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.

In Defence of Sex & the City.

carrie-and-the-girls-baseball

Earlier this year there was somewhat of a resurgence of appreciation for the art of SexSex & the City, that is.

In the wake of the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini and the culmination of decade-defining Breaking Bad, the apparent age of the anti-hero is upon us. The Sopranos was no doubt a watershed moment for cable network HBO, but what about another HBO show that aired six months prior and also elucidated a generation: Sex & the City?

TV critic Emily Nussbaum was thinking along the same lines when she wrote her own defence of the series earlier this year for The New Yorker. A sample:

“But Sex and the City, too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of The Sopranos, albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. Sex and the City, in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, Sex and the City was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.”

Carrie Bradshaw—like the anti-heroine Hannah in the apparent anti-SATC of this generation, Lena Dunham’s Girls—is not someone to look up to. She’s mind-numbingly selfish (“This can’t be the day I was broken up with by a Post-It!” No, Carrie, it was the day your friend Charlotte got engaged. But, by Charlotte’s own admission, it would be her second marriage so it’s not that important, right?); lives in a rent-controlled pre-war brownstone on the “gated island for the wealthy”, as Nussbaum puts it, apparently paid for by a $400-a-week-if-she’s-lucky-freelance-gig; and cheated on Aidan with Big. (In the ill-fated second movie, Carrie then cheats on Big with Aidan.)

While Carrie may not be a wholly identifiable character, the friendships she shares with Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte certainly are. Carrie is obviously everyone’s best friend who is asked to be maid of honour at their weddings and pick them up from the hospital when they’re sick, but the dynamics between the other women are interesting. Samantha and Charlotte can certainly clash over their differing ideologies on sex and relationships—the season three episode, “Frenemies”, perfectly illustrated the virgin-whore dichotomy between the two, but I love the maternal side Samantha shows around Charlotte, supporting her in “The Baby Shower” when she discovers the mum-to-be stole her future daughter’s name. I most strongly identify with Miranda, who often clashes with Carrie due to her whimsical attitude about things like money and men. For example, when Carrie reveals she’s going to lunch with Big after countless heartbreak in the season three finale, Miranda becomes exasperated at Carrie’s masochism and storms out of a vintage store they were shopping at. On the other side of the coin, Carrie disapproves of Miranda unquestioningly cutting ties with Steve for cheating on her in the original movie.

And let’s not forget the ground SATC broke in terms of women and talking about sex and TV. Looking back on it now, some of the attitudes the girls share about gender (Samantha’s treatment of the transgendered sex workers outside her apartment), sexuality (Miranda comments that bisexuality isn’t a valid orientation because the women end up with men and the men end up with men) and sex work (when everyone finds out Stanford’s boyfriend, Marcus, was a sex worker); but, at that time, can you recall many other shows that were so open and frank about sex and how women feel about it?

So while the show might be called Sex & the City—and let’s be clear, there’s a hell of a lot of it!—it’s very much about women and friendships in New York City.

Elsewhere: [The New Yorker] Difficult Women.

Image via Musings of the Girl Who Was Death.

Pop-Feminism.

From “How the Blogosphere Has Transformed the Feminist Conversation” by Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine:

“For too long, it was the anti-feminists who owned that brand: Katie Roiphe, Camille Paglia, Caitlin Flanagan.

“And this bold style might have been lost forever, if it weren’t for the web. Lacking editors (whose intolerance for insanity tends to sand off pointy edges), lacking balance (as any self-publishing platform tends to), laced with humor and fury (emotions intensified by the web’s spontaneity), the blogosphere has transformed feminist conversation, reviving in the process an older style of activism among young women. It’s a renaissance that began around 2004, when feminist blogs were rare. Left-wing blogging was on the rise, a phenomenon that was strikingly male…

“Then, during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Net exploded with debate about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama. At the time, the website Jezebel—the flamboyant ‘Girlie Gawker’ founded by Anna Holmes—got the biggest numbers it had seen since its launch.

“As the volume of posts increased, subjects recurred from early feminism, including outrage at sexual violence. But there were also striking differences: While seventies feminists had little truck with matrimony, feminist bloggers lobbied for gay marriage. There were deconstructions of modern media sexism, including skeptical responses to the ‘concern-trolling’ of older women who made a living denouncing the ‘hookup epidemic.’ There was new terminology: ‘slut-shaming,’ ‘body-snarking,’ ‘cisgender.’ And there were other cultural shifts as well: an acceptance (and sometimes a celebration) of porn, an interest in fashion, and the rise of the transgendered-rights movement, once seen as a threat, now viewed as a crucial part of sexual diversity.

