Wayward woman

“Masters of Sex” and the crippling stigma against unwed mothers

Pregnancy plotlines usually signal a series’ downfall, but in ‘Masters of Sex,” the new baby serves a greater purpose

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Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME

Babies make for terrible plot devices. Too many respectable television shows—from Murphy Brown to The Mindy Project—have been bogged down by humdrum baby tropes, which inevitably breed dull pregnancy “drama” and unwatchable labor scenes. Rather than infuse a series with humor, poignancy or tension, the arrival of an infant usually smacks of a desperate attempt to mine for new material. Which is why it’s very strange that one of the better shows on television at the moment, Showtime’s Masters of Sex, returned to our screens with a seemingly extraneous pregnancy plot line.

The second episode of the series’ third season sees Virginia Johnson give birth to a baby girl, who was conceived during what can only be described as a stress-induced hookup with her ex-husband (whatever works, right?). The pregnancy comes at a bad time for Johnson and her employer/research partner/not-so-secret lover Bill Masters. The duo is about to release their book on sex, which seeks to demystify and destigmatize one of the most basic human functions. But in 1966, it seems, the ideal candidate for making sex respectable was not an unwed mother.

As soon as Bill finds out that Virginia has decided to keep her baby, he boots her from his office and from the PR campaign for Human Sexual Response—the book that she was instrumental in writing. Their eventual solution to the problem is one that generates deep unhappiness for all the parties involved: to save face, Virginia enters into a sham marriage with her ex-husband.

Tossing a new baby into the narrative of Masters of Sex is an odd choice on the part of the show’s writers. For one thing, the plot deviates from history. The character of Virginia Johnson is based on a real sexologist of the same name, who did not have a third child with her ex-husband. Perhaps more pertinently, Virginia’s pregnancy distracts from the lifeblood of the series, which is to say the weirdly electric dynamic between Masters and Johnson as they work to bring their research to the masses. Season three finds the duo on the cusp of releasing the book that will make them famous; it’s hard to imagine that the show’s writers struggled with a dearth of material.

Some critics have denounced episode two as “heavy-handed,” and I am inclined to agree. But at the same time, there is something gratifying about watching Virginia feel the sting of a society that has not yet shed its prudish and sexist moralities. Though Masters of Sex is far from oblivious to the enormous hurdles facing women in the middle of the 20thcentury, Virginia’s journey always struck me as being a little too breezy. She is a single mother and sex researcher—surely a leprotic combination in the 1960s—but rarely contends with the sort of sinister condescension that is lobbied at, say, Mad Men’s Helen Bishop, a single mom operating in the same time period of a different television universe. Even at the end of season two, when her ex-husband threatens to defame her in court, Virginia responds by willingly handing over primary custody of their two children. She is miserable about the situation, but she is also completely in charge of it.

Virginia is, in essence, like a charming bulldozer, able to sweet-talk her way through lovers, recalcitrant study subjects, and curmudgeonly members of the press. That makes her a delightful character and the perfect compliment to the very stodgy Bill Masters. But there is an ahistorical quality to Virginia’s imperviousness. As The New Yorker’s Michelle Dean wrote of Masters of Sex’s first season: “Post-‘sexual revolution,’ there is general agreement that a woman who knows what she wants, in bed and in life, is a person to be admired. But it’s much harder to believe that a woman in St. Louis, Missouri, in the late nineteen-fifties, could enjoy the same nods of approval from her contemporary onlookers.”

That Virginia is so abruptly marginalized for her pregnancy is, of course, deeply unjust. It also rings very true to the time period in which the show was set. Though the advent of the sexual revolution had already begun to soften perceptions of unwed mothers by 1966, to have a child outside of marriage was still tantamount to social suicide. During the time between WWII and the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973, around 1.5 million young women were secretly sent to homes for unwed mothers and coerced into giving up their babies. Prominent Freudian psychiatrists like Viola Bernard deemed extra-marital pregnancies to be an expression of psychological neuroses. The Supreme Court only began striking down discriminatory laws against so-called “illegitimate children” in 1968.

Virginia is characteristically unapologetic about her pregnancy, but this time around, her determination doesn’t win out in the face of social pressure. To promote the sexual liberation that she so believes in, Virginia has to conform to the rigid sexual mores of her contemporaries. The show has always reveled in tragic ironies like this—last season, for example, preeminent sex researcher Bill Masters struggled with impotence. If the arrival of the new baby was somewhat of a narrative misstep, it infused Virginia’s circumstances with a depressing sort of realism. But from here on out, let’s hope Masters of Sex shifts focus back to the adults—particularly Masters and Johnson, their romance, and their work

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