Accidental Feminists: The Women Ruling 'Masters of Sex'

Why does a show about sexual repression and ignorance in the 1950s feel so modern?

Lizzy Caplan plays Virginia Johnson in Showtime's "Masters of Sex."
By + More

From its cheeky title, Showtime's "Masters of Sex" has worn its subject matter – the ground-breaking research into human sexuality conducted by William Masters and Virginia Johnson – proudly, embracing all sorts of innuendo. The show revels in its premium cable real estate, where it can show all the nipples and bare butts it wants – in the name of science, of course. At its outset, it garnered measured praise, with critics generally entertained, but also concerned about what deeper stories it could tell. Now halfway through the first season (and renewed for a second), "Masters of Sex" has started to reveal the full spectrum of its interests, shown through the prism of sex, and many have taken notice.

"And yet, as the season progresses, what I'm struck by more and more is the fact that 'Masters,' a sexy story set in a staid era, is slowly revealing itself to be a deeply feminist show," wrote Time's James Poniewozik this week. "I don't necessarily mean in the sense of its politics, though that's all there too. I mean in the way female voices and points of view are privileged in a manner that's all too rare in mainstream entertainment of any sort."

[READ: 'Killing Kennedy' a 'Big Swing' for Nat Geo]

As Poniewozik notes, this likely has much to do with the creative talent behind "Masters of Sex." It has a female creator and showrunner, Michelle Ashford – still somewhat rarity on television and particularly in the world of so-called "prestige dramas." She is joined by her female producing partner Sarah Timberman, and a number of veteran female writers.

"One of the things that we're talking about is how they became sort of accidental feminists, neither William Masters nor Virginia Johnson – and oddly, Virginia Johnson particularly – would call themselves feminists," Ashford says. "[Their] data was incredibly liberating for women, so he became in an odd way a spokesperson for women. And Virginia Johnson, being a woman, also then became this figure of a woman coming into her own sexual emancipation."

Ashford and Timberman were first attracted to Masters' and Johnson's story after reading a New York Times review of a 1999 book about their partnership, also titled "Masters of Sex," by Thomas Maier. The couple's personal and professional entanglements – they conducted the study mostly in secret for a decade before publishing their results, and eventually Masters left his wife to marry Johnson – was obvious fodder for television. Ironically, however, Ashford also saw it as an opportunity to counteract the way she usually sees sex portrayed on TV.

"It feels gratuitous. It's not particularly interesting," she says. So "Masters of Sex" presented "a challenge, where the actual show is about sex, but coming at it through the prism of science. I thought that's a really interesting way to talk about sex that won't feel like you're showing sex to be titillating."

In the process, "Masters of Sex" has poised William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan) to be both witnesses and even actors in an oncoming feminist revolution.

"They were just primed to land in the middle of a country that was now receptive to this information, which is that women are robust sexual creatures," Ashford says, "and for the first time for Americans to hear that and take it in, and embrace it."

Of course, for the moment the show is still in 1956, before The Pill, "The Feminine Mystique" or even a whisper of a women's lib movement. Masters and Johnson have only begun to discover the findings that will rock first the medical community, and then world. Johnson's intent – as of now anyway – stems not from a political stirring, but from a personal curiosity, as well as a desire to further her professional career.

"She's on a one-woman-feminist mission in a way to make her own life make sense," Caplan says. "I don't think it would be possible for her to comprehend in those early days what it would end up doing for all women. She was quite honestly trying to get answers for herself. "