“Perhaps most strikingly, there was a freewheeling fascination with celebrity culture and reality television, even on the most radical sites. Instead of viewing pop culture as toxic propaganda, bloggers embraced it as a shared language, a complex code to be solved together, and not coincidentally, something fun. In an age of search engines, it was a powerful magnet: Again and again, bloggers described pop­culture posts to me as a ‘gateway drug’ for young women—an isolated teenager in rural Mississippi would Google ‘Beyoncé’ or ‘Real Housewives,’ then get drawn into threads about abortion. Some of the best memes out there are the least categorisable, like Feminist Ryan Gosling, a blog that features the adorable star of Drive ‘citing’ poststructuralist philosopher ­Judith Butler. Is it a joke? A turn-on? A sly carrier for theory? It doesn’t really matter, because it’s the perfect viral pass-around.”

Related:  Yet Another Way in Which Madonna & Lady Gaga Are Alike.

Surfing the Third Wave: Second-Wave VS. Third-Wave Feminism on Gossip Girl.

Beyonce: Countdown to Overexposure.

Elsewhere: [New York Magazine] How the Blogosphere Has Transformed the Feminist Conversation.

[Feminist Ryan Gosling] Homepage.

TV: Private Practice—Pro-Choice?

 

I’ve recently finished watching the latest series of Private Practice, the final of which aired here just over a month ago. The season dealt with the brutal rape of Dr. Charlotte King, about which you can read here and here, as well as the abortion debate that is raging across the world, but particularly in the U.S., with the rise of the über-conservative Tea Party, and 2012 presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann.

The second last episode of the season was said “abortion episode”. A woman named Patty came to see Dr. Addison Montgomery with pain, cramping and nausea after getting an abortion a month or two prior. When Addison does an ultrasound, she regrettably informs her patient that she’s still pregnant: the abortion didn’t take.

Patty’s foetus is now at 19 weeks, which would make the pregnancy in its second trimester, at which time an abortion is dubbed a “partial-birth abortion” by pro-lifers, as Dr. Naomi Bennett points out. Addison chides her for using political terminology, and that an abortion at 19 weeks is still perfectly legal, reiterating Patty’s right to choose, especially since she already made her decision the first time around several weeks ago.

Television and the media have a responsibility to present both sides of the story on such a contentious issue, even if they don’t live up to this most of the time. That’s why, when a show like Private Practice represents the abortion debate in such a refreshingly honest manner, it can be seen as revolutionary. (And it’s not the first time, either.) Not as revolutionary as Maude’s title character choosing to abort her unwanted pregnancy back in 1972, before the groundbreaking Roe VS. Wade decision, as this article points out, but still.

Naomi is a character I’ve never been a big fan of. She overreacts to everything (granted, overreaction may be warranted when your 16-year-old daughter gets pregnant and your best friend starts dating your ex-husband) and has a self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude to most things, and her interference with Patty is no exception.

She uses her granddaughter Olivia to potentially guilt Patty into going ahead with her pregnancy, completely ignoring that Patty is single, after her deadbeat boyfriend took off when she told him she was pregnant, works two jobs, is poor, and is on her feet eight hours a day.

I had a real problem with this. Doctors should not push their personal beliefs on patients. If I were to fall pregnant tomorrow, I would be hitting up my nearest abortion clinic in a second, expecting to be given the care I’ve chosen, not to be lectured or threatened. As Addison says:

“… Even after you make the most difficult and personal decision that there is, it’s still not safe. Because you have some fanatic who claims to value life who can walk into an abortion clinic and blow it up.”

She continues:

“Why can’t Patty get what she needs, a safe and legal abortion without judgement?  Why does she have to go through this?  Why do I have to go through this?  I hate what I am about to do but I support Patty’s right to choose.  It is not enough to just have an opinion because in a nation of over 300 million people there are only 1700 abortion providers.  And I am one of them.”

The statistics are grim.

But, while trying to express the “pro-life” argument as well, Private Practice manages to remain pro-choice, which is no mean feat in the wake of reproductive rights being ripped from women across the world, and another PP, Planned Parenthood, being defunded en masse.

Related: Grey’s Anatomy Final Asks “When Does Life Begin?”

Cristina Yang as Feminist.

Elsewhere: [New York Magazine] Emily Nussbaum on the Rape Episode of Private Practice.

[E! Online] The Morning After: Let’s Talk About Private Practice.

[Feminist in the City] Private Practice Tackles Abortion.

[Televisual] The Changing Economics of the TV Abortion.

[Fuck Yeah Choice] Just Keep Swimming: Abortion on Private Practice’s “God Bless the Child”.

[Dakota Women] And the Abortion Portrayal Award Goes to… Private Practice?

Images via Kate Walsh Fan.