“All taboos feel dangerous until they’re broken”

This review contains spoilers for the first and second seasons of Masters of Sex.

As Philip Larkin famously had it, “Sexual intercourse began/ in 1963.” However, throughout its acclaimed first season, Masters of Sex aims to challenge viewers’ prim view of decades past. Set in 1950s Missouri, the show illustrates the breadth and depth of sexual practices and desires that existed long before the sexual revolution of the 1960s brought the topic of sex into a more public view. The show is based on the life and careers of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), pioneering researchers in the field of human sexuality, with the first season culminating in the pair presenting their controversial research into the female orgasm to the medical establishment’s consternation.

Masters of Sex, like its protagonists, does not shy away from difficult topics. In the recently screened season two, we witness the use of electric shock therapy for homosexuality, the birth of an intersex child who is rejected by their father and the refocusing of Masters and Johnson’s work to treat sexual “dysfunctions”. Still, the show’s most consistent (and interesting) thread is its intriguing treatment of female sexual desire.

The second season attempts to depict a diverse range of women exploring their sexuality. Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) is a former prostitute whose same-sex desire eventually derails her marriage, while Barb (Betsy Brandt) is a timid medical secretary whose childhood sexual experiences have left her unable to have penetrative sex in adulthood. There is also Coral (Keke Palmer), a young African-American nanny who attempts to use stereotypes of black sexuality as a weapon and Flo (Artemis Pebdani), a business owner who takes on a sexually dominant role over her male employee.

The young woman sees sterilisation as the only option to avoid becoming that most reviled of things: a slut

Masters of Sex appears to be self-consciously aware of the subversive possibilities of its frank exploration of female desire. In the second episode of the season (‘Kyrie Eleison’), Bill treats a young woman who is suffering complications after an illegal abortion and, following this, her parents are now asking Bill to sterilise her in order to prevent further pregnancies. Tearfully, the young woman begs Bill to perform the procedure. She explains how she is unable to control her own desire:

“It’s like there’s this dark thing inside of me starving and every time I think about a boy or a man I can’t stop until I have it… And then after when I think about what I’ve done… what I am…”

The young woman sees sterilisation as the only option to avoid becoming that most reviled of things: a slut. Meanwhile, Bill vehemently argues against performing the sterilisation:

“For hundreds of years, people who fell outside the normal bounds of sexuality have been labelled deviant, amoral, whores… That is just reactionary and stupid.”

By presenting this conflict in the 1950s, the show invites us to consider how much has changed. Abortion may now be legal in the U.S (although it is, of course, increasingly more difficult to access for women in much of the country) and women have greater control over their use of contraception, but how much have attitudes to women in charge of their sex lives really changed?

This point is hammered home when one considers just how unusual it is for television shows to portray women who are sexually in control. Throughout the series, we witness the complicated sexual relationship between Bill and his partner/mistress Virginia. This relationship is certainly not without intricate power politics, which the series explores at length, but it seems that, even in 2014, Virginia still represents a revolutionary female character on screen. In one sex scene (during the episode ‘Fight’), Bill says: “I want you to tell me, how much you want me to make you feel good, go on, beg me…”, to which Virginia challengingly responds: “No – I can make myself feel good.” As viewers, we’re no longer shocked to see or hear allusions to male masturbation or men receiving blow jobs on screen, but a scene in which a woman unashamedly masturbates in front of her male lover? And how frequent are scenes featuring a man going down on a woman?

It is refreshing to see a female character portrayed with the same level of human fallibility and complexity as her male counterparts

While we may have passed the era in which the television censors substituted ‘marital relations’ for sex, it seems the explicit depiction of female desire on screen can still generate a frisson of shock for mainstream viewers, particularly when it appears to be solely for the woman’s own pleasure. This illustrates how deeply the sexual double standard continues to be entrenched in mainstream culture and how prudish it often still is about acknowledging women’s sexuality.

As a character, Virginia challenges convention outside of the bedroom too. She is a woman who is deeply committed to her career, at the expense of her relationships, even surrendering custody of her children in order to protect the study she and Bill are engaged in. In the season opener (‘Parallax’), Virginia explains why she refused to follow her boyfriend, Ethan, to California: “It’s a rare man who could understand a woman choosing work over love.”

The viewer is invited to relate to Virginia more conventionally, through her charm and beauty, but we are never allowed to forget that she is a complicated character who makes morally ambiguous decisions throughout the season: from having a sexual relationship with the husband of a woman who has become her friend to falsely posing as another woman during a psychotherapist session. As Virginia’s only friend Lillian (Julianne Nicholson) notes, Virginia’s ambition has consequences: “Nothing is ever big enough for you, your eye is always on some other prize.”

In the era of so many critically acclaimed shows about complex multifaceted male anti-heroes (such as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad), it is refreshing to see a female character being portrayed with the same level of human fallibility and complexity as her male counterparts.

