– The series highlights the life and times of two St. Louis legends, obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. William H. Masters and psychologist Virginia E. Johnson, who pioneered the science of sexology and sex therapy. –PHOTO: Masters and Johnson have a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, like this one for Cool Papa Bell.
By Abby N. Virio, Staff Writer for The Current
Viewers are giving Showtime’s drama “Masters of Sex” rave reviews. The series highlights the life and times of two St. Louis legends, obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. William H. Masters and psychologist Virginia E. Johnson, who pioneered the science of sexology and sex therapy.
Taking place in the 1950’s and 60’s, the show– based on its namesake biography by Thomas Maier — stars Michael Sheen (the Twilight Saga,) as the irritable Dr. Masters and Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls) as the charming and tenacious Johnson balancing career goals with single motherhood. The duo begin a study that takes them from behind the closed doors of Washington University and Barnes Hospital to brothels and hotel suites in search of participants and colleagues who accept and understand their ambitions. An office romance blossoms between the two, further complicating an already overwhelming endeavor.
Maier feels the show has met the task of portraying the real personalities and struggles of Masters and Johnson. “Michelle Ashford (executive producer) has done a wonderful job, taking my book and making the very best drama from that…It’s been a lot of fun seeing how my book is incorporated,” Maier said. “Lizzy Caplan, listened to tapes from my original interviews with Johnson before [Johnson’s] death in 2013.” Maier cited “The Fight” episode, which introduced Masters’ abusive childhood and Johnson’s failed relationship with a man she loved but who married someone else, both of which are factual.
Other aspects are purely fictional, like Johnson’s friend and colleague Dr. Lillian DePaul. Maier told Newsweek in their December 2013 article that DePaul is used as a contrast, helping to “define the role of Johnson in the context of the medical world and it underlines that Johnson had no credentials and was often looked down upon by all the doctors.” The second season of the show also takes place in a primarily African-American fictional hospital, “Buell Green,” which Maier considers an exploration of the racial tensions in St. Louis. This is just another way Maier said the drama was able to “expand upon and explore subjects touched upon in my book.”
Then there’s Scully. Introduced as Masters’ fictional mentor and boss, Scully is the provost of Washington University and a homosexual man desperately trying to keep his marriage together while still satisfying his own needs. Maier explained that Scully is based on two real men–Ethan Shepley, Chancellor of Washington University (1953-1961), and Dr. Willard Allan, Department Chair and Professor of Obstetrics at Washington University Medical School (1940-1971). Yet neither is identified as homosexual. Scully’s character represents the opposition Masters faced at Wash U, as well as his friendships and prestige.
In episode “All Together Now,” Scully finds himself in a dangerous situation while rendezvousing with a male prostitute. Steven L. Brawley, Founder of the St. Louis LGBT History Project, commented on the accuracy of this portrayal, “LGBT life in the 1950s and 1960s was very closeted and underground in St. Louis, with most folks assembling in bars that might get raided, or going to private house parties, or enjoying weekend getaways to a friendly farm or campsite. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that gay and lesbian activism really picked up in the area and people became much more visible.”
“In real life, beginning in 1968,” Brawley continued, “the Masters and Johnson Institute ran a program to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. They boasted a 71.6% success rate over a six-year treatment period. During this time, homosexuality was classified as a psychological disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, a classification which wasn’t repealed until 1973…In later years, Virginia Johnson said she had very serious reservations about the success rates of Dr. Masters’ conversion therapies, and she suspected the results may have been fabricated…”
In his April 2009 article in Scientific American, Maier noted neither Johnson nor associate Dr. Robert Kolodny ever saw Masters’ miraculous data from the homosexual therapy projects, leading them to believe that Masters either altered or exaggerated a small set of cases or completely fabricated the data. When “Homosexuality in Perspective” (1981) was published, the scientific community largely rebuked his ideas, lacking substantial evidence. Regardless, Maier noted that Masters and Johnson’s studies helped to legitimize homosexuality, and individuals who wanted to become heterosexual, but were unsure of their sexuality, felt helped by the therapy. Brawley opined, “It’s a very controversial subject and topic, and St. Louis played a key role in its history.”
© The Current 2014