Masters of Sex: The Division Between Fiction and Reality

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Masters and Johnson
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Masters and Johnson

The old adage of ‘Sex sells’ is now more familiar and undeniable than ever. In a world where pornography or the gritty details of your parents’ late night activities is as accessible as the daily news (although you can barely tell the difference nowadays, anyway), it is hard to distinguish the fiction from reality. Enter Showtime’s Masters of Sex (shown on SBS One in Australia and on Channel 4 in the U.K.) , which having recently finished broadcasting its first season has taken a step in the right direction toward a more aware perspective on sexuality. However, it has also exposed a difficult artistic issue, in that it portrays real events and real people via several embellishments and factual fabrications. In addition, it exposes that not much has changed in how we look at sex. Ultimately, it rides the line between the excess of sexual content and legitimate period drama. How far should one go to ‘hook’ the audience? How far can artistic license extend when dealing with real people and events? Only the beginning of a long and treacherous road, the story of two St. Louis sex researchers will continue to define and shape our understanding of sex, as well as television.

After the disappointment that was the final season of Dexter, Masters of Sex instantly made a statement; simply in its title. Leading with the ‘ideal’ of sex questions the origins of one’s initial interest in the show. At first glance, it would seem a show aimed to please sexually hyperactive teenagers, along with sexually dissatisfied middle-aged men. However, it is, for the most part, egalitarian in its ideological standpoints, and, much like the work of Masters and Johnson, focuses on a human approach to sex. Based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 book of the same name, it tells the story of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who were pioneers in the then-emergent field of sexology. During their career together, spanning from 1957 to 1992, they viewed approximately 10,000 orgasms, created the now-assumed human sexual response cycle (excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution) and most controversially, claimed that women did not need men to satisfy them. The show begins, however, quite contrary to the expectations of a show concerning the lives and work of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, which, in reality, were clinical and distant from the romantic concepts to which sex is usually mixed with. After a credits sequence literally showing every metaphor or euphemism for sex imaginable, we jump straight into what is the attraction of this show. We meet Masters while he is peeping through a hole watching a prostitute and her client do the colloquial ‘deed’. By beginning with such a voyeuristic perspective, the creators are positing the audience to see the series as a diversion from a scientific retelling of the Masters and Johnson story. It is a highly stylised, exaggerated and emotionally charged drama. In other words, it aims to stimulate, more than to educate.

Masters and a subject being examined
Masters and a subject being examined

For those accidentally turning over to Masters of Sex while on a ‘surf’, it may seem like glorified pornography which television buffs pass off as ‘high art’ to justify what might seem as simple pubescent titillation. While it is hard to argue this as ‘high art’, it is heightened from such a distinction by the acting. Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Twilight Saga) and Lizzy Caplan (Party Down, Mean Girls) are, appropriately, the foundations which support the show, taking Masters and Johnson respectively. Despite using more aesthetically pleasing changes (namely that Masters has a full head of hair, rather than the remnants of white hair around the back of his head), Sheen fits with ease into the harsh, almost impenetrable character. Caplan, on the other hand is evidently the draw card of the show. However, despite the exaggerated sexual promiscuity of Johnson, Caplan subtly realises the character as independent because of her sexuality; freed by it, rather than restricted, like the majority of women during the 1950’s. Yet, those looking for an accurate depiction of the lives of Masters and Johnson should not look here, as facts are altered, character traits exaggerated and people completely fabricated, to fit with modern narrative and dramatic purposes.

In addition, it is evident that the show is not trying to confront the saturation of sexual content across the media today, but rather adding to it. With sexual content barely restricted and often flaunted by popular music videos, Masters of Sex is a small step towards a more open educational standpoint towards sex. Hopefully, as the series enters its second season, it will move away from the obvious visual attractiveness of nudity and graphic discussions of sex and confront the psychological issues behind human sexuality. Yet, as a first season, it has created a complex character web, exposing the need for sex to advertise what is often a beautiful and compelling tale. Yet, Masters of Sex is just that, a tale and often deviates from the truth of what happened.

