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2042 words

Indecent history

8 January 2015

Television | With a third season of Masters of Sex screening this year, Susan Lever charts the highs and lows of a TV drama inspired by real events

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Fiction with historical insights: Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as William Masters and Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex.

Fiction with historical insights: Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as William Masters and Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex.


I was newly married when I first read about William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s research in a 1970 copy of Time magazine that had been passed around among friends for months like a secret message. The two researchers offered a revelatory reconsideration of women’s sexuality, swiping at the myth of female frigidity that Sigmund Freud had created decades earlier. Within a year, I was reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, with its exposure of patriarchy and its advice to women not to marry. As Frank Bongiorno writes in his 2012 book, The Sex Lives of Australians, while Greer dismissed the Masters and Johnson approach to sex as mechanical, gynaecologists reported that one obstacle to its message was the fact that many Australian women had no idea they had a clitoris.

When it comes to sexual understanding, we have a tendency to look back on the past from a superior, bemused position. New readers of Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response confidently declare that its view of female sexuality is laughable. Yet, for those of us who were locked in ignorance when it first appeared, its mere existence (not too many read the actual report) helped make it possible to talk about sex as a serious part of human understanding. Up until then, a woman could have a lot of sex, even a lot of babies, without a clue what was happening during sexual intercourse.

By the mid 1970s, of course, everyone in the babysitting club had Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex openly on their shelves; some also had The Sensuous Woman by ‘J.’ and a magazine called Viva, the women’s answer to Playboy. In the ten years after Masters and Johnson went public, educated women had learnt about how their bodies respond to sexual stimulation. Within a few years, Bettina Arndt, from my own year at ANU, had become editor of Forum magazine and a prominent sexologist, the profession invented by Masters and Johnson.

As others moved in and marketed their ideas more successfully, the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson almost disappeared. Thomas Maier’s 2009 account of their careers, Masters of Sex, explains how they were denied public research funding and forced to stand by while others made money from their discoveries. Maier’s book is full of extraordinary events and personalities, and for anyone over fifty it offers a startling narrative of our times, rich with paradox and pathos.

Still, it was a surprise when a group of television producers, led by the writer Michelle Ashford, saw possibilities for a period drama in Maier’s book. While Mad Men has made a fictionalised view of the 1950s and 1960s newly glamorous, Masters of Sex would deal with actual historical figures, shifts in scientific and medical knowledge and a subject that is still off limits for prime time television. It worked: the show’s first season, screened in 2013, demonstrated the potential of television drama to explore recent history. It showed how historical fiction can sometimes convey the way history is experienced and remembered by people more fully than conventional factual history. In this case, television’s tendency to reduce events to the personal or domestic proves curiously appropriate for a narrative that focuses on the sexual organs of the human body before shifting out to a broader social context.


Season 1 of Masters of Sex debates the most intimate aspects of human relationships. Is sex just a matter of bodily function? Does personality, psychology, even historical context come into it? How do myths about sexuality influence social behaviour? In its central setting, a university hospital in the Midwest, women’s bodies are presided over in childbirth by revered male obstetricians who, it seems, know little about their subjects beyond the cutting and stitching of the delivery room. Bill Masters’s research into sexual response appears initially motivated by male sexual curiosity and ambition, but he quickly realises that the women around him have information he needs.

The series allows us to see the ironies of a hospital hierarchy in which autocratic male doctors lord it over intelligent secretaries, nurses and patients. It not only focuses on the women’s bodies at the centre of Masters’s research but also notices the limits on women’s education and work opportunities, and the restrictive burden of women’s responsibilities for childcare. Virginia Johnson (“Gini,” played by Lizzy Caplan), pushy and sexually confident, must care for her children while she tries to satisfy her ambition and her native curiosity. The second episode ends with Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) interviewing her ex-husband George as a subject for his research; as George praises the sexual willingness of his ex-wife the camera shifts to Gini, missing her bus home to the children and waiting in the rain.

An invented woman doctor, Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), elaborates these restrictions on women. Despite her intelligence and education, she struggles to find research funds and to promote the use of the Pap smear test to diagnose cervical cancer. One of the most engaging episodes follows Gini’s and Lillian’s frustrating journey to a conference of GPs where they find themselves talking about the test, over tea, to a group of doctors’ wives. The wives, of course, proved to be running their husbands’ practices and were quick to see its importance.

