Who Was the Real Virginia Behind Lizzy Caplan's Character In 'Masters of Sex'?
It's not always easy to find complex, interesting female characters on television. That's why Virginia Johnson of Showtime's Masters of Sex is such a delight. While the show might be named for her husband and partner William Masters, it could easily bear the other half's moniker instead (come on, there has to be a good sex pun title with the name Johnson). A large part of the character's allure and charm is through Lizzy Caplan's stunning portrayal of a dedicated scientist trying to research sexuality in an arguably stifling time and getting wracked with challenges and setbacks along the way. But what about the real woman behind the character?
The real Johnson was an equally engaging woman full of pretty progressive views on human sexuality and a trailblazing researcher in a field that was not just underpopulated by women, but by most researchers of the time. Thomas Maier immortalized Johnson and her husband in his book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. While the title might be a mouthful, the series is definitely an interesting glimpse into the not-always-politically-correct origins of how we come to understand and approach sexuality today.
Those setbacks and limitations are what make Johnson so fascinating. While Caplan's character might be fairly empowered, Maier's conversations with Johnson reveal a woman fraught with regret. The New Yorker references one such instance where the researcher felt her life felt short:
I can remember saying out loud—and I’m appalled as I remember it—being very pleased that I could be anything any man wanted me to be. … In retrospect, I ask myself, ‘Geez, did I lose myself that totally?’
While Johnson was a trailblazer, she was in many ways a prisoner of her time, and it's fascinating to see how she developed and became aware of her own autonomy over time. The New Yorker piece also touches on a sentiment that some fans of the show already spotted — Johnson and Masters' original coupling seems a bit creepy, especially when looked through the lens of gender dynamics and power of the 1950s. The "master" of sex may have been just a little skeevy; sleeping with your boss shouldn't be a prerequisite of getting hired. Johnson is quoted in the piece as having said "I didn't want him ... I had a job and I wanted it."
Johnson didn't need Maier's interview goading to reevaluate her relationship with Masters and wasn't shy about her criticisms towards him in later life. Biographer Maier spoke to Scientific American in 2009 about Johnson's regrets regarding her involvement in Masters' gay "reprogramming" efforts as detailed in their 1979 book Homosexuality in Perspective, which claimed a whopping 70 percent conversion rate. Johnson later discovered results were fabricated and told Maier "it was a bad book."
So who was she, other than a woman seeking to find her own voice in the face of an ambitious partner who also happened to be her husband? Johnson started out using the stage name Virginia Gibson, slinging country western songs on the radio. She married young, per the custom and expectation of a young woman born in the mid-20s.
Her New York Times obituary states Johnson married thrice before Masters: a short-lived two-day union with a politician preceded a marriage to a much older lawyer before being followed by a bandleader, who would go on to father her two children. Masters wasn't the great love of her life either. Their working relationship spanned just under four decades and ended with a divorce in 1993, due to irreconcilable differences (her obit cites these differences to be his unstopping devotion to work and her desire for more social pursuits).
Caplan, the actress tasked with portraying Johnson, was quoted in a New York Times interview saying that Johnson was "a series of contradictions." She's not wrong. On the one hand, Johnson was a sex positive ambitious working mother with no formal medical training running advance research on live subjects. On the other, she continually regretted submitting to her husband and research partner, and was continually looking to claim and make sense of her storied life. Masters of Sex is doing a great job of painting a complex and riveting character that does justice to the real woman behind it. Here's hoping they continue the trend and we see more and more of the real Johnson poke through.