Real life sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters
Real life sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters

When creating any piece of art based off past events, one encounters the difficult issue of artistic license and finding the correct balance. The fine line between simply recreating the events, thus being deemed as unoriginal and derivative, and manipulating or fabricating the details to the point of being offensive to those involved is the ultimate gauntlet which all artists constantly face. Such an issue posits the paramount question: What is art? To this, at least one conclusion can be made, namely that nothing can ever be original; that almost everything is inspired by some point in the past. Therefore, art is, at least to a minute extent, inspired by other works of art, or is, in part, an imitation. However, amongst the immensity of art works out there, in order for one’s work to be acknowledged, there has to be some diversions from the norm. This often means taking artistic license over somebody else’s work or over real events, while not detracting from the significance of those events within your creation. For example, one may argue that the creative team behind James Cameron’s Titanic made a decision offensive to those who died or survived the disaster by making the invented romance of Jack and Rose the focal point of the film. However, it became one of the best-selling movies of all time.

Therefore, it depends on how art is valued, by its viability as a commercial product (i.e. created to be sold for profit) or as a creative artifact. Inevitably, all art succumbs to be valued by the former. Yet, it is the best art forms which find the correct balance between perpetuating tropes and creating new precedents. Looking at Masters of Sex, it has already taken pages out of the books of Six Feet Under and Mad Men, while being constantly surprising in how it exposes truths, either to the audiences or among the characters. Therefore, we need to allow for a limited allowance of creative freedom when depicting past events in all art forms, especially the long-form drama which Masters of Sex is likely to become. If we continue to restrict legitimately unique programming, remakes and reboots will be all we can look forward to. Rather, we can look forward to a more diverse, imaginative and confronting television landscape, while looking back to take lessons from forgotten figures of bygone times.

Showtime’s Masters of Sex has not only drawn new eyes upon the groundbreaking work of Masters and Johnson, it has opened the door to a new discourse concerning the division between love and sex which continues to widen. While the creative team have dramatised, and indeed sexualised, what was, at least by most accounts, a business-like operation, such a decision is necessary for a drama which would not, by appearances, be seen by the general public. We must move away from sexual conservatism, if we are ever going to benefit from such a show, in order to educate the new generation amongst a world where sexual content is passed around indifferently. As the lives and work of Masters and Johnson moves towards a more psychological standpoint, the creators should confront sex and raise issues about whether sex should be for pleasure or the consummation of love; issues which it only briefly touched upon this season. Although the promise of nudity and sexual content is what has attracted most people to this show, it has been the brilliant performances, great set and costume design, innovative narrative devices and a funny look at sex which have made us realise it as something we cannot live without.

Sources: Thomas Maier, 2009. Masters of Sex: The Life & Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. Basic Books: New York.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Matthew Sims and I am a 25 year-old journalist from Victoria, Australia, writing about film and TV on the side.

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  1. Del Santos

    I looked forward to seeing “Master of Sex” because I wanted to see a realistic portrayal of the beginning of Masters and Johnson’s work. This series is supposed to take place in 1957 but the hemlines, hairstyles, and dialogue are off. The majority of women’s hairstyles and clothes say “1961” rather than “1957”. Virginia Johnson uses the word “clueless” to the hookers in the brothel to illustrate how much most Americans think of sex. How many people actually used that word that way back then? The way Lizzy Caplan, as Virginia Johnson, uses it, it sounds very 2013.

    Surely, the budget would allow for accurate representations of style and manners for the period. This can become a selling point as it’s been for “Mad Men”. If this keeps up with “Master of Sex”, it might kill my interest in it.

    • Agree completely. And I’m not sure they would use some of the slang they used. Also, how did a prostitute in the fifties managed to “get her tubes tied” when it’s even today somewhat difficult for a single and or childless woman to persuade a doc to do that?

