“Masters of Sex”: Shining a Spotlight on Women

As I mentioned in my last post on Masters of Sex, the show is absolutely fantastic. It not only tells the intriguing story of sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson but it does so in an entertaining way that gives the flavor of the times and how it relates to where we are today. That is no small feat.

One of the best things about the show is how fully realized all the female characters are. The male characters are too but that’s nothing new. Other television shows (and most movies) may have one or two complex women on-screen but having all of the female cast and the major guest stars play vibrant, complicated and richly layered characters is almost unheard of!! Perhaps this is due to the fact that the creator, executive producer and writer of the show, Michelle Ashford, is a woman. She is a great example for why we need more women writing and producing.

Dr. Lillian Depaul and Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex

Dr. Lillian Depaul and Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex

This complete rendering of the many aspects of women’s lives serves to give a textured view of what being a Midwestern white woman (although there are glimpses of how strained race relations are, the show takes place within the dominant white culture) was like in the 1950s and1960s. And it does so in a way that is respectful to the women involved. No one is a stereotype or a caricature. Instead, the audience is let behind the curtain so that we understand why the characters make the choices they do, how they feel about them and they ways in which they deal with the repercussions of these choices. In this way, the show is demonstrating that sex is not just about the physical act; it encompasses almost every part of our lives.

For example, take Betty DiMello, the prostitute who helps Bill Masters begin his research on sexuality. On another show, Betty would either be the typical hooker with a heart of gold or would be given such a small amount of screen time that we barely get to know her. Instead, Betty shows up in at least three episodes with perhaps more to come in season two! She is depicted as a woman whose natural tendency is to be warm and loving yet, because of her job and life circumstances, is practical and somewhat cynical. Thus, Betty helps Bill the best she can (and is, in fact, the one who suggested getting a female partner to help with the relationship aspect) while also insisting upon being paid for her time. She has no illusions about her job or what people think of her but she insists that both she and her coworkers get the respect they deserve and she has no problem asking for what she needs.

In stark contrast to Betty’s open and flexible sexuality is Margaret Scully, a wife and mother who initially exemplifies the social demands put upon women of her time. Margaret’s knowledge of sexuality is so minimal that she has no idea what an orgasm is. To her great humiliation and dismay, she soon realizes that not only is her non-existent sex life abnormal but her husband is gay. Watching Margaret struggle with how to deal with her husband’s sexuality while also taking care of her own needs was both sad (since it quickly became clear how limited her options were) and empowering. Instead of giving into despair, Margaret forges her own path and accepts the reality of her life. In her, you can see the foremothers of the feminist movement who selflessly decide that they can make a difference for the younger generation.

Libby Masters, Bill’s wife, faces similar struggles because she too is trapped within the confines of an unsatisfying home life. In her case, although Bill is heterosexual, he is so emotionally unavailable that the two sleep in separate beds and he lets Libby undertake a number of humiliating and painful procedures for infertility without telling her that he is the infertile partner. Libby’s desperate struggle to have a child showcases the gendered demands of family (Libby believes she is not quite a woman if she cannot get pregnant) and how difficult it is to be waiting in the wings while squandering your own gifts. On any other show, Libby would either be ignored or painted in broad strokes (as naïve, boring or weak) but in Masters of Sex, we see her attempts to humanize Bill, her grief at not initially being able to fulfill her socially proscribed role of mother, her anger at his flaws, and her strength as she takes matters into her own hands.

Even Estabrooks Masters, Bill Masters’ mother, is treated sympathetically. This had to be tricky because her character’s introduction was when Bill blames her for failing to prevent his father from abusing him. Instead of helping him, she turned up the radio so she wouldn’t have to hear the sounds of violence. Thus, she was destined to be hated. However, the show made her if not likeable then at least understandable. It is clear that Estabrooks regrets not stepping in but she is trying to make amends and help Bill now. In one powerful scene, she apologizes for her mistakes but also lets him know that his memories are from his point of view. As such, there were things he didn’t know about her relationship with his father and that she did the best she could at the time. This was an amazing interaction because it directly addressed the realities of family members who live with abuse. Moreover, given how mothers are often blamed for not preventing the abuse of fathers, it was brave.

Although the show does place a great deal of emphasis on family, Masters of Sex doesn’t ignore the reality for women in the workforce. It gave us the terrific character of Jane Martin, a young, single woman working in the secretarial pool at the hospital. Jane has a free-wheeling attitude toward life and sexuality and ends up being one of Masters and Johnson’s best research subjects. Jane is funny, lives by her own code of morality and is not afraid to be as assertive as she can in such a repressive work environment. However, even though Jane is smart, hard-working and ambitious, it is clear that she probably will never make it out of the secretarial pool because of how difficult it is for women to advance professionally. Unfortunately, that aspect hasn’t changed much.

It is left to Dr. Lillian DePaul, a female gynecologist with a huge chip on her shoulder, to truly demonstrate what it was like for women professionals back then. Once again, the show pulls off a hat trick by making a relatively unlikeable character – one who is clearly angry and unfriendly – understandable. The first glimpses we get of Lillian are of her anger towards Virginia for having duties that are inappropriate for a person with no degree or experience. She even intimates that perhaps Virginia got her job for reasons other than her skills. But as we slowly get to know more about Lillian, we see the reasons for her anger: the derision and bullying by her classmates, the disrespect she receives from her bosses and colleagues (her office is practically in the secretary’s pool), the expectation that she must be twice as good as her male colleagues in order to minimally succeed, and her own health concerns. By the end of the season, we see a grudging respect and friendship develop with Virginia (two women actually becoming friends instead of rivals!) and Lillian becomes sympathetic.

With all these female characters (and over only 12 episodes), Masters of Sex has told stories about the difficulties women have had with sexuality, relationships, workplace inequality, friendships, motherhood, confining expectations and whole host of other topics. And that’s just with the secondary characters. While all of them are important in their own right, they neatly set up the story of the woman who is at the heart of both the show and the real-life partnership: Virginia Johnson. More on her next time.

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