While new Showtime series Masters of Sex is refreshing because it's part of a new crop of prestige cable dramas that focus on tough, intriguing young women, including The Americans' Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings, Homeland's Carrie Mathison, and The Bridge's Sonya Cross instead of middle-aged men with criminal careers, its specific setting and subject—sex research—make it something particularly special.
Instead of giving us a female character who mirrors men, star Virginia Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan) is very much a woman. And the choices she makes are a reminder that as easy as it is for men to waltz past laws and standards of decent behavior and still keep an audience's respect, real and fictional women alike face much higher standards.
The male anti-hero characters who have dominated prestige television for the past decade and a half have been defined by their ability to violate all kinds of societal norms while still remaining respected members of their communities. The drama—and the tension of these shows' explorations of masculinity—comes from their main characters' abilities to continue passing in society no matter what terrible things they did to other people, as long as they met certain expectations.
As long as a man manages to keep up the appearance of providing for his family, being good at his job, or failing that, coming across as unflappable and tough, it turns out audiences are willing to forgive any manner of his sins.
What Virginia Johnson has in common with these male anti-heroes is that she regularly crashes through the norms imposed on women. But what makes her different isn't just that she's a woman, but that the rules Virginia has to break to live her life with integrity are ones that we've agreed are sexist and retrograde, but that we still haven't managed to decisively do away with. Masters of Sex's entrance into the television landscape is a reminder that fictional men can get away with murder, while fictional women—even ones who aren't starring in period pieces—still get punished for enjoying sex and prioritizing their careers over their families.
One of the delights of Masters of Sex is watching a woman who's lived a somewhat aimless life come alive when she finds her purpose, when working for Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) turns out to be an opportunity to do more than secretarial work. But the show is also a testament to the enormous persistence it took for Virginia to pursue a career at all. When she rushes to enroll in classes at Washington University, something she'd told Dr. Masters she'd already done, Virginia tries to find a program she can sign up for. "I want a degree in an interesting subject. Something important," she tells the registrar. "When I was your age, I thought my children were important," the woman clucks at her. In another episode, Virginia's housekeeper, irritated at being asked to stay late to watch Virginia's children when Virginia is caught at the office, tells her employer "You know what I do for my children? I shift my schedule to be with them." Later, she gives notice, because as Virginia puts it "Something about me being an unfit mother."
Masters of Sex is honest about the fact that Virginia does miss out on experiences she would have liked to share with her children, like reading the final installment of Race to Space with her son, who, impatient, tears through it with his new babysitter. But the show is a deft exploration of the difference between Virginia's regrets, and the critics who suggest that the only acceptable thing for her to do is stay home full-time, even if that would lead her family without an income or Virginia without an easy way to make friends in St. Louis, given that she's not a churchgoer. And what's anxiety-inducing about Masters of Sex isn't that we're forgiving of Virginia's bad mothering, but rather, how unforgiving society can be to mothers—and mothers can be to themselves—who face the same choices today even if they are just fictional TV characters.