      I don’t think they were as liberal as the show is depicting. Just too many wrong words, phrases, gestures, etc. why didn’t they hire a consultant or better yet, go look at movies considered stylish in that year to get the hair and hems correct?

      • Matthew Sims

        Artistic license is being taken, but only when it has meaning. When Betty got that operation, it was to denote that love can override sex, or if so interpreted, that greed can override sexual orientation. As to the show’s stylistic choices, perhaps Showtime was going for a more ‘Mad Men’ feel because they thought it was sexier than the fashions of the ’50’s.

    • Mcraigie

      Agreed. If I’m going to see a film or watch a series about the emergence of the sexual revolution, that connotes a specific time and place in which it occurred. If the “sexual revolution in its infancy” is to be portrayed, is it too much to portray that accurately? That’s what acting and production are supposed to do: set the audience in a time, place, and setting that augment the messages contained in the plot. While Mad Men, on occasion, has its errors, it does, overall, a good job of portraying its era’s fashions in clothing and furniture with great accuracy, as well as in its portrayal of social attitudes of the 1960’s. It is not much to ask a production, no matter how limited in budget, to accurately portray the setting it is in. That’s where creativity comes in. Otherwise, why go to the pains of portraying the story of Masters and Johnson if it is not portrayed accurately?

      • Matthew Sims

        While I agree with what you are saying, I think one has to look at this not as the depiction of the Masters and Johnson story, but rather as a piece of dramatic fiction based around the true story. While along the road the truth becomes exaggerated or morphed to fit the dramatic narrative (including stylistic choices), it is not the History Channel’s Masters of Sex, but Showtime’s. While they may deserve some flak for some of their choices, it is their show and some of their choices must be commended. While it is not portrayed accurately, it should not be, because it is a creation. It passes down the Masters and Johnson to new generations in languages and styles that they understand, so that they can find out the truth via other means.

    • Matthew Sims

      While I do agree with what you are saying, I don’t think it is necessarily made at a disadvantage to the show. While I am not an expert, Lizzy Caplan especially sounds and speaks just like she has in films and shows she has been in set in the 21st century. Yet, Showtime obviously thought that some diversion was needed to draw in the initial audiences. I would recommend that you give the second season a chance, as will I. If it continues down the more overly dramatic path, while disregarding accuracy, I may stop watching it also. Yet, as stated above, it is a show which uses the Masters and Johnson story as a basis for other narrative structures to leap out of (i.e. Margaret and Barton, Dr. DePaul, and so on). Therefore, I give it more leeway than it probably deserves, only because I like these storylines, and I think most of them have potential. Yet, a lot have been abandoned during the first season which I liked, so I just guess we’ll have to see.

    • This does point to one of the article’s criticisms.

  2. I think Masters and Johnson are selfish idiots. I don’t know how close this is to the real peeps, but Masters is a creepy jerk and Johnson is going to sacrifice her children for a man with obvious issues.

    • Matthew Sims

      I think that Masters’ last line was completely out of character, as would be Johnson’s decision to fall in love with him (if she already hasn’t). Near the end, selfishness definitely entered the equation. In real life, as far as I can tell by reading Maier’s book, Masters was definitely selfish and Johnson definitely used her promiscuity to her advantage, but she did not want to reach the top as much as Masters.

  3. Clifford Moore

    The overarching plot of the film is a revolution in the study of human sexuality, but the show uses that framing device the same way How I Met Your Mothers uses its own. It just sets the time and place and then the show is just small vignette stories about terrible human beings doing terrible things while working at a hospital or a brothel, only occasionally referencing the framing device when it needs some sort of thrust.

    • Matthew Sims

      I agree that the whole sexuality sort of got left in the dust during the first few episodes, but it was a necessary choice. For me personally, I liked most of the ‘vignettes’, although some descended into ‘soapy’ territories. I hope that the second season realises the sexual issues that need to be confronted, especially as Masters and Johnson diverge from physiology to psychology.

