Masters of Sex: The Division Between Fiction and Reality
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.
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.
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.
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