For the past two years my wife and I have been watching the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which purports to portray the careers of Dr. William Masters and his research collaborator, and later wife, Virginia Johnson. The series is set in the late 1950s and, like Mad Men, wants to take advantage of a kind of perverse, love-hate nostalgia for that bygone era. It is highly entertaining and often, of course, titillating, but I felt from the beginning that, like Mad Men, it reflected far more of the present than it did the actual experience of the past. I finally decided to find out, and got the original book, Masters of Sex, by Thomas Maier, out of the library. It's a gripping, well-researched account, drawing on interviews with Johnson, with many people who knew one or both of them intimately, and on an unpublished memoir written by Masters. It turns out that the show, from a historical point of view, is much worse than I thought.
The first problem, I regret to say, is Michael Sheen, the fine British actor who has starred as Tony Blair and David Frost in very succcessful movies, and who is also an executive producer of the show. It is abundantly clear that the real William Masters, while emotionally reserved, was a very verbal, physically impressive and charismatic man who impressed nearly everyone who came into contact with him. Sheen, alas, has chosen to play him as a somewhat pathetic twit. While his skill as a doctor and surgeon and his empathy for his patients showed through in some of the early episodes, he generally comes across as a person with no EQ whatever, to use another anachronistic term. And this is important, because it also allows the show seriously to misrepresent the impact he had on his university and on his staff.
The problem with these retrospective dramas about the 1950s and early 1960s is that they focus upon characters with whom today's audiences can identify--usually women and minorities--to show how hard it was for such people to make their way in a white male-dominated world. Masters qualifies as a sympathetic figure professionally, although not personally, within the show, because he's trying to explore the forbidden subject of sex. Masters was indeed pursuing a forbidden subject, but many of the powerful men of the 1950s were smart enough and understanding enough to give him critical support. The Catholic Archbishop of St. Louis, a liberal, joined the board of his research institute. The head of Washington University Medical School knew about and approved his work. But in the TV show, his administrative superior, played by Beau Bridges, is instead of closeted homosexual whom Masters blackmails into supporting his research, after he learns about the man's sexual orientation from a male prostitute. That was not the only cooperation Masters got from the establishment. The police commissioner of St. Louis declared a moratorium of arrests for prostitution while Masters was interviewing and filming local prostitutes, and police chiefs in other cities did the same. Masters's initial presentation of his filmed results to his colleagues did disturb some of them, but they did not begin screaming at him during the talk, because educated people in those days simply didn't do that sort of thing. His patron, the head of the Medical School, assured him there was nothing to worry about, since although he had heard some verbal complaints after the presentation, no one had submitted anything in writing. The main reason Masters left the university and set up his own institute was that it refused to give a paid position as a researcher to Virginia Johnson, who never even earned a college degree. (Of this more in a moment.)
In the show, Masters is forced to leave the university hospital, joins another one but leaves it quickly after a fist fight with another doctor, and then finds a temporary home at a Negro hospital. Then he finally sets up his own institute, conveniently located in a shabby building which is said to have housed the local Communist Party of the USA. There is not a word of truth in any of this, nor in the episode in the show in which Master's wife, Libby, gives birth to her first child in the same Negro hospital.
The whole portrayal of Masters's personal life is full of inventions and inaccuracies. By all accounts, he and his wife Libby had a thoroughly traditional 1950s marriage within which she played her role to perfection. The show's writers decided to add some drama by moving the Masters's difficulty in conceiving a child--which was real enough--to the late 1950s, when the show is set. In fact, one of Masters's own fertility treatments allowed Libby to conceive twice in the early 1950s and they had two children by the time the show took place. The show has Libby stereotypically complaining that Masters's insistence on pursuing his sex research is ruining their lives after he is fired from one hospital after another--a total fantasy, of course, since the firings never happened. It also clearly suggests that she conceived only because some one else's sperm was substituted for Masters's, which there does not seem to be any reason to believe. (I think that the Masters's son Howie, who was a major source for Maier's book and treated his parents' marriage very even-handedly, must be rather angry about the portrayal of his parents.) The show also invents a bitter conflict between Masters and his widowed mother that seems to have no basis in fact.
