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Against Pop-Freud

Dear TV,

WE’VE TALKED A BIT HERE about Masters of Sex in relation to Mad Men and The Sopranos, and I want to wrap up our first week back at LARB by talking about how these shows use Freud. Here’s my working hypothesis: Masters of Sex is — surprisingly, for a show that’s explicitly about sex — a cinched-up anti-drama and a sustained attack on the tendency, in our “good” TV, to psychologize the antihero using Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s a show refreshingly uninterested in either the breakthrough or the climax.

It’s worth saying, first off, that a lot of good TV is Freud-sloshed. It’s not his fault, but Freud’s a handy deus ex machina for the storyteller who needs his characters sick but motivated and sympathetic in their sickness. I’ve long thought Livia Soprano turns on Tony when she finds out he’s going to a psychiatrist not because it implies that he’s weak or disturbed, but because she refuses to appear in that particular account of human nature. Casting himself as a patient means Tony’s surrendered to an ideology that — so goes the stereotype — saddles the mother with the psychic weight of a child’s development and blames her for its failures. Livia won’t accept that frame, and why would she? (Who but a sick Freudian subject would accept the burden of Freudian motherhood?) It’s a neat turn that Livia’s sociopathy gets medicalized as BPD in contemporary psychiatric terms. It’s more of the same, of course; BPD is the new “neurosis,” and in resorting to BPD, the show’s explanatory system just shuffles through generations of psychiatric history without changing its basic approach.

Freud might’ve spent the early stages of his career mainly on female patients, but these days it’s the male protagonists — the damaged recidivists — whose irrationality we’re invited to analyze, sympathize with, examine, understand. Insofar as Tony Soprano and Don Draper can claim our sympathy, it’s because they’re imagined as Freudian subjects whose relation to sexuality is determined in large part by childhood. Sure, it’s a little surprising that Draper’s backstory is actually more Freudian than Soprano’s, who at least gets the thing out in the open on the couch. But the point is basically that in this kind of Good Drama, a character’s momentum derives from a variation on Pop Freudian Causality, a kind of reaching back through human nature to a core of sex. Sex is why people do. Sexual trauma explains Don Draper and everything he wants and does — this, very broadly, is the point of all those overdone id-revealing flashbacks: Sylvia Rosen exists because a prostitute who resembled her raped him.

The trouble with a show that invites you to sympathize so completely with the flawed protagonist is that the answers pale next to the questions. Why does Don, an otherwise interesting, complex creature, commit adultery like a compulsive? If he’s as stuck as he seems, as permanently damaged, do we want to keep watching? So many people want poor Don to change; are these, they seem to say, really the limits of the possible for men in the fifties and sixties (and now)? Fans are dissatisfied with Don these days, and it’s because the Freudian approach has worn a little thin.

My friend Monica once observed that because almost everything is phallic, there’s a sort of symbolic bankruptcy to a penis. There’s just not much it can symbolize because somewhere along the way, penises became the thing that everything else is about. The brilliance of Masters of Sex, in my opinion, is that it finds a way out of this paradigm: it’s explicitly about sex, so it can’t be about sex. Masters, unlike Draper, is just REALLY INTO HIS STUDY. And Johnson’s REALLY INTO IT TOO. It’s not sublimation, it’s not repression. Sure, he seems to like Johnson, but that’s out in the open. There’s nothing delicious and secret about that, it just is. Yeah, he had an unhappy childhood. What Matt Weiner would have stretched out over four seasons comes out in two episodes. There could not be a less Freudian show.

That’s promising, I think, because it presents an opportunity to explore something other than the romance of repression. Mad Men’s narrative problem is that the penis at its core isn’t, in the final analysis, all that interesting, and neither are its lapses. Weiner’s is a beautiful manufactured universe of trauma and symbols and pain that reduces — if you insist on anchoring it too closely to Don, which Weiner keeps doing (to my chagrin) — not to a compelling account of a historical moment but to a particular man’s very sad and tormented sexual history. It accords huge explanatory power to a caricatured and uninteresting past. Sex was huge to Freud but it’s smaller now, and it’s small to Johnson — her ability to understand it as small, as something that does NOT explain the universe or the human spirit, sometimes seems like her character’s chief virtue.

It’s a neat little schema: the character who dedicates her life to studying sex is the one most keenly aware of its ultimate unimportance. By the same token, the show that’s explicitly about sex is the one with the narrative latitude to wander away and explore other things.

