'Masters of Sex' and Toxic Masculinity

This week on Showtime's steamiest series, Masters of Sex takes on gender roles once again, which is one of the things it's best at. But instead of looking at classic double-standards or showing the ways women navigate gender politics, this week's episode, "Gem and Loan," focused on that oh-so-loaded question of what makes a man. There is some attention paid to gender roles for women, with Virginia pushing back as best she can against her daughter's new-found love of princesses, but mostly the focus is on the ways in which imposed ideas about masculinity can be harmful. And as the episode shows, the whole issue is very complicated.

In this episode, Bill delivers a baby with both male and female genitalia. Blood tests confirm the baby has both an X and Y chromosome, which in the world of the 1950s before there was any widespread understanding of trans issues, means to Bill that the baby is a boy. It's not an ideal understanding—and it's one that Virginia later questions—but it is infinitely better than the baby's father's reaction, which is to refer to the child as "it" and refuse to accept the situation.

The man is clearly a bully, mocking his wife's desire to learn more about the condition, and trying to make Bill bow to his ill-informed wishes. In this father's eyes, his child can never be a "real man" and therefore is not is son at all—and apparently isn't anything until the genitalia issue is cleared up. Bill responds to the command that the hospital "cut it off" about as well as can be expected, but he's clearly upset by the encounter, especially after the man accuses Bill of having "a little bit of girl in him," after Bill has the audacity to claim that genitalia might not be the ultimate defining factor in being a man.

The bulk of the episode, however, is devoted to Bill and Virginia's hotel tryst that evening. Bill, perhaps feeling the need to prove his manhood after the father's taunts, has put on a boxing match in the room, and then wastes no time in having very un-cuddly sex with Virginia up against a wall.

It seems that this incident with the baby's father has Bill thinking about his own father, who the audience knows was abusive when Bill was a child. In this episode, Bill opens up to Virginia (with lots of prompting and not an insignificant amount of booze) about the abuse he suffered as a kid. His father would lash out with little to no provocation, telling Bill that he would stop if Bill would beg for mercy. Bill, stubborn person that he is, never would. But to Bill, this was it's own form of strength, to essentially say, "Bring it on."

He reveals that later, when he was fourteen, his father dropped him off at boarding school—and told him that he'd be staying there permanently, never coming home for breaks because it was time for Bill to fend for himself. The first thing Bill wanted to do there, he says, was learn to box.

Yet Bill, though he's undoubtedly still emotionally scarred and angry about the whole thing, tells Virginia — and probably himself — that it's for the best because it made him then man he is today. Can someone say internalized patriarchy?

And we do see in this episode that Bill has some of his father in him. When Virginia asks about boxing, his explanation of the silent, manly, codes of communication going on in the ring leads to the two of them squaring off in a mock fight in which it's clear he likes being more powerful than she is, even if it's just pretend. But then, before he can go on too much of a power trip, Virginia basically makes his earlier point about genitalia not being a good way to define masculinity by getting herself off rather than putting up with his weird, sexualized power-trip.

In fact, Virginia pushes back against these warped ideas of masculinity throughout. When Bill says, with a touch of both anger and pride, that when his father hit him he, "took it like a man," Virginia responds by pointing out that he wasn't a man; he was a boy. And as for making him the man he is today, she tells him that she never wants her son to have to learn the sorts of lessons Bill's father "taught" him. As the boxers go after each other on the television, she says, "I don't want my son to be a boxer. When he's hurt, I don't want him to act like he's not....I don't think that's what's going to make him a man."

Yet even as the boxers circle each other in the ring and Bill and Virginia circle each other in the bedroom, the baby with male and female genitalia is undergoing surgery to remove the penis, as per his father's requests. When Bill finds out, he rushes to the hospital to try to reason with the man, ask him to take time to consider. He does what he was never willing to do for himself with his father and begs. The father, like all bullies amped up on toxic, hyper-masculine ideas, refuses to consider anything. The baby is going to be raised as a girl, he declares. Because "Better a tomboy than a sissy." And all I can say is thank the heavens above that we don't live in the 1950s.

Image: Showtime