Despite the Name, It’s All About the Women on Masters of Sex.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 17th October, 2014.

I recently spent a weekend in August listening to international guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, wax lyrical about the “golden age of prestige TV” and its respective “antiheroes”. While we’ve been watching the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites for the past fifteen years it’s time for a new dawn of television where women are the focus, such as Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black and pretty much anything Shonda Rhimes puts her Midas touch to.

One such show that comes to mind is Masters of Sex, the second season finale of which aired on SBS last night. Masters might seem to focus on the man it’s named for, the steely, socially awkward OBGYN, Bill Masters, played by Michael Sheen, but who it’s really concerned with are the women in his life. These include the long-suffering wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), whose trajectory sees her struggle with the changing attitudes of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the woman her husband is having an affair with: research assistant in Masters’ study of human sexual response, Virginia Johnson, played expertly by Lizzy Caplan. Both Masters and Johnson justify their extramarital activities by being adamant that “it’s for the work”. While nary a facet of Masters isn’t shown to Virginia at some stage or another he recoils from Libby, runs his mother out of town, slut-shames former sex worker cum secretary Betty and Virginia at times, and I don’t think there’s been an instance in which he interacts with his two infant sons.  In a scene that echoes Breaking Bad’s “I’m the one who knocks!”, Bill rages at Libby when she confronts him about their money troubles that “I provide the roof!”

Audiences may struggle to reconcile the way Masters treats the women in his personal life with his important medical work, not unlike Don Draper, for example, in the “masculinity masterpieces”—as Nussbaum put it in her presentation at the Writers Festival—of yore.

Masters of Sex is a show that has almost unbelievably advanced attitudes towards sex for the time it’s set and the fictional Masters and Johnson are held up as paragons of progression. At work Masters masquerades as the good, bleeding-heart doctor stuck in the conservative ’50s, as seen when he refuses to perform gender assignment surgery on an intersex baby. Masters similarly declines a teenaged patient’s parents request for her to undergo a hysterectomy to curb her sexual appetite. Careful, Bill, your God complex is showing.

Like Orange is the New Black, a show that follows a wide range of incarcerated women’s lives using a middle-class white woman as the Trojan horse to gain entry into that world, Masters’ focus on a male doctor is a cipher to take a better look at Virginia, Libby et al. in a time when women were viewed as second class citizens. (Some would argue that nothing much as changed.)

Also like OITNB, perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a created by women, not “prickly auteurs and the antiheroes they love”, to borrow yet another line from Nussbaum. A different Emily—this time Emily Tatti, editor of online literary journal Ricochet—tweeted that “You can tell it’s written by women, you just don’t get female characters like that in other shows!”

Showrunner Michelle Ashford explains Masters of Sex’s portrayal of women thusly:

“[In season one] three of our episodes were directed by women, our staff was half women, my producing partner is a woman. A lot of the people that have interviewed us say, ‘Wow, this whole show is run by women.’ We look at each other and think, ‘We didn’t design it that way.’ And that’s actually pretty great.”

The capable, relatable women who are received by audiences as such outnumber the titular Masters. Where Breaking Bad’s Skyler White was eviscerated by armchair commentators for expressing concern over her husband’s drug dealing and the actress that played her subsequently wrote a New York Times op-ed about it, Libby’s “problem that has no name”, for example, is portrayed as empathetic. And Virginia might get around but she is never characterised as wanton to the audience. Other such “strong female characters”, to use the clichéd term, that aren’t so much likeable as they are realistic portrayals of women in the world include How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating, Hannah Horvath of Girls, and any number of the women on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and OITNB.

Masters of Sex is busy ushering in this new era of television that sees antiheroes shift ever so slightly out of the frame and the women who love them—or, in many instances, merely tolerate them—have their time in the spotlight.

Elsewhere: [NPR] Orange Creator Jenji Kohan: “Piper Was My Trojan Horse.”

[HuffPo] Masters of Sex Creator Michelle Ashford: “I Had Every Horrible Job Imaginable.”

[NYTimes] I Have a Character Issue.

[Amazon] The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

[New Statesman] I Hate Strong Female Characters.

[Buzzfeed] Not Here to Make Friends.

TV: Catching Up on Women-Friendly Media.

emily nussbaum kristen wiig jenji kohan lena dunham mindy kaling sundance panel

Summer is usually a time when I catch up on TV shows I’ve neglected throughout the year.

In Australia, (when I owned a TV) all the shows would be on hiatus and in its place tennis and cricket as far as the eye can see. Likewise, American TV comes to a halt usually from about Thanksgiving which gives me ample time to keep up with the Kardashians or, in a more high brow vein, Breaking Bad, which I finally watched in its entirety this time last year.

Recently I lamented to a friend that this summer I’ve been watching more movies and, like, reading instead of catching up on shows like I should be. There’s so many on my list: The Good Wife, Orphan Black, Parks & Rec, House of Cards. I didn’t even watch American Horror Story: Freak Show when it started a few months ago and, low and behold, it just aired its season finale.

So what better time to catch up on it than this past (long) weekend? (And yes, I am well aware that AHS cannot be construed as women-friendly, but stay with me.)

