What is Masters of Sex?
MICHELLE ASHFORD: Masters of Sex is the story of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson – pioneers of sexual research in the 1950s and 1960s. How they began the trajectory of their careers and how their personal lives wove in and out of their professional lives.
SARAH TIMBERMAN: The work Dr. William Masters and Johnson were doing in the 1950s is completely relevant today. The questions they were asking are questions that people care deeply about today: intimacy, the nature of desire, the nature of love, what attraction and love are and whether they’re the same thing or whether they’re different from each other. These were all touched upon in what was a scientific quest to physiologically map the human response to sex.
Masters of Sex is also a very funny show because sex can be funny. Our ideas about it, our hang-ups and our areas of discomfort in discussing it are all there to sort of make for comedy too.
In looking at the nature of sexuality we’ve tried to take the opportunity that the show gives us to say what is this thing, this spark. The thing that has inspired virtually every great work of art, of music and of literature. What is love? What is sex? How do they relate? The show deals with all those things.
The 1950s was a very different time period. Sex wasn’t dealt with in the same way it is today…
MICHELLE ASHFORD: When they first started working together in 1956, there was basically nothing known about sex. Dr. William Masters was an obstetrician and a gynaecologist, and he had made enormous inroads in the world of infertility. So he’s a pioneer as an infertility specialist. But what he was secretly fascinated by was ‘sex,’ because he knew that no one had ever tackled it. There were many, many studies about how babies were born, but not a single study about how a baby was made. This was fascinating to him so he decided to take it on. However, for a man who is absolutely at the top of his game and incredibly well respected as a doctor, this was a subject that was so taboo he had to basically hide for a number of years before he could even tell anyone that this was what he was doing.
The show really explores a very wide cross section of people in the 1950s.
SARAH TIMBERMAN: We’re looking at cultural assumptions, prejudices and, in a broader sense, racial issues in the show. We’ve travelled an enormous distance since that time and we wanted to explore what it was to be gay in the 1950s and 1960s in America. We do that through Beau Bridges’ character. The writers have written it beautifully and he’s just acted it brilliantly. To look at what that struggle was, how closed we were as a culture and a society and how impossible it was to break out of the constraints and the prejudices that were so pervasive. It makes for great storytelling. And again, we’re fighting the same battles now. We’re making the show as the Supreme Court is arguing about gay marriage. So it’s the same story in a different context and it lets us look at very contemporary issues through the lens of their work in that time period.
What kind of man is Dr. William Masters?
MICHELLE ASHFORD: Dr. William Masters is a very complicated man. He was brilliant, wildly ambitious and incredibly successful. He had a career that any doctor would have envied but he decided to take on this subject. One of the things he’s quoted as saying was that he wanted a Nobel Prize.
He never got the Nobel Prize for this work. And yet, it was really groundbreaking and remarkable. I think it always had a certain kind of prurient atmosphere around it. Even though what he was doing was remarkable and he approached it as a very serious scientist, at the end of the day people could always slightly dismiss it and say, ‘Well, it’s just about sex.’ So I think that actually damaged him career-wise.
In the show, Dr. William Masters has tremendous passion for his work but he lacks passion for his own wife.
MICHELLE ASHFORD: Dr. William Masters is a very complicated character. He was very, very passionate about his work but we see in the pilot that he comes home and is less passionate with his wife. I think it’s no mystery that he was drawn to the world of sexual study because he himself had some demons he was trying to sort out. He came from an incredibly abusive background. He had a tyrannical father and he was a man who had had to put on a real suit of armour to just get up every day from the time when he was fifteen on. But underneath that suit of armour are a lot of gaping holes. What you will see in this character is many contradictions, many different facets of his personality. I think that the way sometimes people who have emotional problems end up being shrinks, the fact that Dr. William Masters ended up being a sex researcher makes perfect sense.
We’ve talked about Dr. William Masters. Let’s talk about Virginia Johnson.
MICHELLE ASHFORD: Virginia Johnson was thirty-one when she met Dr. William Masters. Twice divorced with two kids, she had been a lounge singer for her previous husband, a bandleader. She was a little bit adrift. Virginia was not a college graduate but she had a burning sense of ambition, even though she wasn't sure where it should be channelled. She applied to the University of Washington as a secretary, with the idea that she would take night classes and eventually make something of herself. But it was quite vague as to in what area she would make her mark. She started working for Dr. William Masters when he was just launching his study. And, as a prostitute had told him, if you really want to know about sex you’re going to need a female partner. This was a very happy coincidence, of finding kind of the ‘perfect woman’ to help him with his work.
She was also ahead of her time in many ways. Especially when it came to the subject of sex. She was not at all prudish or squeamish or embarrassed. She had a very active sex life. Dr. William Masters’ wife Libby was a very traditional woman. They were very different and yet they ended up becoming, oddly enough, very good friends, despite the fact that there was, in fact, a relationship going on with Virginia and Bill.
SARAH TIMBERMAN: Virginia Johnson was a renegade. She was ahead of her time and had a kind of intuitive genius, a kind of frankness and candour and sort of gutsiness. Virginia was a spitfire and a provocateur. She was also masterful at putting people at ease. I think Lizzy embodies all of those things – she’s outspoken, funny, provocative and incredibly bright. She doesn’t pull punches, is fearless in her approach to her work. Those things are very reflective of the woman that Virginia Johnson was and how she approached her life and her work.
Virginia Johnson was a remarkable figure in her relationships with men. She approached her romantic relationships in a way that people traditionally associate with men. She could separate sex and romance – they didn’t have to go together. She was something of an adventurer in terms of her sexual relationships and was very comfortable with her sexuality and comfortable talking about it.
What do we learn about women’s roles through this story?
SARAH TIMBERMAN: In talking about the show, we always talk about the sexual revolution. I think someone said it’s in Tom’s book somewhere that the three legs of the sexual revolution were the pill, the Beatles and Dr. William Masters and Johnson’s study. But beyond the sexual revolution, you could look at the feminist movement and see a relationship between the work that they were doing and what feminism was setting out to accomplish.
Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s work debunked a lot of previously conceived notions about women and sexuality and the nature of female orgasm. I think the biggest finding was that it could be argued that women are greater sexual athletes than men. That was a huge thing for someone to say in 1957. They debunked some of Freud’s ideas about female sexuality and about female orgasm. There had been a notion that only a vaginal orgasm was a mature experience of female sexuality, so it kind of implied the need for male participation. Dr. William Masters and Johnson spent a lot of time looking at masturbation and whether one orgasm is better than another.
People who walk into the writers’ room are shocked at the conversations taking place. Which shows you that Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were so ahead of their time that they’d be ahead of their time in some way today. Things that were taboo then are still taboo and there’s a kind of puritanical strain in American culture that makes it very difficult for people to delve into subjects that they very unabashedly approached.
It’s exciting from a storytelling standpoint because people talk about things in very sophisticated terms. There is nothing salacious in our approach to the material. I think it has enormous integrity and intelligence and sophistication and wit. There couldn’t be a better creator for this show than Michelle Ashford, who I think has a genius at bringing historical material to life.
All of the things that were provocative about their work in 1957 continue to be enormously provocative and groundbreaking even today. It’s all very much unresolved because it’s about human experience in a very fundamental way.
Masters of Sex is on Channel 4 this October.