The point is, Masters of Sex isn’t a universe where cigars are (sometimes) just cigars*, it’s one where dildos are always dildos. Penises aren’t the ultimate referent; they can be made of glass and shared and are substitutable, and the most exciting thing about Masters’s Ulysses isn’t its phallic quality or the pleasure it confers but the light on the end and the camera. What’s cool about the glass penis is that it has a point of view. A penis you can see through: that’s disorienting. Why won’t it shrink obediently down into its own central explanatory principle? Why can’t we bask in the porniness this show seems to offer? It’s called — absurdly, as several have pointed out — Masters of Sex! Why isn’t it, well, sexier?

There are lots of reasons, I think. One is that Ulysses transcends porn by going for the grossly anatomical. The porn camera is importantly external (witness the importance of the money shot). There’s nothing inherently sexy about an EKG or about the birth canal. Being visually inside a woman isn’t actually that hot and neither are these inner signs of sex; confronted with images of arousal that  map onto an eye on a glass penis, the pornographic imagination just doesn’t have much to say. Sex, Masters of Sex says. Yes, sex.

(Another reason is that it’s a show that’s literally about a woman and a man looking together through a penis. In literalizing what every one of these Pop-Freudian shows do — let’s look through Don’s penis today! is a perfectly legitimate way to invite one’s partner to watch Mad Men, and I say that with some affection — it liberates us from the tacit unrelenting pressure to do so all the time. The penis gaze may be less sexy than the male gaze, but it might also be more interesting.)

The same is true of the show’s anticlimactic structure writ large: as you guys have pointed out, there’s something startling and unerotic about the show’s narrative style and speed: everything comes fast. What about foreplay? What happened to the interpretive work we’re used to doing? What about the layered metaphors? What about the slow unfolding? WHAT’S UP WITH ALL THE EXPOSITION? It feels almost condescending — perhaps we miss Mad Men’s flattering subtlety, the allusions, the accurate accents. What are all these men from the fifties doing having conversations about consent and stopping sexual encounters when the women aren’t into it? Aren’t the men of history all monsters? The viewer misses her sense of historical superiority. (Too late — as Jane points out, it’s long gone.)

This might be a virtue too. Many critics have pointed out that Mad Men sometimes becomes complicit in the misogyny and racism it depicts so anthropologically even as it flatters the viewer by implying that we’re Above All That now. Masters of Sex has no interest in making you feel good about the enlightened times you live in. It doesn’t keep Libby Masters as the downtrodden nitwit who calls her husband Daddy (though I worried it might), and it’s quite unsentimental in showing us Masters’s selfishness, egotism, and unlikability. We don’t start the series watching him sitting alone, romantically, in a bar, talking cigarettes with a black waiter; we aren’t invited to succumb to his charm before discovering he’s a cad. We first see him at an awards show where he’s ungracious and inarticulate. When next we see him, he’s in the “cathouse” timing Betty’s nonexistent orgasms. This is not a character working hard for our affection. There’s relief in that: we don’t have to mother him. And as a result of not having to mother, we might come to feel some unexpected affection after all.

I want to talk quickly about two scenes that illustrate the show’s lack of interest in providing climax even as it relentlessly studies it. The pilot ends with Masters’s pokerfaced invitation: “We should undertake the research with each other.” It seems like a cliffhanger and you’d be right to expect the next episode to pick up there. And while we will see characters thinking about it and mentally rehearsing this very awkward conversation, what we won’t see is the conversation itself! It turns out that cliffhanger scene at the end of the pilot wasn’t about the frisson of the sexual proposition at all — at least, that’s not where the narrative’s investments live. The real dramatic situation is the much quieter and more novelistic circumstance in which one imagines a million different ways an encounter might go and then gets no satisfaction. It’s at least in part about that frustration, about the deprivation of the fight for which one has been preparing. The fantasies in operation here aren’t the giant sexual stakes they seem to be, they’re petite and conversational and punctured by an unforeseen turn. There’s a miniaturist’s Woolfian sensibility underlying all the “smut.”

We get a similarly deflating outcome after (slight spoiler alert) one character accuses another of spilling a secret. We never find out whether they did or didn’t, not because it’s mysterious but because that’s just not the point. No one is much interested in hammering out the rightness or wrongness of their case; neither do characters in this show seem interested in indulging the kind of muteness that powers tragedy. No Betty Drapers refusing to recognize philandering. No Dick Whitmans. Just stubborn people with sexual impulses but greater intellectual passions dealing with each other in a fairly straightforward way. And as much as that might stymie us, paranoid readers that we are, it does to me, feel kind of new.

Not too close or you’ll get poked in the eye,

Lili

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