Michael Desmond Photography/Showtime
The character is based on the real-life Johnson, a pioneering sex researcher who, sadly, passed away this past July at age 88. We can only imagine she'd be proud of Caplan's portrayal, which presents a witty, curious, empathetic, ambitious, patient, bold, very sexy woman who happens to also be a twice-divorced mother of two with enough flaws to keep her from seeming too good to be true. As it is, Johnson already borders on being too perfect an example of today's imperfect modern woman, as retroactively assigned to 1957 by 2013 TV writers.
"Masters of Sex" is only up to its fourth episode, but Johnson is already seeming like the most impressive feminist currently on TV. Here are six examples.
1. She demands reciprocity in bed
If you get yours, she's gonna get hers too. She goes on a date with Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto), and they seem to end the date on an old-fashioned note when he says he couldn't stop thinking about kissing her. She stops him from leaving to say, "Well, friends can kiss." We soon discover they did a lot more than that, and Haas marvels to Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) that Johnson gave him a blowjob. Later, we see Johnson tell Haas in bed, "Did what I do to you feel good? Yes. Then you do the same thing to me." He had never done that for a woman before, but afterward he decided it was even sexier than what she did for him.
2. She takes initiative when it comes to her career and education
Even "Mad Men's" Peggy Olson had to be asked for her opinion on lipstick before the men noticed that she was actually more than just a pretty face. Johnson is the one who does the asking on "Masters of Sex." She just starts her job as a secretary before hearing about Masters and his sex study. She basically crashes his interviews and calmly, confidently lands the gig when explaining why a woman would ever fake an orgasm. She also braves the disapproval of a woman who thinks her kids should take precedence over her career by pushing to be enrolled in the Washington University sociology department. (Granted, she's been spending so much time at work that she doesn't have time for her two kids, but that's pretty typical of every male character on TV with kids too.)
3. She knows love and sex don't always go together
She's not living in a rom-com or taking her cues from what her neighbors might think. She's been married twice so far, but neither time was for love. "Good Housekeeping courses tell you that women marry for love, what they think is love," she tells Dr. Masters. "But I think that women often confuse love with physical attraction. ... Women often think that sex and love are the same thing, but they don't have to be. They don't even have to go together. Sex can be perfectly good on its own." She's completely in control of her own sexual choices, not doing anything for money or security or to make someone like her, unlike many of her peers. As her own ex-husband put it on episode four, she's different from other women. "She knows herself. She knows what feels good. She'll tell you, and she wants you to tell her what you want her to do to you."
4. She sees sex research as helping to advance women's rights
Johnson's fascination with the field isn't just ambition or even curiosity, she seems to genuinely want women to have sexual equality, which includes understanding what brings a woman to orgasm. On that note, check out this conversation between Johnson and Masters:
Johnson [when asked how an orgasm feels for a woman]: "It's like trying to describe salt to someone that's never tasted salt."
Masters: "I've tasted salt."
Johnson: "Not the way I've tasted salt."
Masters: "Go on."
Johnson: "How does an orgasm feel for a woman? Fantastic."
When explaining the sexy study to co-worker Jane Martin, Johnson adds, "It will probably be the biggest change to women's lives since the right to vote." When Martin shies away from masturbating with a special dildo while the hospital provost watches, Virginia argues, "He's not watching you, he's watching science." In other words, you're not being judged as an object - of lust or disapproval - just as a human being who happens to be female.
5. She won't compromise to please a man
Johnson stands up to her boss, Masters, without being hands-on-the-hips bossy, bursting into tears, or manipulating him. She was on the verge of refusing his suggestion that they have sex together for the study -- risking his anger and loss of her job -- but then the study was canceled and she lost her job anyway because Masters blamed her. Later, she earns her way back into the study, and confronts Masters about her place. Sometimes he treats her like a colleague and other times like his "errand girl." Masters: "You're my secretary. The job description is clear." Johnson: "Not to me." He basically tells her she has to earn her way in like he did, through years of education and work experience.
In another example, Johnson wants a friends-with-benefits relationship with Dr. Haas, but he ultimately wants more than that. She's not willing to lead him on further -- she has no interest in being Mrs. Haas -- so he hits her and calls her a "whore," acting out the hypocritical belief that it's socially acceptable for single men to have sex with available women, but those same women are called sluts/whotes/skanks. Instead of crying, running away, or staring at him in shock, Virginia just hits him right back.
6. She's supportive of other women
TV shows love the dynamic of jealous, catty women openly fighting or at least being passive-aggressive and competitive. On "Masters of Sex," even rivalries you might expect to form have yet to form and may never form. Johnson gets close to both Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), the smart-mouthed lesbian prostitute, and Libby Masters (Caitlin Fitzgerald), Dr. Bill Masters' conservative wife. Both Betty and Libby want kids for different reasons and Johnson supports them both in different ways. Johnson tells Betty she has options beyond marrying a rich man so she can live a more comfortable life; she can be with Helen, her lesbian lover, and not lie about who she is. Johnson tells Libby the truth that her trouble getting pregnant is really due to her husband's low sperm count. "It doesn't seem right, you blaming yourself." It' a bold move to rat out your boss, but Virginia doesn't seem to do it out of vindictiveness or with any agenda beyond what's fair. Her attempt at female solidarity is snubbed by cold Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), who just treats her like another secretary, but Virginia still admires her. "I think it's inspiring, actually - a woman making a life for herself on her own steam.
Do you also see Virginia Johnson as one of modern TV's best feminists, even if she's playing a character from almost 60 years ago?