There’s a scene in the fascinating TV series Masters of Sex during which the 50+ Margaret Scully (Alison Janney) goes for an interview in the hopes of being accepted as a participant in a pioneering scientific study on human sexuality. She’s asked if she has ever had an orgasm, “I don’t think so,” she shrugs, to which research assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) offers sadly, “you’d know if you had.”
The characters might be fictional in the series but the milieu is certainly not. This is 1950s America where women are tethered to the virgin/whore complex. They’re either housewives or secretaries born into a man’s world and expected to seek out a suitable husband and then to wordlessly bear and raise children. The pill hasn’t been invented yet and Freud’s theories were gospel. He wrote in a 1925 paper: “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.” Women were apparently also tormented by penis envy. And, heaven forbid females should actually enjoy sex (gasp!) or try and control their own bodies.
In this puritanical era, an actual study of people copulating is unthinkable, but Obstetrician and Gynecologist Dr William Masters (Michael Sheen), obsessed with understanding the science behind sex, manages to run his revolutionary study. He enlists the help of Virgina; a wide-eyed, ambitious and divorced mother of two who also happens to enjoy no-strings attached sex (slut!) on her own terms. The show partly hinges on the sexual tension between them, which Masters disguises with his signature brusque manner and professional arrogance. These also mask his fragility and childhood wounds, which are slowly revealed. He often succumbs to his unacknowledged, uncomfortable humanity in various ways: for example by tying the tubes of a woman without the consent of an abusive husband. Fleeting moments of kindness puncture Master’s curt and controlling exterior. He’s a damaged man full of foible and folly yet noble in his tenacity and passion for his work.
The methods used back then to assist fertility are mostly ineffectual. The doctor’s wife has been unable to fall pregnant, unaware that it’s her husband’s low sperm count that is the problem. Yet, Masters would rather put her through multiple painful procedures rather than admit to his tenuous stigmatic virility. When she finally falls pregnant (although it has not yet been revealed whether his estranged protégé, Dr Ethan Haas has somehow cuckolded him) and loses the baby, he cannot allow himself to grieve, his feelings of ambivalence towards being a father adding to his already existing shame.
In one powerful episode, Masters, for the first time since losing his own baby at six months gestation, cries. Sobbing, he puts his hand in front of Virginia’s eyes, “Don’t look! Don’t look!” he whimpers. It’s one of the saddest moments I have seen in television: a pinnacle of realisation that men too, are slaves within the suffocating social constructs of gender.
There are no cardboard cutouts here; even the passing characters are drawn with depth, the prostitutes, and the patients; there is no easy path to understanding the chemistry of sexuality or the physiological mysteries of sex. It’s a pleasure to watch the perfunctory Masters discovering the joys that women can find in sex and also that some things may not ever be quantified. The characters love, they screw, they fight, they struggle with their choices, and they rally against or suffer silently the constraints of society.
Masters of Sex has been nominated for a slew of prestigious awards including Best Drama Series, Best Actor and Best Actress. It’s thankfully not too controversial for Americans (or too clever) has been renewed for a third season so we will get to see how this fascinating show evolves. The series, barrier breaking in itself, is a masterful reminder of how far we’ve advanced in obstetric medicine, and in our understanding of sex and gender roles, and yet also, how very far we still have to go.
Masters of Sex Season 1 is currently on DStv Edge channel 102 on Thursday nights at 9pm.
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