The show gives a tremendous role to Virginia Johnson in the design of their research, but it leaves out a crucial event, one that would have in my opinion made for great television. Masters handled the early stages of his research himself, recruiting men and women who were willing to masturbate or have sex on camera. (The cameraman, by the way, was the permanent illustrator of the medical school, not the out-of-work aspiring filmmaker who was written into the script.) One day Masters was having lunch with a female volunteer, a grad student, who introduced him to the idea that a woman might fake an orgasm. She then said to him, bluntly, that if he was really going to make sense out of sex, he simply had to have a woman collaborating with him throughout his work. Masters discreetly advertised for an assistant, and Virginia Johnson, a secretary in the medical school, was selected. She was bright, curious, ambitious, and very sexual herself--the perfect collaborator, in short, for the study.
Now it is also true that at some point after they had begun working together, Masters suggested to Johnson that they begin having sex themselves. The reason he gave, however, was not to gather more data, as the show seems to indicate, but in order to protect them both against the temptation to have sex with any of their subjects, and simply to provide an outlet for the sexual desire which watching their subjects inevitably aroused. Interviewed decades later by Maier, Johnson acknowledged that this looked a lot like sexual harassment. But she did not seem really to regret or resent it. She did continue to see other men, but there is no evidence that Masters suffered a potency crisis or had impotent encounters with prostitutes as a result, as is portrayed on the show. As a matter of fact, the reason Masters eventually left his wife and proposed marriage to Johnson was that she had fallen in love with a wealthy donor to their institute, and he realized she might marry him and bring their collaboration to an end. It was that that he could not face,and he persuaded Johnson to marry him. Eventually, in a cruel act of betrayal, he dissolved their marriage and wed the love of his youth, who had become a widow.
The writers also introduced another fictional character, Dr. Lilian DePaul, a gynecologist who is dying of ovarian cancer and trying to study the disease. Her complaints about her status as a woman and her treatment by other doctors come right out of the 1970s or later. Now there were women M.D.s in the 1950s. One of my own pediatricians was one, and an aunt by marriage was an anesthesiologist in a major metropolitan area. My aunt was certainly not a stereotypical woman of her generation: she was tough, determined, and never afraid to express her opinion about anyone. I'm sure she encountered sexism, but I never heard her discuss it, despite entire summers spent in her house. I was told by a surgeon who was a mutual friend that when he, in the midst of an operation, would call her by her first name--as he surely called his male colleagues as well--she would answer calling him "doctor." One can criticize the professional women of that era for failing to argue more about how they were treated, but it is a fantasy to assume that they felt exactly what women do today.
What disturbs me so much about Masters of Sex and Mad Men is that their insistence upon projecting contemporary issues and characters into the past obscures the positive aspects of the 1950s and 1960s. It was an era in which women and men were accustomed to subordinating some of their individuality for the good of the institutions in which they lived and worked, including their families. That allowed those institutions to achieve a great deal. Masters and Johnson, for instance, vastly expanded the frontiers of knowledge about a subject of critical importance to human happiness, and their clinical work (which has not yet figured on the show) transformed thousands of lives. One can make the same point about Mad Men, which not once, as far as I can remember, showed its characters designing an ad campaign that was anywhere near as eye-catching or entertaining as the best work of the real ad men and women of the 1960s. I am not denying that many women in particular had to endure a great deal in that era. One can in fact see that much more clearly in the 1960 film, The Apartment, than in any contemporary tv show. But the women mostly put up with it, and yes, hard as it may be to recognize today, that helped institutions function. We have assumed since the 1970s that the cost wasn't worth it. Eventually we may have to rethink even that, and we all may have to surrender more personal autonomy to make institutions work.