacPhee competes with Megan Hilty for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a musical called BOMBSHELL. At the very end of the second season, the two rivals mimic the end of CHICAGO, where the once competitive Katherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger join in a raunchy “sister act” that celebrates sex and gangster gun violence, with wild audience applause. Similarly, in SMASH, the two actresses wear burlesque-type costumes, swing their booties, and go off as friends: the audience can love both of them, especially as “Ivy” (though impregnated by the womanizing director played by Jack Davenport), rehabilitates their relationship and we don’t know if she will have his baby and jeopardize her promising career as a Broadway Tony-winning star or not. Amor Vincit Omnia. Indeed, all relationships that were threatened with dissolution are reinstated in the two-hour finale, but without resolving the most sensitive subjects: abortion and gayness (or bisexuality) as normative.

On the gay front: Christian Borle’s character, overtly gay and a sensitive collaborator with his writer and lyricist Debra Messing, meets a “straight” Hollywood star who is kissed by Borle, and the two collaborators go off to Hollywood where their once-threatened partnership will flower again, presumably with romantic love interest for Borle with a straight man who is really gay.

Another evasion: in season one, Debra Messing had an affair with Will Chase, an affair that broke up her marriage. Yet in the finale, she is pictured at her lover’s door, ready to resume their affair, yet Chase had a wife and a family in season one. But not to worry, for Amor Vincit Omnia.

Progressive optimism rules in this television tribute to the magical world of “live theater” (!!!!) and we learn once more that the world of the theater, on Broadway or Off, is enclosed within its tight little relationships, in which all wars end, magically.

Caravaggio: Resurrection

Caravaggio: Resurrection

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