The show delves into the complicated power dynamics of an interracial relationship in the 1960s’ Midwest

Commendably, Virginia’s approach to her career and family life does not single her out as the series’ maverick: Masters of Sex is full of women who challenge rigid gender roles. Even Bill’s wife, Libby Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald), who seems little more than a cipher for “traditional values” in the beginning, is given room over the course of the second season to expand into a complex and morally nuanced character. As the façade of her marriage begins to crumble, the unpleasant aspects of Libby’s character come to the fore, such as her racist treatment of her nanny Coral, which culminates in an uncomfortable scene in which she forcibly washes the younger woman’s hair.

Over the timeframe of the second season (which spans several years) Libby’s guilt over her oppressive behaviour, along with her attraction towards Coral’s older brother, Robert (Jocko Sims), leads to her involvement as a volunteer with civil rights group, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Through Libby’s involvement with Robert, the show delves into the complicated power dynamics of an interracial relationship in the 1960s’ Midwest. Libby seems to almost crave the veiled hostility of Robert, who belittles her involvement with CORE as shallow. Seducing Robert, she explains how trying to be seen as a ‘good girl’ has erased her sense of self:

“You make a nice home and you raise well-behaved children. You don’t make waves, you don’t make trouble and you keep your voice down. And your going along like that, your wanting to be good, makes you quiet, so quiet that you forget the sound of your own voice. People forget that you’re there. Your husband forgets that you’re there. Maybe you aren’t.”

By initiating a sexual relationship with Robert, Libby attempts to assert herself through finally following her own desires. Her relationship with him is the final catalyst that leads her to admit she has known about Bill’s affair with Virginia for years and that staying in a loveless marriage with him for the sake of the children may not be sufficient:

“When I think … that they may be all there is for me, it’s not enough.”

Having these words spoken by Libby, a character whose main function seems to have been to play the role of docile home-maker and mother, is yet another attempt by the show to prompt the audience to think about those stereotypes. Libby has been positioned as the opposite to Virginia: blonde/brunette, wife/mistress, traditional/unconventional. For Virginia to have a complex relationship to her children is one thing; to see Libby, the embodiment of motherhood, question whether her children can completely fulfill her is another. The viewer is prompted to consider how strongly the “motherhood myth” is entrenched in our expectations of how women’s happiness is defined.

Those who are familiar with the real life work of Masters and Johnson will know there is controversy looming ahead

One particularly problematic aspect of Masters of Sex is that it has, so far, treated Black people’s bodies primarily as objects rather than agents of desire, with this being one of the major failings of this second season. Libby’s attempt to use sex with Robert as a way to find satisfaction or meaning outside her marriage is clearly seen in a deeply troubling light and the show does make some attempt to unravel the complicated sexual and racial politics of such an act. Indeed, Robert notes that the relationship is “dangerous” and jeopardizes his work within the civil rights movement, also challenging Libby to explore where her desire for him is rooted.

Earlier on, the show briefly deals with the need to challenge racist sexual stereotypes about Black people, when Bill works at a hospital in a primarily African-American neighbourhood. However, over the course of following season(s), it is clear this is one area that should be explored more fully, particularly if the relationship between Libby and Michael continues to unfold.

Masters of Sex is ambitious in its overall scope. At times, this can feel slightly clunky, like in the seasons’ seventh episode that leapfrogs us in time to 1959 and feels like a mostly unsuccessful device to bridge the narrative gap between Masters’ earlier study and the establishment of his own clinic. However, this is a rare misstep for a show for the most part immaculately well-scripted, with an outstanding cast who are able to bring pathos and humour to the screen throughout. It is impossible to do justice to the multi-faceted storylines that the show has dealt with in just one review. Mostly, it is a pleasure to watch something that is unashamedly political and unafraid of challenging its viewers, without sacrificing the drama of human relationships and experience.

By the end of the second season, we have leapt forward in time again, with the final episode taking place within the context of Kennedy’s inauguration in 1964. The third season, picked up by the US network Showtime, will dive into the swinging sixties and the sexual revolution, as well as (presumably) continuing to portray Bill and Virginia’s move into the treatment of so-called “sexual dysfunction.” Those familiar with the work of Masters and Johnson will know there is controversy looming ahead, not least the period in which their clinic used conversion therapy as a treatment for homosexuality. However, on the basis of the first two seasons of this excellent show, we can look forward to another run of some of the most challenging, fearless and engaging TV currently on air.

Image description:

Showtime promo for Masters of Sex (used for more than one season in various sources). The show title is in large red letters at the top, with the ‘E’ lying horizontally, against a light blue/white background. Just below, Virginia stands facing outwards on Bill’s left, who is sitting in a chair turned sideways (viewer’s right). Her left hip leans outwards, with the words ‘Arousing America’s Curiosity’ following its line in thin black type, while her right hand leans around Bill and rests on the top of his chair. Bill holds a pen in his right hand and crosses his left leg over his right.

Ailsa Bristow is a British feminist living in Canada. She is dedicated to seeking out new feminist TV heroes, hotly critiquing tired old tropes and indulging in guilty pleasure viewing. You can find her on Twitter as @ailsaclare