Many of the writers, like “showrunner” Ashford, are women and perhaps more alert to the possibilities of this women’s history. Clearly they were most engaged by the dramatic possibilities of the material, not only its peculiar research and its strange love story but also the inherent comedy of human sexual misunderstanding and ignorance. Despite the vulgar credits for the series, with their images of rising mushrooms and exploding champagne corks, the comic elements are always delivered straight-faced. Some of the episodes in the first season – Dr Masters arrested in a brothel raid, for instance – have elements of farce; some – such as Margaret Scully (Allison Janney) realising that she’s never had an orgasm – are excruciating in their depiction of the humiliation of sexual ignorance; and others – like the enormous dildo-like perspex camera invented to explore the subjects’ vaginas – produce a wry amusement at the clumsiness and the ethical waywardness of the research project.

Some critics recommend watching Masters of Sex as a fiction set in a historical period, like Mad Men, rather than as history. It certainly parades the consumer goods of the period, with the Masters family living in a minimalist modern house, lots of big cars and Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald) looking like Grace Kelly in a series of period outfits. Yet it also experiments in ways to tell history, drawing in parallel developments, such as the Pap smear, or public crises like the nuclear threat. At times it plays off viewers’ knowledge of the television series of its day – Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver – and gently undermines the myths of the happy family and marital joy they presented. Thomas Maier has been happy enough to have his name listed as producer, and most of the time the liberties the writers take with facts are self-conscious and in the interests of explanation or entertainment.

Composite characters make the history manageable and intensify the drama: Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) is Bill Masters’s mentor and provost (based on the real Willard Allen) as well as a married man concealing his homosexuality; the orthopaedic surgeon, Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), represents the kind of man who took part in the experiments with a degree of damage to his libido and self-discipline; the intellectual secretary, Jane Martin (Heléne Yorke), is a composite of the several smart women who gave Masters early insight into the mysteries of female desire.

In a particularly satisfying rewriting of history, Episode 6 begins with wonderful footage of Sigmund Freud in his garden as Anna Freud visits the hospital to talk about her father’s theories. This episode explains the influence of Sigmund Freud’s views on female sexuality, and gives Gini, already aware that their research had put paid to Freud’s authority, the opportunity to shock Anna Freud by asking about the experimental evidence for his theory of the vaginal orgasm. Such a thing would be “indecent,” says Anna. The rest of the episode follows various elaborations of the theme, with Gini and Jane experimenting, and Margaret Scully reading, watching the notorious Peyton Place and then resolving her “frigidity” in an encounter with Austin.

The obvious artifice of such an episode signals to the viewer that this is fiction, but it is fiction that offers important historical insight. Other episodes are so artful that we know that they are moving from history to speculate about character. Episode 8 of the first series, “Love and Marriage,” sets in motion several versions of marriage and its relationship to sexual love, culminating in the Scullys’ recognition that their mutual love has little to do with sexual desire. The crises of the various characters offer implicit criticism of Masters’s mechanical approach to sex, and of Gini’s belief that she can separate love and sex. The next episode picks up a patient’s advice not to “float through life,” as Margaret realises that her husband is gay and Austin learns that he’s impregnated a fellow subject in the course of Masters’s research. None of this has any specific historical basis – though crises like this must have happened. The end of the episode leaves Margaret and Austin sharing their misery in the university swimming pool. They float silently, turning a linguistic metaphor into a visual one.


In Season 2, however, Masters of Sex seemed to become a victim of its own success. It is as if the writers thought that, having established such complex characters, they could use them as the vehicle for their very contemporary take on other important issues. The growing campaign against racial discrimination in St Louis becomes a major story arc, requiring Masters to relocate his research to a black hospital (this didn’t happen) and drawing Libby into an affair with a black man (Maier describes her as utterly devoted to Masters).

Along the way, the drama breaks the integrity of Bill Masters’s character; in order to stop a journalist reporting on his work in a black newspaper, he declares that there is a physiological difference in white and black sexual response. Up to this point Bill has certainly been self-centred, hypocritical and blind to his own emotions, but he has always been reliable, even heroic, in his defence of science. Maier makes no suggestion that the actual Bill Masters was guilty of such dishonesty; it is the point where the show’s liberties with history go too far. Clearly, the writers are more interested in making a statement about the insensitive white middle class than maintaining our commitment to Bill the scientist.

Then there is that familiar influence on a second season: the audience demand for a return of favourite characters from the first season. Once Masters and Johnson leave the hospital, this requires some ingenuity from the writers. They brought back Betty (Annaleigh Ashford), the feisty prostitute, to haunt Masters in his new office, but also created a ludicrous story about diet pills to make Austin the victim of his own sexual promiscuity.

As several US reviewers have commented, Masters of Sex became period soap opera. It was superior soap opera, but it was a disappointment after the brilliance of its first season. The researchers are taking a long time to get to the point where they can actually help people in sexual distress. It is to be hoped that the third season, due for screening this year, returns to some of the other material in Maier’s book. I eagerly anticipate Hugh Hefner’s appearance, and Bill and Gini’s visit to the Playboy mansion. •

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