YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 22, 2013

“Masters of Sex” and 70s feminism

masters-of-sex_[Update: December 10, 2013. This has turned out to be the most feminist show I have ever seen on television. Far deeper as it developed than anticipated when I first wrote this blog. Lizzy Caplan singing “You Don’t Know Me” in episode 11 said it all, for all women.]

This blog is not about porn, but about the la-dee-da attitude shown by some feminists not only with respect to the rigors of child-rearing, but without prior understanding of the emotional components and complications of human sexuality. I remember reading John Bowlby’s pioneering work on attachment theory and separation anxiety (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bowlby). I don’t remember which of his many books I read, but I remember thinking that the feminists of my acquaintance would probably hate his theories, as he emphasized the crucial role of mothering in early childhood, with lifelong dire effects if not properly managed (some of his theorizing was probably autobiographical, but what about Winnicott and Mahler?).



I. I will take a partly dim look at the new Showtime series Masters of Sex, created by a woman, Michelle Ashford. I have watched the first four episodes and see this effort as another docudrama that represents a hidden history of science and sex. The hint in the NPR summary is wildly mistaken that (the ubiquitous) Freud was displaced by a more accurate measurement of, to use the character Dr. William Master’s words, “What happens to the body during sex?” During my dissertation research, I was surprised to discover that the two of the three ogres of the 19th century, Marx and Freud (not Darwin), were not equally loathed and feared. The bourgeois Freud was far more controversial as progressives went about reconstructing the humanities curriculum. (Here is my index on Freud blogs: https://clarespark.com/2013/03/16/blogs-on-freud-and-anti-freudians/.)

Briefly, Freud saw repressed sexuality as the source of hysteria and other psychosomatic ailments, and leaned heavily on the Oedipus complex, but few had the money and time to indulge in the “talking cure.” And who wanted to recognize ambivalence within families, or lifelong troubled attachments to the parent of the opposite sex? Freud’s colleague Carl Jung was a different story: he saw Freud’s Id as a source of creativity (as opposed of everyday unhappiness), and many a Jungian analyst used Jung’s dubious theory of archetypes to treat their clients. In the battle of the titans: Jung versus Freud, the younger man penetrated school curricula and the practice of social psychology. (For my copious blogs on Jung and his followers see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/10/jungians-rising/.)

II. Michelle Ashford is the creator of the series. A brief internet search does not link her with the second wave of feminism, but the major demands of 1970s feminism—to celebrate liberated sexuality, to eliminate back-alley abortions, to establish day care centers in workplaces, to de-stigmatize homosexuality, to bring fathers further into the day-to-day burdens of child-rearing, to recognize prostitutes as “sex workers” and not pariahs, to rewrite history to emphasize the roles and condition of women (often in Women’s Studies departments), to break through the “glass ceiling,” to identify “science” with masculinity and the illicit penetration of Mother Earth—have at least partly been accomplished. (For an example of “feminist science” see the work of Donna Haraway and Carolyn Merchant. For a rehabilitation of domestic feminism see Kathryn Kish Sklar’s book on Catherine Beecher.)

Though network television does not show breasts and buttocks, female actors playing professionals often show their cleavage in the dead of winter. But on pay for cable networks like HBO and Showtime, sex acts are routinely demonstrated, though not with male frontal nudity or the details available in porn shops. The achievement of Masters of Sex, though it seems to be a defense of the liberated woman, is the separation of romance and sexuality. I.e., women are entitled to be as promiscuous and detached in their sex lives as men are imagined to be. As the series proceeds, I hope that more nuance is brought into the subject.

Ashford’s heroine, “Virginia Johnson” as played by Lizzy Caplan, is represented as “ahead of her time.” She is the mother of two, both in the series and in Johnson’s real life. That is, like many women today, she believes that she  can “have it all.”

I wish that it were that simple. Perhaps robots will be devoid of the feelings that we have yet to master. But such fantasies do get eyeballs to the television set, and the actors (Michael Sheen is outstanding) are fine.

[Added 10-23-13: Upon thinking it over and considering what crappy jobs many men hold, a woman is lucky to be a wife and mother if she has a good man to support her. When babies are tiny, it is undoubtedly strenuous, but there is no greater intellectual, physical, and emotional challenge than holding a marriage together and raising functioning children who go on to successful relationships in every sphere of life. I include self-direction and independent thought as desirable in offspring. I don’t think that this judgment disqualifies me as an advocate for women’s rights.] [Added 10-29-13: Episode five was well done, since it showed the mother of Masters in complete denial as to her son’s mental problems. She socialized him to be a stoic, and “Virginia Johnson” touches him with words, understanding that nobody could be so strong as to be detached from the loss of a child (and other distorted relationships), and Michael Sheen does a persuasive job in acting out a man cracking up with hitherto repressed grief. Everyone should watch this episode, for the series is about much more than acceptable porn for the middle class.]

For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2014/07/06/the-hobby-lobby-decision-and-the-war-on-women/.

