‘Masters of Sex’ – Female Sexuality on the Small Screen

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*Note: This article contains spoilers from the first season of Masters of Sex.

Women in Cinema: There’s no shortage of sexuality or sex on the small screen. Current series such as Game of Thrones, True Blood and Girls have become notorious for their sex scenes. Often, however, female sexuality becomes a secondary priority, while the image of the naked woman is only too ubiquitous. While there have been shows that celebrated the female libido in the past and present, e.g.,  Sex and the City, Orange is the New Black and, at times, Girls, no show comes close to offering a counter-thesis to the current dismal and disappointing portrayal of female sexuality on TV than Masters of Sex. Although the show is not infallible in terms of framing females and sex for a male audience, it deserves some credit for trying a bit harder.

Recently, Game of Thrones came under fire for denying audiences a sex scene from one of its main female protagonists. This is surprising, considering the show’s uninhibited portrayal of rape and violence against women, yet when it comes to female sexual gratification it’s usually ignored. Lili Loofbourow of Salon.com notes the conspicuous absence of male nudity on the show compared to female nudity. “It’s no secret that ‘Game of Thrones,’ like most Western image-making, has a long history of pinning its cinematic choices to a heterosexual male subjectivity,” she writes. However, she also points out that the noted scene between Daenerys and Daario (pictured at left) challenges the conventional male gaze, by allowing spectators to view the pleasure it gives Daenerys to see a man undress before her. It is her pleasure we see, rather than her body. Yet, Loofbourow points out, there is not enough of that on TV.

A show that certainly isn’t shy about its portrayal of female (and male) bodies and female pleasure is Masters of Sex.

The show is based on the famous research duo William Masters and Virginia Johnson – also known as Masters and Johnson, who were pioneers in the scientific field for their taboo studies, at the time, on human sexual responsiveness during the later part of the nineteenth century. The series is based on the 2009 biography of the same name by Thomas Maier. Although the title acknowledges only Masters by name, it also connotes the plural, the duality and team effort that such experiments relied on. It’s not just a show about the scientific study of women but women who study science and medicine.

Set in the late 60s when medical practice was nearly male-exclusive, there was a lot of mansplaining (naturally) about female sexuality. It was an era when the coveted words and teachings of Freud were still norm, and to denounce the male-crafted concepts about the female was not just heresy but a risible offense. Hospitals were patriarchal institutions where female doctors were rare and not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. In a show that accurately depicts the patriarchal stereotypes and domesticity in relationships and in the workplace, two characters stand out to prove themselves qualified and capable despite their sexist environment.

The first is Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) – a single mother of two, who works as Masters’ personal secretary during the day and moonlights as his secret research assistant at night. And on top of that, she’s going to school at night to get her B.S.. Suffice it to say, Virginia is a strong woman who in the face of adversity manages to push herself to get what she wants. And what she wants is not just sex or a tantalizing affair with her boss. She aims for financial security, academic merit, scientific exploration and revolution, and respect from those she works with. Yes, she is the other woman in the show and participates in the experiments she and Masters conduct, but there is also something liberating about her desire for sex. She is unapologetic about her own prurience and sees no shame in desiring sex before marriage or exploring her sexual desires with her partners. This desire is what fuels her research about the complex female sexual responsiveness that many a more academically educated doctor couldn’t discover or ignored. Her goal is not one of lust but of learning.

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The second is Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) – an austere obstetrician and anatomy professor who is passionate about getting her cervical cancer research funded (partly due to the fact that she, herself, has cervical cancer) and ends up becoming teacher and mentor to Virginia. Dr. DePaul and Virginia don’t start off as friends. As a victim of constant sexist opposition, Dr. DePaul has had to fight her way to the top and be the best in her class just to face patriarchal stereotypes in the workplace, which is why no one is willing to fund nor listen to her research about using Pap tests to prevent cervical cancer (now the most common and effective method of preventing cervical cancer deaths in women). It’s not just men who give her a hard time, Dr. DePaul faces discrimination from female patients who feel uncomfortable around a female obstetrician. Her relationship with Virginia was one whose genesis was based on catty remarks –  all from DePaul who resented Virginia for her participation in Dr. Masters’ experiments and lack of a proper education (a common trope – that two women can’t get along). However, she changed her tune when she realized their battles were better fought together and have since united to get the cervical cancer research funded. Their collective efforts are used to fight against sexism from men, rather than fighting over a man – as most narrative cliches would have them do.

Despite two strong female characters, it’s hard to ignore the titillating aspects the series provides for spectators – especially the male demographic. There is a gratuitous amount of flesh and sex simulation in each episode (naturally, of course, with the word “sex” in the title), but it’s not always sex for simply shock value compared to how other series employ it. As aforementioned, the sex simulation has didactic intentions for the characters in the show. It aims to both dispel antiquated notions and explore about sex, sexual orientation, sexual dysfunctions and the myriad forms of sexual responsiveness. Most of it being well known and regarded fieldwork by many, yet still fascinating.

1315ew-Cover-Masters-of-SexHowever, the show does not deviate far from what Loofbourow states is a “heterosexual male subjectivity.” In one episode, Masters presents his research about the female orgasm to his male, sexually-orthodox colleagues by exhibiting a clip of Virginia, filmed without showing her face or revealing her identity,  masturbating (voyeurism to the max). In one episode, Dr. DePaul even points out the irony of a man presenting research on female sexuality. Despite all my aforementioned praising of this show, it exhibits the same pratfalls that many TV shows have with displaying women as “objects of male desire” as Laura Mulvey described in her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. ” It’s not as bad as other series. Take for example how the media portrays such shows, such as an Entertainment magazine issue which featured actors Michael Sheen and Caplan on the cover. Collate it with a recent Entertainment magazine issue which featured  True Blood stars Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer on the cover and you’ll see what I mean. The Masters of Sex cover, undoubtedly, reveatrue-blood-300ls the same sexual nature with Caplan wearing considerably less than Sheen (it appears her lab coat was not sexy enough to sell to grocery market patrons). The treatment of both women on the cover and in their respective series are arguably parallel, but with distinct dissimilarities. While Virginia is the object of Masters affection and ends up breaking up his marriage, her objective remains focused on her research and her desire to be a doctor.

That is the nature of the show, though. Nudity and sex cannot always be portrayed prudishly. There are both male and female test subjects in the experiments Masters and Johnson conduct who bare all. But many of their studies focus on the female because so much of it, at the time, was unexplored. Watching the series recreate some of the groundbreaking research that was conducive to figuring out what is now common knowledge is part of the excitement – it’s not all sexual excitement. What Masters’ colleagues did not see during his presentation, however, was how his camera lingered on Virginia’s face (which was later edited out) at the beginning of her self-stimulation. He was more interested in seeing her visaged reaction – of course, this has more to do with the romantic feelings he’s developed for Virginia. Virginia is framed not by the audience’s gaze but by a male character’s gaze. Unlike the scene in Game of Thrones that Loofbourow mentions – in which the woman’s reaction holds the power and the denial of the male gaze to peruse her body – Masters of Sex does not deny audiences the lascivious opportunity to gaze at women, but I suppose that’s part of the territory. But perhaps there’s something empowering for women seeing a woman on screen take control of her gratification – self-created rather than man-manipulated. It’s sexually piquing for more than one gaze-holder. At best, the show offers both spectacle for male voyeurism and opportunity for female vicariousness.

 

Season two of Masters of Sex premieres Sunday, 13 June on Showtime.