I also have ample days off from my day job in the next week so, in addition to more freelance work and my side gig at OCW, I should be able to finish the 13 episode season by the next weeks’ end.

I intend to work just as hard throughout the year, but I also need to make sure I engage in self-care to keep the momentum up. So when I’ve emptied out my brain onto the page and filled it again with the words of others, what better way to unwind with some TV that functions as a hug?

I’ve been very vocal about my love for Grey’s Anatomy: when I was sick a few weeks ago, I knew I should have started one of the abovementioned shows but I just needed comforting in a way that no one but Meredith Grey and co. could do, so I rewatched the first half of this season. It, along with its Shondaland cohorts Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, return this week and I’ve got a hot date with the Middleton Law School kids and President Grant on the weekend.

From there, I intend to either dip into The Good Wife or House of Cards as research for a piece I’ve been ruminating over for months. While the beauty of many Netflix-based shows is their short seasons allowing quick consumption, there’s a good six seasons of The Good Wife, so who knows when I’ll emerge from Alicia Florrick’s law offices?

In contrast to the abovementioned shows, it was only a few years ago that many of the books, movies and TV shows that I was drawn to were about men. My favourite authors were men, the movies I was interested in seeing at the cinema were about men, and many of the TV shows I watched were all about men. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite authors are still men (Dominick Dunne and Mick Foley), and I’m hanging out to see Foxcatcher at the movies. But on the whole, I’m so fucking sick of only learning about men’s lives—either real or fictional.

That’s why, this year, I’m making a conscious effort to consume media about women and minorities. What started out as something I was completely unaware of has blossomed into a newfound appreciation for the voices of women I may not have sought out before. I’ve slowly started to realise that all the shows I watch are about women—OITNB, Total Divas, Girls, Revenge, 2 Broke Girls, The Mindy Project—as are the shows I intend to. I’ve only recently started watching movies again, and I started with Nora Ephron’s cannon over Christmas and New Years. Wild is the next movie I intend to see at the cinema. And my reading list from the past month has consisted of Roxane Gay, Janet Mock, Donna Tartt, Lena Dunham, Brigid Delaney and Amy Poehler, amongst many others.

Which shows—and other media—are you looking forward to consuming this year?

Related: Hustle, Loyalty & Respect: Where I’m Taking My Career in 2015.

The Golden Age of Television.

Physical & Mental Health on Orange is the New Black.

Girls: A Season Two Retrospective.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served by a Woman.

2 Broke & Tampon-less Girls.

Elsewhere: [Bitch Flicks] The Choice to be a Total Diva.

Image via InStyle.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

peta vegans go all the way campaign

PETA get more anti-women with each ad campaign. [Daily Life]

On favouring the internet over books. I’m a rapacious reader; if I don’t get at least an hour’s reading time in each day, I will slowly start to go insane. Some of my friends tease me ’cause it can take me up to a month or six weeks to finish a book (the most recent was Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and what a waste of two months that was!), but that’s not taking into account the copious amounts of other reading I do. On a good day, I’ll devour every article on TheVine, Daily Life, MamaMia and Jezebel, and fit in some before-bed book reading. On the weekends I can get through The Age‘s lifestyle sections, long-form articles I can’t commit to throughout the week and magazines that have been languishing on my bedside table for weeks, on top of all the rest. I read probably millions of words a week. I don’t think there’s any harm in some of those words being from the internet. These days, reading is about so much more than books. Just so long as I can get a chapter or two in every night or on the bus, I’ll take my reading where I can get it. [Daily Life]

Reading letters to Ms. magazine’s editors from the 1980s. [The New Yorker]

The rise of the Trojan Horse TV show. [Film School Rejects]

Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay, pleads with the public to view violence against women as not just a women’s issue. [The Hoopla]

I review Monash Uni Student Theatre’s production of Columbine. [TheatrePress]

Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler White on Breaking Bad, weighs in on the vitriol directed at her character. [NYTimes]

Can you perform a gay anthem if you’re straight? [Jezebel]

The privileged male sexuality of “Blurred Lines”. [Collapse Board]

In defence of the make-up-free selfie. I like MamaMia‘s Body Positive campaign, but I think it’s just the concept of the selfie I’m a bit iffy about. I’m all for taking a photo of myself after exercise or of a body part that I’m self-conscious about, but I just can’t get behind selfies (so to speak). Maybe it’s also an insecurity about my face without makeup. Apart from my legs, my bare face is the body part I most struggle with. I love the structure of my face, and I think my eyes are my best feature, but I’m still sporting the scars from years of late-adolescence/early-adulthood acne which means I’m not ready to upload a make-up-free pic of myself for all the interwebs to see. Plus, I think selfies are kind of narcissistic—there’s a difference between a light-hearted holiday or dancefloor snap with friends and a duckface bathroom pic which just screams “validate me!” What do you think of the whole selfie phenomenon in general?

Some slighted feminists sick of receiving dick pics have decided to make them into an art exhibition. And that’s where the issue of consent comes in. [Daily Life]

Image via SMH.