Who’s on Top? Some Thoughts on the Sexual Politics of Masters of Sex.

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So Mo Ryan wrote this amazing piece for Huffington Post where she talked about a great new trend in television: The enthusiastic embrace of female sexuality and the female gaze. Mostly she focused on that white-hot wedding night episode of Outlander, because, well, of course she did.

That being said, she mentioned that she initially was going to write about Masters of Sex, too, but then decided not to because, as she put it, Outlander “melted my brain.” Fair enough. But I actually love the complex sexual goings on of Masters of Sex so I thought I’d scribble a few of my own thoughts.

Masters of Sex just completed a great, but wildly uneven, second season. It was, quite literally, all over the place, jumping three years in time during one episode, and trying to explore race relations, alcoholism, sexism, sexual dysfunction, euthanasia, homosexual self-loathing, psychotherapy, white fear of black sexuality, female sexual repression, and male privilege—and that was just that one episode! (I kid—sort of.)

Yes, the show, much as I love it, was something of a hot mess. But it did have one fool proof strategy for course correction. Whenever things threatened to go too far off the rails, the show grounded itself by focusing on the almost painfully intimate relationship between Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Gini Johnson (Lizzie Caplan).

Last season, the good doctor and his researcher became the subjects of their own sexual study, while secretly beginning to depend on each other in all aspects of life. By the end of the season, a teary-eyed and somewhat desperate Masters confessed to Gini that he needed her, but instead of this being the beginning of their happy ending, it was just the beginning of a new of kind of dysfunctional partnership.

Neither was really willing to give an inch—that is, admit that they were having an affair and falling in love—so even as they were regularly meeting for secret sexual liaisons in a hotel room, they continued to document their “work”—albeit in an increasingly half hearted way.

In the beginning of this affair, the dynamic skewed toward the traditional, with Bill roughly having his way with Gini (it didn’t quite feel rapey because she participated enthusiastically and acknowledged she enjoyed it, but it was certainly dominant) and telling her to take off her clothing so he could look at her. At one point, she asked him to “beg” for her and he refused. “I don’t beg,” he said.

Then something changed. Gini became uncomfortable with the relationship—partly because she wondered if she really was sleeping her way to the top, as her clear-eyed friend Lillian suggested, and partly because her guilt over the affair was weighing heavily on her—and she asked Bill if the sexual research was a requirement for her keeping her job.

He told her it was.

In the next scene, they’re in the hotel room again. This time she’s angry, because Bill has forced her to be there. She demands that he take off his clothing and he does. Then she demands that he touch himself, which he also does.

Staring at him impassively, a clipboard in her hand, she asks Bill to describe the stages of his masturbation. At one point, he closes his eyes.

“Why are you closing your eyes. Is that involuntary?” she queries.

“Yes,” he says. “I think so.”

“Are you thinking of anyone in particular right now?”

“Yes,” he says. “You.”

Upon this acknowledgement that she is the source of his fantasies, Gini softens a bit—remember she secretly loves him too, or at least some version of love—and demands that he stop touching himself.

Okay, here you might think that Gini would kiss him, maybe even go down on him, reward him for his obedience. But she doesn’t. She literally forces him to kneel in front of her and orally pleasure her. (The camera pans back, wonderfully, on naked Bill prostrating himself in front of fully clothed Gini.) It’s an extraordinary moment of female sexual dominance—made all the more compelling by the fact that it was such an immediate and necessary role reversal.

I could go on and on dissecting individual scenes of the show—Gini essentially cures Bill’s impotence by instructing him to lie back passively as she rides him—but you take the point. That Outlander wedding night scene was wonderful and important for all the reasons Mo Ryan stated. It was a perfect role reversal: The man was the naïve virgin who enthralled the woman with his guileless charm and beautiful body. But Masters of Sex is perhaps exploring something even more complex: The endlessly shifting sexual power dynamics between two highly intelligent and fiercely stubborn adults. May they never find perfect harmony.

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