I just finished reading Masters of Sex, the book on which this TV show was based. My opinions have shifted, somewhat. There is of course the difference in the two media. With the book, I’ve been able to ponder it over several months without feeling the need to retrace my steps. With the show, I started in 2016, gave up when it got triggering and then restarted twice over. This time round, I had to steel myself to power through it to the end, which may have impacted my opinion. Now that I’ve read the book (and the show, to be fair, follows it quite closely), I feel like I have a better perspective on the story and more clarity on the thoughts that came up.
Unlikeability as Lack of Ability
Bill Masters was not a particularly likeable character. Even a somewhat forgiving (attempting to be neutral) viewpoint like Maier’s shows him to have been focussed to the point of ruthless. It made me reflect on several such men I’ve encountered, mostly in romantic context. In the past year, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that these men may not have been evil, chuckling geniuses out to exploit people (and me). Make no mistake, I don’t believe any of them or Bill Masters for that matter, were/are good people. They lack a fundamental empathy for other human beings, a trait that translates into not completely ‘getting’ social cues but also making it very easy for them to exploit, even abuse other people and move on seemingly with no moral compunctions. I’ve been wondering if this merely means that they are limited human beings with very narrow emotional and thus, mental range.
Emotional IS Intelligent
Yes, I clubbed the emotional and the mental together and there’s a reason this post appears on XX Factor. For centuries, we’ve thought of mental faculties as logic, rational, distanced from emotions which have been thought of as inferior, distracting, unnecessary. The ‘mental’ has been designated the domain of masculine and emotions the domain of hysterical females who need a steady man to keep them on track. But being able to access, understand identify and articulate emotions is a skill, one that most girls are taught since childhood. This training may not look and sound good since it mostly takes the form of prioritising other people’s needs over one’s own. But it also teaches us patience and eventually about delaying gratification. It demonstrates over and over, the value of playing the long game – of picking one’s battles, of factoring other people’s feelings when trying to achieve something. Take a look all around and tell me that doesn’t help women. Whether you look to the scheming saas-bahu narratives or the diplomatic ways that female media stars have climbed, these lessons show themselves as valuable.
So what does that have to do with Bill Masters and the men I’ve known? I think they’re people who lack something vital in their mental makeup. I am not intelligent enough to articulate exactly how they’re losing out because of this. Or maybe I haven’t healed from all the callous exploitation inflicted on me personally by them. But I’m convinced that being emotionally limited is a shortcoming and not a strength as I’ve been taught.
The Tragedy of Masters and Men
In the story of Masters and Johnson, Bill Masters does not come off looking good in any way. From all accounts, he was a very gifted and dedicated physician-surgeon already. And it would take supreme courage to undertake the study that became his lifelong passion. This study spawned a whole industry of sex therapy, foreshadowed medical developments like Viagra, was a forerunner of the sexual liberation and women’s empowerment. Importantly, it dispelled many of the medical community’s notions about sex, women’s bodies, older people’s bodies and dysfunctions. Not all the ideas proved correct (especially that problematic view on conversion therapy, which Maier concedes was probably a result of senility) but Bill Masters vision and work transformed how human beings thought of this most fundamental act of relating to one another.
But Bill Masters did not die rich. He was also never acknowledged again, let alone accepted back to the university where he began his project. The few people who tended to him in his last few years – Virginia Johnson herself, his son, his third wife Dody – were/are all seen as deserving of great sympathy and recognition just for tolerating such a terrible man. He certainly did not die loved and the few people who cared enough, probably barely did so.
Considering the need to leave behind a legacy seems more male than female (I suppose it has to do with not really knowing if one’s progeny is one’s own), this seems like a bleak possible future for most emotionally stunted men.
Women Aren’t Winning This Battle Either
This brings me to another thought I’ve been pondering for awhile. I anticipated in my 20s, that the toxic male behaviour I saw around me would have its repercussions on the male gender. I reasoned that the familial structures that supported their Raja Beta brattitude would lose their power as the doting parents got older. But in parallel, the women like me would have collected experiences and lessons in dealing with predatory/exploitative/abusive/cheating men and would reach a point of not needing to carry the burden of them anymore. That is happening. It is happening to me and I see it happening in so many ways around me, even with younger men and women.
The MeToo movement in so many ways was also about women saying that we didn’t HAVE to be exploited any more and if that shocked and destroyed men, why should we have to care?
Where does it leave us all, as a society now? Or as individuals? I know most of the perpetrators named in MeToo seem to have escaped without repercussions. But I know the echoes of this will linger on in every interaction between the genders, every intimate and professional relationship for at least some time to come.
We are a generation of embittered women saying we’ve got a raw deal when it comes to men so we’re not interested. And our counterparts are severely limited men, barely capable of identifying their own emotions right, now dealing with acute fear and no one to tell them how things work. I don’t know that the idea makes me, personally happy.
The last few pages of the book dwell on an ageing Virginia Johnson, after Bill Masters divorced her. A particularly telling section has her reflecting on the fact that she was brought up to be anything a man wanted her to be. How she may or may not have cared for the several men that she encountered (two prior ex husbands, Bill Masters, several other suitors/partners/collaborators).
Virginia Johnson was not a weak or needy woman by any stretch of imagination. Both the show and the book show her to be resourceful, practical, able to set aside her personal ambivalence to focus on what she wanted. One even wonders if she was a victim or an opportunist. But of course, you’d never wonder that about a man primarily because a man would not have had to make such choices but would be welcomed into achievement and exploiting other people readily. She makes for a most interesting character. I’m just not sure that she was a happy person.
It may be the men’s fault but it does mean nobody gets loved or laid.