    • I can somehow relate to what you mean. It does seem like the show strays a fair amount from its premise–how Masters & Johnson developed their revolutionary sex study that changed how Americans think about the subject–to follow a lot of personal lives. When it started developing the Provost’s homosexuality/frustrated wife subplot, I thought oh, dear, we’re really strolling down soap opera lane here (though I love Alison Janney). I wish there were more on the study itself, and less on these fictional characters (at least, I assume everyone but M & J, and maybe Mrs. M, is fictional).
      Maybe what the show is going for is the ripple effect of that the study has — how it’s causing everyone involved in it or touched by it (thru knowing M or J) to think about sex and male-female relationships; to start asking questions and wondering about things they always assumed. Or, realizing how little they know about their bodies, their selves, each other…

      • Matthew Sims

        Well, I probably give it a lot of leniency as I did not know of Masters and Johnson’s work prior to the series, so I do not feel offended by the fabrication of characters. However, I do feel that there are so many real people which did not need to be replaced, i.e. the character of Ethan Haas, rather than other suitors of Johnson. I personally loved the Margaret/Barton storyline, especially her fling with Dr. Langham. However, I definitely hope that there is an insertion of more real people from Bill and Virginia’s life.

  4. I haven’t really had any desire to see this show, mostly because I don’t have Showtime. I think shows like this are unfairly judge as some look at it as just a way to get nudity on television and people tend to disregard that there is actually a storyline.

    • Matthew Sims

      It is rather disappointing for American viewers that it is unable to be seen by everyone. It is a double-edged sword, while you can argue that it is intriguing television, it is only so because of the dramatic narrative devices, it also has often gratuitous nudity. Yet, I would still argue that it serves its purpose as an advertising device, and if it can draw in more people to see it, then it is a necessary evil.

  5. It’s hilarious that the name / premise of this show originally turned me off to it, not entirely unlike Masters’ colleagues to his work in this finale. I figured it wouldn’t be much more than softcore porn, though of course I didn’t look at the actors in it or anything. Watched the first episode then binge-watched the rest of the season in 2 days. It really was excellent and I’ve recommended it to friends, who have had similar reactions based on the name but I’m trying to get them over the hump. Michael Sheen is friggin excellent all season long and this series does an awesome job of mixing drama and humor. Lots of laughs and a ton of powerful moments.

    As a parting thought.. “I think your vaginal walls are beautiful.”

    See ya next season, Masters.

  6. Matthew Sims

    If anyone is interested, this is an interesting article concerning the diversion that Showtime took in reference to Lizzy Caplan as Johnson to real-life Johnson and from real-life events.

  7. Raymond kelly

    I liked the show more during the early episodes, it felt unique and fun, now there’s too much heavy melodrama. I feel this way about alot of dramas though, they start off fun but by the end of the first season and from then on any sense of well being is completely gone. The show’s still good, don’t get me wrong, and I still look forward to every episode, it just used to be less of an undertaking to watch an episode. Wishfully the next season will up the game.

    • Matthew Sims

      Have to agree on all points there, Raymond. Big expectations for Showtime here, probably a deal breaker for the series if they don’t step up their game in the coming season. Fingers crossed.

  8. Rev-reV

    This is a fantastic show! It’s one of my three favorite new shows this season the others being Sleepy Hollow and the best new show of the season hands down, The Blacklist. This was a good season finale. I’m curious to see where they go next to continue their work. I know this show is based off of the real life work of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, but I never looked up online how their work progressed or it’s end result because I wanted it to be a surprise by watching the show. My guess is the showrunners are trying to stay as close to the real story of their work and journey together and adding a little fiction here and there

    • Matthew Sims

      Glad you enjoy the show. I would definitely recommend not looking up what happened to Masters and Johnson if you want to be surprised.

