Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
In its second season, which concluded last night, Masters of Sex proved itself as a contender in TV's golden age. On the surface, this is a sexy show about sexy time starring sexy men and women hopping in and out of their clothes. On another level, it's an outlier, made up of antiheroes, uncomfortable truths, and arguably the most diverse cast on mainstream TV. Masters highlights the human part of human sexuality with a nuanced, curious eye. Except for the fat lady; no one wants to see that.
Flo (Artemis Pebdani) joined the cast early on this year as the manager of Cal-O-Metric, a diet pill company where Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) takes a second job. Many were pleased with the casting, heralding the series for this apparent move toward body diversity, particularly on such a sensual show. But, it was clear from the start that Flo was not one for love scenes. In her early scenes, she was uniformly "sassy" and "indomitable," a cigar-smoking "hoot." Still, she was effectively used as dark comic relief until episode 10, when she becomes a sexual predator.
In this episode, Flo hires Dr. Langham (Teddy Sears) as the new spokesman for Cal-O-Metric, then immediately demands his sexual servitude on pain of firing. "Make me feel good," she sneers, stroking her pet cat like a Dr. Evil. "Make me feel like that young, pretty, desirable girl." Langham, like all the main characters on Masters is both lovable and gross — a dopey philanderer who gets weepy over his kids but can't stop cheating on their mother. Faced with Flo's aggression, he declines, then protests, then pleads. He claims he won't be able to "function" with her, repelled as he is by her appearance, but she is undeterred, manually stimulating him as he begs her to stop, then finally relenting to her. Cut to: Flo's fat cat, purring on the couch.
It's all more of the same hoot, or at least it's presented as such. What a hilarious setup: gross woman, handsome man, cat hair everywhere. The scenes between Flo and Langham inevitably end on a punchline, and even Langham's sputtering protests are played like Daffy Duck. Their encounters become ever more heightened, Flo making greater demands and Langham growing ever more downtrodden. "Maybe I want to be Scarlett for a change of pace," she ponders in bed with Langham one night. "Because I have been Rhett for a very long time. Waiting to be wanted. Not wanting to be ignored. It makes you do the damnedest things." In this case, it made her force Langham into a rape role-play.
Even with its obvious attempt at cleverness (she wants him to fake rape her, but she's really the rapist!) and pretense of sex positivity, the entire scenario presents a ham-handed illustration of what could have been groundbreaking. Role-playing is a normal sexual occurrence. So are fat people with sex lives. Unfortunately, both these scenarios are still perceived as too icky to be treated with respect, even on a show like Masters of Sex.
Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
That's not to say that, generally speaking, human sexuality isn't an entirely ham-handed affair. In real life it is often awkward, silly, and fraught with uncertain power dynamics. Masters is adept at dipping into shades of grey, and the Langham-Flo storyline is no exception. Flo is not all a villain, and Langham isn't a shrinking violet. One must begrudgingly give credit to a show that depicts sexual assault without sticking to the Law & Order boilerplate: masked stranger, dark alley. But, somehow, in trying to make the situation less of a rape, they only reveal further stereotypes and misconceptions about misconceptions about the characters involved.
Langham, after all, is "an irrepressible cad" wrote one review. Is this his comeuppance for all those years of womanizing? And, Flo is, of course, not skinny, not young, and not so ladylike. Maybe women like her have to resort to sexual coercion just to get laid. In other words, fat women are desperate and sluts are asking for it.
Fat women are rarely wholly human on screen. They have been evil queens and comic sidekicks. They've played dowdy victims or nurturing mothers. Earlier this year, an episode of Louie called out this innate cultural trope, with Sarah Baker's killer monologue asking: "Why do you hate us so much? What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that's just not in the cards for us? And, why am I supposed to just accept it?"
Fat women can be good or bad, but always they are sexless. And, if they do have sex on screen it must be with the caveat of humor, fetish, or coercion. As shows like this have skillfully highlighted, we will no longer tolerate a black character defined by his or her race. But, an overweight woman is still no more than her fatness, and all the hateful inhumanity we associate with that. It may be that Masters Of Sex tried to turn that on its head this season, but they only managed to reveal an uglier truth: we don't want to see the fat lady. We just want the fat-lady jokes.