TIME Culture

Why Masters of Sex Is the Most Feminist Show on Television

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex
Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex Frank W Ockenfels—Showtime

How do you make a show about sex interesting in an era when we’re bombarded by it? Easy. Put three women behind the lens.

Michelle Ashford, Amy Lippman and Sarah Timberman are seated around a conference table ticking off a list of Hollywood sex scenes.

“Basic Instinct.”

“Out of Sight.”

“Remains of the Day.”

“Ohhh, Remains of the Day,” Lippman coos. “That’s a beautiful sex scene.”

It’s all research, of course. As the brains behind the Showtime series, Masters of Sex – which traces the lives of pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson – the women needed to understand: What makes a sex scene sexy?

(Read this week’s story on the women behind Masters of Sex)

So they each sat down one night, with a series of sex scenes collected on a DVD. One by one, they dissected each carnal moment. “We literally had 50 movies,” says Ashford, the show’s creator and showrunner. “We wanted to find out what actually makes something, honest to God, sexy.”

What they found, naturally, was that it had little to do with the physical act – and everything to do with narrative. And so as the trio – creator and executive producers, respectively – prepared to film the pilot of Masters of Sex, Ashford made a rule: sex on this show couldn’t just be about sex. “We decided that sex had to be completely connected to story,” she tells TIME, in a profile in this week’s magazine. “So it was either funny or humiliating or curious or revelatory or… something.”

Ashford, Lippman and Timberman spoke to TIME about Masters and Johnson, sex on television, and how you keep a show about sex interesting in an era where we’re bombarded by it.

So you guys watched 50 sex scenes. What was the sexiest?

Ashford: We all agreed that Don’t Look Now, the Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie movie, from 1973, was memorably sexy. Michael Sheen (who plays Masters) loved it. We loved it. And our director, John Madden, said, ‘Every love scene I’ve ever directed was influenced by that movie.’ So when we went and watched the film again, we tried to figure out what were we all responding to. We just assumed it must not be trying to be sexy. But that’s actually not true — the sex is very sexy. But what they did was they shot that sex scene and then they intercut it with all these shots of that couple after sex, getting ready to go out for the evening. And so the aftermath of being together is on their faces, what this intimacy has meant to them. And so all of a sudden you get a whole story, because you’re seeing the sex but you’re also seeing the effect of the sex.

Is it rare to get that level of story and sex these days?

Ashford: I think in a lot of shows it’s still as if, OK, we’re going to have a lot of exposition, so we’re going to have two people humping in the background to make it more interesting.

Part of what makes Masters of Sex great is its willingness to treat sex like science.

Ashford: We show a lot of sex, but the discussion of sex is incredibly frank. We use the words vagina and clitoris, like, endlessly, and you really don’t find that on other television shows.

Lippman: I mean, I’m not a prude about this stuff, but [before this show] I don’t think I’d spoken the word dildo publicly … well, ever.

Ashford: And now you say it six times a day.

Lippman: An hour! It’s like, is the masturbation with the dildo, with out the dildo…

You talk about more serious topics too – there’s an episode on vaginismus, a rare sexual disorder, and even male impotence. Those are like the least sexy topics possible in a show about sex.

Ashford: We want this show to feel relatable … We want people out there watching, who don’t have perfect sex lives, who suffer from sexual dysfunction and insecurities and many nights of the worst dates ever, we all want those people to watch and say, ‘Well, that’s me.’

So there’s almost an underlying social mission.

Timberman: The show has really given us license to talk about a lot of these taboos.

How do you make sure you get the science right?

Ashford: One of Masters and Johnson’s claims-to-fame is that they disproved Freud’s theory that vaginal orgasms were superior to clitoral orgasms — which made half in the women in the world think they were “frigid.” But when we actually went to write that part of the script, we realized we didn’t understand the mechanics. So at one point, we had all these diagrams out to try and understand the difference between. It was hilarious, all of us writers gathered around this drawing, going, “Really, that’s how it works?”

It’s still pretty rare to find women running the show in Hollywood. How do you think your gender influences the way this story is told?

Timberman: It’s something that’s come up a lot in talking about the show that we almost forget – that this is a show that’s run by a lot of women. That’s not by design. But, sure, it’s not the male gaze.

Lippman: And female pleasure is well represented. As women writing a show about sex, the expectation might be that we are most interested in telling stories about love and romance, and while that’s a component of the series, it isn’t necessarily our focus.

Timberman: Right. And, you know, in season one, we make a big deal of that line by Masters, where he says that women are ‘greater sexual athletes’ than men, because they have multiple orgasms.

I was watching the preview of the second season, and within the first five minutes we hear Virginia Johnson talk about asking for a raise, the farce of diet pills, dildos, and female competition. You watch something like that and it’s hard to imagine this not being a show produced by women.

Lippman: I think the thing that gives us license is not necessarily being female, but having Virginia Johnson as a character. She was a remarkable woman, very flawed, very complicated, but absolutely a groundbreaker. And her attitude toward sex was truly unusual – even for today. She was able to separate love and sex.

Right. And she’s a working mom.

Lippman: You know, we all have children. We’re working. We’re struggling with things like, ‘When do I get home because my kid’s in an All Star game?’ and ‘I need to take a week off to take my kid back East to go look at colleges.’ So I think there is a lack of judgment on our part about Virginia as a working mother and an appreciation for how hard it must have been, in the late 50s, to balance one’s professional ambitions with having a family.

When I spoke with Lizzy Caplan [who plays Virginia Johnson], she made the point that your portrayal of female friendships is really quite nuanced. Can you speak to that a bit?

Ashford: I think sometimes female friendships tend to be portrayed as either ‘We’re best friends and tell each other everything’ or ‘I did like you but now we want the same man, so I hate you.’ But the truth of female friendships is they are often as complicated as romantic relationships, sibling relationships, mother/daughter relationships — there’s competition between women, and envy, women can be both very judgmental and incredibly selfless in the love and support they offer one another. There are a million emotions under the sun that play out in female friendships, and I think we’re just committed to making the women (and their friendships) that we portray on our show as very specific.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

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