  9. Upon reading this article, I did a quick search on Wikipedia under “Masters and Johnson.” The research, itself, seems more interesting than the lives of the researchers themselves. For instance, according to the same site, William Masters and Virginia Johnson “ran a program to covert homosexuals to heterosexuals.” Supposedly, there was a 71.6 percent success rate. If I were to write a script on this study, would I research case studies from the conversion program? Yes, but what if there weren’t any? I would come up with a character who symbolized the “gay” man. Then, to make the characters more appealing, I would insert a notable person from that period. Voila! Created credibility.

    • Matthew Sims

      I would definitely agree with your first point, as their lives are often embellished or exaggerated for the show. The multitude of research and groundbreaking findings which M&J undertook is astounding and really should be more of a focus in the show, or at least made more obvious. I take it you are talking about Barton being the ‘gay man’, and while I see your point, he is an interesting character as he has something to lose via his sexual orientation, being the head of a medical hospital/school. I am not sure who you mean be a notable person, but hopefully there will be some more focused multi-episode case studies during Season 2, as Masters and Johnson study the psychological aspects of sex.

  10. VivianLamb

    Great post and great series. It had just the right touch of thrill, appeal, suspense, comedy, and romance to make a great show. It’s not quite as sleek as Mad Men but is well on it’s way to rival it with it’s well acted characters and subject.

  11. On the topic of using sex to draw an audience, I have definitely noticed this in most of HBO’s series as well. True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and even the shorter series like Hung are not only promising good quality cinematography, but also lingering glances at nudity and promiscuous sex in high definition. The question even came up about a recent French film “Blue is the Warmest Color”(not affiliated with HBO or Showtime, of course)of whether the film would have recieved as much acclaim as it has been if it hadn’t featured explicit lesbian sex scenes. Well, would half of the audience stick around for True Blood, which seems to get more fantastic and almost out-stretching its bounds each season? Wihtout the scandal of taboo sex would shows like Boardwalk Empire still recieve the amount of viewers they do? I would like to think that for many of these shows’ fans the answer would be yes. The quality of the work is something that should not be overlooked; the story lines do go beyond the sex (especially for Boardwalk and Game of Thrones. However there is a certain draw to forbidden excursions, unfair pairings and daring romances that always draw crowds, especially if they end in lust. I do not have an answer to my own questions, but I definitely felt that your article reflected many of my own thoughts. It will be interesting to see what happens in the realm of, shall we call it “sensuality”, in future shows of similar quality.

    • Matthew Sims

      While I can’t speak to the shows which you have mentioned, I agree that the fandom of these shows have stayed because of more than the drawcard of sex. I like your term of sensuality, because really, such issues of how to entice audiences should not be shied away from, whether it be because of nudity, violence or profanity.

  12. PerkAlert

    Very well-written article and excellent, thought-provoking opinions. I have not yet seen Masters of Sex, but it’s at the top of my “New Shows I Must Watch” list. The last course I took in my undergraduate education was Human Sexuality and it was one of the most enlightening class I ever took. Perhaps I had a more conservative upbringing, but I still think everyone should learn a little more about sex and the psychology behind it. Even though sex overwhelms every form of media, any formal education about sex is either a joke or nonexistent. From what it sounds like in your article, Masters of Sex has that exact potential to reach and enlighten audiences of all kinds.

    • Matthew Sims

      Thank you very much for your comment. I would definitely recommend that you give it a chance. A wider awareness of sex, including how we came to today’s conclusion should be a given in all education, really. While the show hasn’t quite enlightened people on everything it could have, rather focusing on the drama of Masters and Johnson (and other side characters), the second season has potential to open people’s eyes to the truths (and prior myths) of sex.

