It Wasn't Bigotry Back Then: The Unsettling Message of Masters of Sex

The show has a knack for painting sympathetic portraits of now-villainized gender and sex norms—like old ideas about virginity, homosexuality, and women's roles.
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Showtime

Ever since the moment Joan Holloway plopped Peggy Olson in front of a clunky typewriter and told her not to be overwhelmed by the technology, Mad Men promised that some of its greatest pleasures would be its sneak peeks at just how far America has come since the 1960s. Sure enough, six seasons in, many of Mad Men’s most rewarding character developments have unfolded while old boys’ clubs were dismantled and glass ceilings were cracked, punctuated by historic riots, elections, and assassinations.

Masters of Sex, Showtime’s story of pioneering sex researchers in the 1950s, also draws plenty of drama from its front-row ticket to the era’s evolving social norms. Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) struggles to get support for his taboo investigations into human sexuality, while Virginia Johnson, played by the magnetic Lizzy Caplan, battles single-mom stigma to be taken seriously within the medical research community. A supporting cast of patients, teaching-hospital staff, and significant others humorously and often poignantly confront widespread ignorance about the way human bodies work while probing their personal lives to see if love and sex can exist without the other.

Sometimes, the most satisfying surprises happen when the 1950s don’t seem so old, or seem to be winking at the present: Bill Masters, for example, gets schooled by a handful of women about faking orgasms as if When Harry Met Sally were old news. But the most compelling moments in Masters of Sex aren’t when the show portrays what’s now common knowledge as a myth-busting breakthrough. Rather, they happen when the show presents ideas about society and sex that we might today consider laughably backwards as legitimate—and makes viewers sympathize with attitudes many have since villainized.

Masters of Sex’s treatment of its female characters, for instance, illustrates why “outdated” ideas about women’s roles once made sense, and perhaps still do to some people. For much of the season, Virginia has struggled to balance her work and home lives, juggling two young kids and her sex research while considering going back to school. But after her young son, fed up with her late nights, briefly runs away, she breaks down after her former fling Dr. Ethan Haas recovers him.

“[Children] want both parents,” she tearfully confesses to Ethan. “It orders a kid’s universe to have both parents there. It orders adults’ universes too. I’m not meant to do this alone.”

Virginia’s relationship status isn’t the real reason she’s struggling to make it on her own—instead, it's probably a combined result of a lack of childcare resources limited job prospects and educational opportunities. Yet it’s easy to empathize, especially when Ethan manages to be sincerely charming as he offers to act as a part-time, surrogate father for her kids—a role he’s a natural at (despite the fact that he smacks Virginia in the pilot). Virginia turns down his offer, given their history, but it’s clear his support would be a big help. Entertaining the idea that a relationship with Ethan could be an asset, however, raises questions about where society assigns blame for why women “still can’t have it all”: Is having a spouse a prerequisite for a work-life balance? If it’s so easy to think women like Virginia can’t succeed unattached, does that belief linger today?

Masters of Sex has pulled this trick elsewhere. As things heat up between Ethan and the provost’s precocious teenage daughter, Vivian, he discovers their first sexual encounter together was also her first time ever. He’s visibly horrified, not just by the blood on his bed, but by the thought of his casual-rendezvous partner becoming too attached. After the deflowering deed is done, his colleague Jane asks if guys like being a girl’s first sexual partner. “Are you crazy?” Ethan answers. "It’s too much responsibility. Suddenly you’re everything! They want your love, time and devotion. They’re basically glued to you … it’s like those signs you see in thrift shops: ‘You break it, you buy it.’”

Instead of proving him wrong, however, Masters of Sex makes his prediction come true. Later, Vivian corners him outside a party and tells him, “I only seemed grown-up because that’s how you wanted me to seem. I guess now that I really am a grown-up, I brought you out here to tell you … you have my love and devotion, because you and I were meant to be together.” Ethan wonders what he’s gotten himself into—and so does the audience. While Sunday's episode finds him half-heartedly proposing, it seems clear the relationship won’t end well: He’s still pining for Virginia, and Vivian wants to settle down sooner than later. And all that impending heartbreak could have been avoided had they not hopped into bed so quickly.

While there’s no science that says the first person you sleep with steals a part of your soul forever, this particular plot lets viewers forget that. Through Vivian, the episode implicitly asks viewers if misguided assumptions about virginity still pervade while also suggesting sex and love are indeed a package deal. That's an answer Masters of Sex offers across the board: Nearly every hookup so far has found that à la carte sex quickly gets complicated, and the couples without such intimacy have suffered. As Vivian sings in the most recent episode after a night with Ethan, "Love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage ... you can't have one with out the other."

Sunday’s episode, aptly titled "Love and Marriage," offers the darkest gut check so far. The university’s closeted, prostitute-patronizing provost, Barton Scully—whom Masters blackmailed into supporting his controversial research after learning Scully’s secret—feels guiltier than ever for his disinterest in his wife, Margaret, played heartbreakingly by Allison Janney, so he begs Masters for information about a gay conversion therapy. Despite his philandering, Scully seems endeared to his family, so for a moment, the exchange is hopeful: The unhappy couple finally has a way out of their mutual marital misery—until you remember, oh, right, conversion therapy is a destructive, heavily condemned “treatment” that’s damaged plenty of lives. Masters of Sex thus far hasn’t challenged that notion, but for that brief moment in which it makes you root for a traditional happy ending, it both evokes and confronts the idea that maybe hard work and love can conquer all in marriage—despite such painful, irreconcilable differences. (The real-life Masters and Johnson would actually propose “sexual surrogates” as a type of conversion therapy in the 1980s.)

These examples are a testament to the writing staff’s knack for crafting complex characters. It’s also through these scenes that Masters of Sex reveals what it has in common with Breaking Bad: When viewers cheer for Walter White as he transforms from a chemistry teacher with cancer to a meth-making murderer, it challenges assumptions about morality, suggesting traditionally black-and-white concepts of right and wrong may actually involve varying gradations of gray. Masters of Sex chiefly aims to challenge its viewers' attitudes about sex rather than antiheroes. But even as the show invites viewers to marvel at how far conversations about sex and gender have come since the 1950s, its habit of engaging with viewers’ more conservative impulses turns the spotlight on biases and assumptions assumed to be long-gone.

Of course, Masters of Sex offers plenty of counterexamples to prove its stance on the issues is more complicated. Margaret’s extramarital affair hints how much happiness awaits her as a divorcée, while Barton’s male lover, Dale, shows him just how damaging his thinking is by declining to participate in his illness-inducing aversion therapy. (“I sit across from you and you vomit?” Dale asks, “Hell, if I wanted that reaction, I’d go visit my parents. There’s only one person that gets to be sickened by me. That’s me.”) Virginia may think she can’t succeed solo, but she earns a promotion (and cleverly snags a flexible babysitter to handle the kids) without any help; Ethan may regret the “responsibility” of Vivian’s virginity, but it's also true that all it took for him to fall for Virginia was the way she rocked his world in bed.

The answers Masters of Sex provides are subtler than its questions, which means that even if the show has a point of view, the viewing experience is more about audiences confronting their own. Period dramas like Mad Men can be about watching the past hurtle toward the present onscreen, but as Masters of Sex shows, they can also be about realizing those portraits of America's past aren't so far off to begin with.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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