Gemma Short reviews Masters of Sex – TV drama that combines social commentary about a divided and changing America with fraught relationships, plenty of sex, and 50s outfits, Masters of Sex is a gripping watch.
Now in its second series, Masters of Sex is the story of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, who in the late 50s embarked on an ambitious and daring study of human sexuality. Initially shunned for their work by most of the medical establishment, the series focusses on the struggles they faced both professionally and personally to get funding and recognition, and how their own attitudes changed along the way.
The Masters and Johnson study once published challenged most of the societally accepted “norms” about sexuality. It debunked ideas about women’s lack of sexuality and “rediscovered” the female orgasm (contradicting Freud’s work). It talked about sexual orientation, challenged the medical and psychological basis of sexual “dysfunctions” and undermined views still propagated by religious zealots today, linking sexual activity to physiological or psychological harm. It brought sex out into the open, something to be discussed, and something for the medical establishment to take seriously.
The series skilfully depicts individual stories against a backdrop of a changing America. An America on the brink of the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution of the 60s. Masters, a well to do white obstetrician, finds himself with unexpected friends and allies as he stubbornly follows his study.
Having difficulty finding a home for his study he winds up working out of a brothel and later as the only white doctor at a “negro hospital” (American society was still segregated). He learns a lot from the women working in the brothel, following their suggestion of interviewing gay male prostitutes as well. As a backdrop to the story, his boss deals with the fact that he is gay, and his wife cannot get over her racist attitudes to their black home help.
Virginia Johnson is depicted in an even handed and interesting way. A single mother with no medical qualifications, she gets involved in the study at great personal risk. She is accused by other women of “using her body and charms to get herself ahead”. She struggles against their accusations whilst simultaneously resisting the pressure to do that which they accuse her of.
Johnson eventually married Bill Masters (though the programme has not got to this yet), after a long period of sporadic affairs. The series does not shy away from showing the nastier side of their relationship. You question the power dynamic at play as you see Masters’ continual coldness towards Johnson, insisting that she was merely a participant in the study with him.
Though Masters and Johnson later went adrift with some of their ideas — toying with ideas of a “gay cure” — the significance of their work is not diminished. They brought sex out of the closet and into everyday conversation.
Most interesting to me is how their story shows the ideological struggle against backward ideas and draws links with oppression in all areas of life.