  13. When people suggest movies and TV shows to their friends, the most frequent first responses I hear run along the lines of: “Is there nudity?” and “Are there hot chicks in it?” I have not begun watching Masters of Sex, but the only reason why I was going to watch it was because I had learned about Masters and Johnson in my Human Sexuality class the semester before it started airing. I know Showtime is generally liberal with its sexual content, so that was an added bonus. In watching Dexter I found that the nudity hooked me before the story did.
    I’m beginning to wonder if there is no other way to hook audiences these days other than nudity and sexual content. It seems like my television choices are shaped by whether or not I’ll see something explicit or not in the forty or fifty-minute episodes.

  14. Matthew Sims

    I agree, nudity is a big attraction for most programming, or in fact, gratuitous anything (whether it be violence or profanity) is usually the only way to get people to watch it. Subtle just does not cut it anymore, in today’s exaggerated and highly dramatic world. I would not say that my television choices are shaped by their explicit content, but it definitely does not hurt, when you have the guarantee of nudity or violent content, to make it stand out from the rest.

  15. I’ve not had a chance to watch “Masters of Sex” yet because I don’t have Showtime, but I’m looking forward to it. While nudty/sex/titillation is often what draws us into viewing something, hopefully we stay for more thoughtful reasons. Personally, I find the study of sex and sexual behavior to be fascinating.

  16. The dissent between what the show could have done for us culturally and has done is well illuminated by your article. Society, particularly American society with its strong Puritan roots, undoubtedly needs some kind of mainstream medium to dissolve that controversial taboo that has revolved around the topic of intercourse. Like this article points out, Masters’ work was a science, yet this series seems to portray it as glorified pornography expertise. Hopefully as this series matures we will see more insightful discussions on the “titillating” topic that we so fear.

    • Matthew Sims

      I agree that the show does need to mature if it is going to keep (or increase) its viewership, as well as confront the issues which you have mentioned. Thanks for reading my article.

  17. I was glad to see this article pop up on my feed, because I’ve really been looking into the liberties Showtime took when blurring the line between historic accuracy and fictionality.

    I recently ordered Thomas Maier’s “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught American How to Love,” because as much as I got hooked on the show, I found a lot of it pretty far-fetched.

    Upon initially starting the show I was instantly drawn in by Lizzy Caplan’s alluring portrayal of Johnson. However, when I went to look up images of the real-life Masters and Johnson, I realized the same physical liberties Showtime took (like Masters’s baldness that you pointed out). I started digging into every article I could find about the real Masters and Johnson and OF COURSE saw how much they fabricated. I’m sure even Johnson herself would agree that she wasn’t as liberal and forward thinking as the writers make her appear. I haven’t finished Maier’s book yet, but the whole story line of Masters leaving his in-labor wife to confess his love for Johnson is separated by a number of YEARS in actuality.

    Masters and Johnson’s relationship wasn’t very love-based, like the Showtime show leads us to believe. It was much more scientific and even Johnson denied having ever loved Masters.

    I’m not sure where Showtime means to lead us next season. I know the history between the researchers spanned decades, but season one felt a bit rocky to last very long. They went ahead and set up the basis for Masters and Johnson to turn their relationship more personal, but Showtime already covered a ton of ground when it comes to their actual findings about sexuality. It’d be almost offensive to dive into the realm of their homosexual studies simply because of the inaccuracy behind their research (all their studies to help “change” homosexuals into heterosexuals, and their unproved conclusions about homosexuality in general).

    I’m interested to see where the show takes us, but I hope the creators and writers of the show take longer strides towards more truthfully portraying the duo’s lives/career together.

    • Matthew Sims

      Yes, Showtime has taken a lot of liberties. Masters did not start up a sexual relationship until he already had two children, as the whole capping situation is drawn out in this first season. Their relationship is, at least drawing from the interviews in Maier’s book highly romanticised for modern audiences who want to see soppy one-liners whispered in the rain. I never got bored or found the first season to be rocky. However, I have high expectations for the second season to get back on track to depict reality. While it has piqued my interest with such characters as the Scully’s (bar Vivian), I would like to see some real people (i.e. Kolodny and such). If they could tackle their work (or rather Masters) while showing the insufficient research made, while not sullying Masters’ name, it would be appropriate. Yet, it should be a show that steers people towards finding out more about Masters and Johnson while being entertained by melodramatic situations. Rather than just a clinical retelling, the show should be a drama. Yet, I would like to see more real events/people being depicted in the coming season(s).