The real Masters and Johnson

The real Masters and Johnson


June 14, 2013

“Father, dear father, come home with me now”

TennightsinbarroomThere will be many tributes to fathers in the next few days. This one will deal 1. with my own father, and 2. with the efforts by social psychologists of the 1940s to rehabilitate the image of the Good Father in order to advance their moderate conservative agendas.

First, my own father, Charles Spark, M.D. My father the doctor was born in NYC, and was the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. During the 1930s he was a research fellow in endocrinology at Montefiore Hospital, and before that he had published a pioneering research paper while still in college. Immediately after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, he wrote and directed an antifascist play at his workplace. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to join the medical corps even though he was over-age (he may have been drafted, and lied to me). Henceforth, we followed him around the country as he ran pathology laboratories at army bases in Texas, Missouri, and California. His precocity, versatility, and willingness to sacrifice himself for his country was impressed upon me from early childhood. I prayed every night that he would not be killed, even though he never saw combat. That is how children think.

He was shipped off to Guadalcanal where he had a violent allergic reaction to the environment, and was shipped home, claiming later that he almost died. For reasons that escape me, he gave up medical research for general practice and we moved into a veteran’s housing project in Elmhurst, NYC. We had never lived high, so the cramped material surroundings were not deeply shocking. All that mattered was that our family was reunified and my father practiced medicine for enlisted men and their families next door.

So my father assumed the proportions of a family hero. He was not only a high achiever in his field, I was expected to live up to his accomplishments, and later in life when I asked him why he gave up medical research, he wrote to me that I was to be his “greatest contribution to medicine.” What I could not know as a child was that neither he nor my mother had any parenting skills. They were nothing like the elites of Europe, who, early on prepared their offspring to take a leading part in world affairs, to travel broadly, and to imbibe high culture and languages, preferably from tutors.

Call it benign neglect. Both parents assumed that I would be an outstanding student and would find a suitable mate (though he frequently warned me about the duplicity of men, binding me to him in the process: he almost didn’t attend my wedding in 1959). So it was their examples as intelligent individuals with high expectations for me that set me up for the future. I learned nothing from my family about sexuality, the other emotions, and neither of them had an interest in Freud or his followers. But neither indoctrinated me in any religion or ideology, though my mother often mentioned her pride in her rabbinic ancestors (see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/12/i-remember-mama-betty-spark/.) I had the impression that they must be liberals of some kind. Sadly, they are both deceased, and I cannot interrogate them on these interesting questions.

It was not until I was at Pacifica and made the acquaintance of numerous New Leftists that I began to look into masculine versus feminine roles. From political scientist Carl Boggs I learned that paternal authority had been eroded for centuries. From feminists, I learned that there was a furious debate over the status of women: hard left women tended to believe that women had greater status when their labor was visible (e.g. Mary Kelley), while another faction (social democratic, e.g. Kathryn Kish Sklar) argued that domestic feminism leading to the welfare state marked the advance of all women. It was noted that by all that under industrialization, the father was no longer the paterfamilias who distributed resources in the household: father was now out of the house and the role of religious training fell more and more on mothers. (Ann Douglas wrote a best seller, still highly regarded, but controversial: The Feminization of American Culture. Douglas preferred the terrifying Calvinist God, not the feminized Jesus of the 19th century.) Hence the widespread nervousness among conservatives about “the [encroaching] nanny state.” 1970s feminism was the last straw (see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/04/links-to-blogs-on-feminism/) .

During my dissertation research, I discovered that social psychologists at Harvard University were frantically attempting to rehabilitate the good father, merging the figures of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, in order, they said, to raise “civilian morale.” Feminization, it was believed, would lead to Marxism, not to the conservative reform that such as Henry A. Murray, Gordon Allport, Talcott Parsons, and their Harvard colleagues preferred as moderate men. Indeed, Talcott Parsons published an article in an anthology edited by Isacque Graeber and Steuart Henderson Britt, Jews in a Gentile World (Macmillan, 1942) that limned the bad father: the Jewish God was nailed as brutal, militaristic, and domineering. Whereas Murray and Allport in their notebooks on civilian morale praised the Leader/ Father/God as loving and committed to democracy, the very embodiment of Eros. (On this topic see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/, also the postwar planning intended to continue this “moderate” agenda: https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/ .)

So on this Father’s Day, 2013, we find ourselves in a quandary. Do we want Father to be the stern disciplinarian, the masculinist role model for boys who will divert libido from too-compassionate, radicalizing mothers to [moderately] Democratic fathers (as these social psychologists suggested)? Can women raise children without a husband? Conservatives and liberals are still slugging it out on this question.

As for my own father the doctor, I remain deeply attached to him, notwithstanding his many flaws. Both he and my late mother believed in me, in some ways stimulated me, and in other ways left me alone. Perhaps by default, they encouraged me to be curious and to admire and emulate the most daring thinkers in Western civilization.

Charles and Betty Spark mid-1930s

Charles and Betty Spark mid-1930s

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