“Masters of Sex” shows us two sides of Virginia Johnson (Lizzie Caplan), a character based on a real-life sex researcher. On one hand, we have a pioneering feminist who is strong-willed, ambitious, and successful in her chosen career. On the other, we have a woman who makes several bad choices in her relationships, causing her children upheaval and heartbreak.
Despite her contributions to science and society, can we really consider her a role model?
Ahead of Her Time
Based in a time when women have to be conformist people-pleasers, Virginia is an amazingly independent thinker. Her ability to treat love and sex separately, with no apologies, makes her a perfect partner for William Masters’ (Michael Sheen) research. She doesn’t have to pretend to be interested or engaged with the work. She doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else to get the job. Betting on herself got her where she wanted in her career.
Virginia is driven and determined in the face of large obstacles. She doesn’t let self-doubt, sexism, or the lack of traditional credentials stop her from pursuing bigger and better things.
“Ginny made tremendous use of her opportunity,” sex therapist Shirley Zussman said of the real Johnson. “She came in as a secretary, and she created opportunity.”
The Struggle for Work/Family Balance
That drive for her career has consequences, however. As a single mother, Virginia struggles to juggle work and family responsibilities. She is forced to turn over many caregiving duties to a babysitter.
“Even when I was there, I wasn’t really there,” she later laments about the focus required for her research.
Her cavalier attitude towards relationships also causes her children pain, when she breaks up with men they’ve grown attached to. When she loses custody, there’s a sense of both loss and relief. In the ’50s and ’60s, choices were limited to: “unfulfilled mom of the year, or personal success and failed mother.” Even today, women struggle with that balance and other people’s perceptions. There’s an amazing moment during Virginia’s new pregnancy on “Masters of Sex,” when Bill suggests that maybe it really is okay to put your career first.
He obviously has his own agenda, but the idea isn’t a bad one. A woman who sacrifices everything for her children isn’t necessarily a better mother. Virginia is a breadwinner for her family, a woman who is successful in a career she’s passionate about. Separate from her very real mistakes as a parent, her achievements should make her a good role model for her kids.
Succeeding in a Restricted World
As different as “Masters of Sex” is from “Game of Thrones,” we’ve noticed that both feature women who are as feminist and powerful as their environment allows. It may seem horrifying that Virginia participates in a completely fake marriage just to preserve her work reputation, but she has to cater to society’s morals in order to succeed.
This is also true of her dealings with Bill. She could qualify for sainthood instead of role model, for putting up with his egocentric, controlling ways. While she does respect and care for Bill, there is always that question of whether she’s slept her way to the top of her career. Let’s be honest – we’re just as judgmental about this in modern times.
The time the couple spends in the bedroom is one area, however, where Virginia is allowed to flip the script and exert her own power over Bill. She’s sleeping with the boss, but he submits to her orders and fantasies. When she and Bill suggest to the public that women have desires and needs that are just as important as men’s, Virginia has lived that truth. Whether that was proven through a questionable affair or “hotel research” is up to you to decide.
Questioning Modern Day Attitudes
“The New York Times” references character Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) as a “singular role model.” She was impressively accomplished, dedicated, and noble. She had more difficulties operating within her time, however. She wanted to be as respected as a man in the scientific and medical field, without using her feminine wiles or anything else that might tarnish her reputation. Sadly, this often made her more misunderstood than the “wilder” Virginia.
So, does standing by her personal principles make Lillian more of a role model? I think it’s even more important to consider that Virginia also lives by her own personal principles. She has always believed in enjoying sex for its own ends, and for doing whatever it takes to succeed. Are these lesser principles?
“Masters of Sex” gives us a woman who has ideas and a lifestyle that can raise eyebrows even in current times. When Virginia casually breaks a young man’s heart, or fails to connect with her estranged children, we feel our conservative judgment rise up. Then we have to question if the writers are trying to tell us her actions are wrong, or if our own collective morals haven’t changed as much as we thought.
A Flawed Hero
Executive producer Amy Lippman considers the character worthy of admiration.
“She was a remarkable woman, very flawed, very complicated, but absolutely a groundbreaker,” Lippman said about their real-life inspiration.
This description acknowledges both sides. Virginia is not perfect. We can be disappointed in some of her choices, but that doesn’t erase the amazing accomplishments and contributions she made. The real Virginia Johnson was very aware of her mistakes. She didn’t consider herself a feminist, and even refused an award late in her life because the memories of her life’s work were too painful.
On “Masters of Sex,” we see many reasons to admire a woman who shattered barriers in her field and the world at large. We also see the consequences that can bring. That could be considered a cautionary tale, but I prefer to think of Virginia as a flawed hero. And yes, a role model.