  18. I find it interesting that American television leaves explicit sex to subscription-based channels. These images would never see the light of day in broadcast America. Images of violence on the other hand, are everywhere across the broadcast spectrum. For decades Canadian and European television have shown sexually based content. Should puritanical America come to terms with its sexuality as a real component of human behavior, we would move a long way toward the general acceptance of sex as entertainment and/or education where a woman’s breast is not blurred in prime time. Masters of Sex delivers entertainment as information and visa versa, packaged and portrayed in a superlative way. Let’s be real here. Showtime is in the business of ratings for their programming. Does it matter if the Masters and Johnson research and or actual biographical facts are changed for general audiences, whether to embellish or obfuscate within the domain of fiction. This programming is neither documentary in scope, nor purely fictionalized any more than a novel may be changed to meet the criteria of subjective entertainment. On the other hand, bringing even a loosely based historical account of two dedicated researchers opens up the possibility that people unfamiliar with this area of scientific study will at least be provided a cursory overview of their groundbreaking work, even if it exists with the window dressing of mass entertainment.

    • Matthew Sims

      While I can not personally speak to America’s censorship of sexual content, as I live in Australia, where ‘Masters of Sex’ was shown on a free-to-air channel, I can definitely see your point. We should be more open about sex means in today’s media landscape, how it can shape our children and our own minds, especially with the plethora of exaggerated or untrue sexual content out there. Therefore, we can admit that conservatism, regardless of its moral benefits, just does not cut it in today’s world, where nothing can be kept secret anymore. If children want to know ‘Where Babies come From’, they can, although there is a lot of misinformation out there (I got this ( as my first result, not kidding).

      As for ‘Masters of Sex’, I agree that ratings and viewership statistics, especially for subscription services, such as Showtime, is essential. Therefore, I can understand or at least tolerate some artistic liberties or fabrications being taken, in order to attract the widest possible audience. First and foremost, the series has allowed people to at least get a basic understanding of where their knowledge of sex came from, as well as the beginning of the ‘Sexual Revolution’. The show has allowed people to continue their own research on two of the most important scientists in modern history.

  19. FluxAxiom

    I missed this series, but after reading this article I’m definitely going to check it out. Sounds interesting.

  20. The article was interesting and thought provoking. However. It would have been more so if the author had compared this program with others that have dealt with male and female relationship when in various situations. For example. China Beach was a show about nurses and doctors that took place during the Vietnam War. It would have made for an interesting journalistic treatment if an analysis were presented comparing and contrasting the two programs and others.

    • Matthew Sims

      I apologise for not comparing ‘Masters of Sex’ to another programme. Yet, I have not really seen enough programmes (especially those dealing with multi-gender dynamics), nor have I heard of ‘China Beach’. In later projects, I will try and achieve a more analytical and broad-minded perspective. Thank you for reading my article.

  21. I must say I am interested in why directors choose this particular time period to focus on. I am also quite interested in the influence that this time period has on the events of today (Beiber, Cyrus, Any remotely famous person)

    • Matthew Sims

      It is an often-depicted time period. I suppose that it is often used because it was a transition period, where many big discoveries took place, as well as the cool ‘style’ which defines it.

      In terms of your second point, I would have to go back to my initial contention (i.e. ‘Sex sells’). The discoveries of Masters and Johnson inevitably has lead to the over-sexualised media of today. Simply look at the views on Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ music video as a perfect example of this. Yet, some people are not aware of the physiology of the opposite sex, or necessary aspects of sexual life. Yet, today’s sexualised world has desensitised people (at younger and younger ages) that sex or promiscuity is acceptable, and that their body is just a tool to get them popularity or wealth, rather than an expression of deep love for someone. While I am not advocating a life where intercourse is reserved only for people you love (as the show shows us, their can be a distinction between love and sexual pleasure), there needs to be more education at younger ages about what sex means. If kids can access graphic pornography without any proper identification, conservative views where we can just hide them from the world’s truths is insane denial. I hope that ‘Masters of Sex’ can further confront these issues in the coming season(s).

  22. I think the most interesting part of this show is the texture of character relationships. As an overarching theme, the attempt to understand sex looms over each of the characters’ lives. If you’re looking at this television show as art then I don’t think the true events are all that important. The premise of the show seems to be a way for the creators to explore the rest of what makes the show worth watching.

    • Matthew Sims

      I liked the show for that too. The show is not just about sex for sex’s own sake, but allows us to see how much of an impact it has over each character. We understand each character via sex, rather than because of it. Virginia is not defined by her looks, her promiscuity or her love for sex, but rather exposes her own weaknesses and insecurities. Margaret is not defined by her ‘cougar’-like activities with Dr. Langham, but rather, this exposes her life-long dissatisfaction with her husband. Sex, while being used simply as a visual stimuli, is also a narrative catalyst to make the characters more instantly interesting.

  23. Thomas Maier

    Hi Matthew Sims, Many thanks for your thoughtful article and reader responses about Masters of Sex, both the TV show and my nonfiction bio. I think the Showtime series has been a wonderful dramatic interpretation of my book, especially as an artistic contemplation about the elusiveness of love and how much sex defines our identity, both personally and culturally. Undoubtedly, it’s fun to compare the TV drama and my non-fiction book. All I ever asked was that the dramatic interpretation of my book be as good as possible.
    More so than any previous TV program, this story is rooted in Shaw’s Pygmalion and the wit of such classic films as Tom Jones and Shakespeare in Love (indeed they share the same director, John Madden). Most notably, there’s never been a TV show so deeply rooted in the power of female sexuality. As we see in Masters of Sex, this is not only revolutionary but threatening to a male-oriented society. Imho, showrunner Michelle Ashford and the entire cast have done an extraordinary job in fulfilling the artistic expectations for this show. And I know for sure that the story only gets better.

    • Matthew Sims

      Dear Mr. Maier, thank you so much for your comment. I have loved the Showtime series and loved your book. While one can argue about factual inaccuracies, I agree that the show is just that, a “dramatic interpretation”, and should be seen as such. As that, I think it has represented your work’s themes and structure very well.

      I have not seen Pygmalion, but it sounds very interesting, nor seen Tom Jones or Shakespeare in Love, but I shall before the release of the second season. I have appreciated the show’s confrontation of female sexuality, and the beginnings of a rebellion from the patriarchal shackles.

      I commend your work with the show, as well as all those associated, as I have been blown away by the show’s originality and emotional weight. I am looking forward to the coming season(s).

      Thankyou once again for reading and commenting on my work.

      Matthew Sims.

  24. Bart Grossman

    If you are going to do a story that is as completely fictional as Master of Sex it is simply wrong to use the names of real people. The result is to have the audience form impressions of the leading characters that are totally false. That is unfair to them and their families.

    • Matthew Sims

      I would disagree that the story is completely fictional. Admittedly, certain parts are created for the sake of dramatic tension or character development, but I think that is done for the respect of real people. Of course, I agree that real life was not quite so dramatic or clean as the show purports it to be, I think they had to accept that they could not do a factually accurate representation of William and Virginia’s life without the television show being dull, or at least dull in respect to other television programming (i.e. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad etc.). In other words, it makes for a great non-fiction book, but would not have translated well into televisual art. I am not arguing about fairness, just about trying to balance between what is entertaining to ordinary audiences and what is factually accurate so as to allow for more people to become aware of their story and hopefully be able to figure out what is truth and what is fiction.

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