Bella Heathcote and Rebecca Hall portray Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway Marston in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Claire Folger/Annapurna Pictures

In the fall of 2017, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women premiered in limited theaters across the United States. Written and directed by Angela Robinson, the film is a biopic that tells the dramatized story of Dr. William Moulton Marston’s creation of the Wonder Woman comics and the women that inspired the eponymous character, his romantic partners Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne. While the film itself did not gross an exorbitant amount of money (earning $1.5 million overall), it did introduce viewers to refreshing, nuanced representations of queer female-identified relationships, polyamory, and kink.

Wonder Woman has seen a resurgence in popularity in academic world, with three books being written in the past five years centered on her history and origins (Hanley, 2014; Lepore, 2014; and Held, 2017). It also appears that this summer’s $821.8 million blockbuster, Wonder Woman, reintroduced the iconic character to a new generation of moviegoers. This year alone, Wonder Woman will be in the new Justice League film and has a sequel, Wonder Woman 2, set to be released in December 2019. As such, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women feels like a timely response to the Wonder Woman movie, despite the film being in development for eight years and filmed four months earlier than the summer box office hit. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, as Siddhant Adlakha states, “telling the origin of her origin as it were.”

On the surface, this film looks like any other period piece, complete with a refined 1930s collegiate setting and perfectly coifed characters in vintage outfits with cigarettes in their hands; but as you watch, a refreshing new story unfolds. This is the story of a husband and wife that collectively fall in love with their mistress and their lives together after meeting her as a new research assistant in their research into the field of psychosexuality. The wife and mistress would later serve as the husband’s inspiration for one of the most iconic female superheroes to date.

The film provides a careful, loving, and realistic approaches to many facets of their lives. Kink/BDSM, queerness, polyamory, taboo topics in the 1930s and arguably today, all provide further historical background that was the foundation of the Wonder Woman character. In an article for The A.V. Club, Katie Rife surmises that the writer and director’s “intent was to normalize a polyamorous BDSM relationship by treating it just like any other period romance. And indeed, the film is one of the most kink-and poly-positive movies I’ve ever seen.”

One of the many notable aspects of the film was the way it portrayed queer relationships. While the story is ostensibly about Dr. Marston’s polyamorous triad as a whole, many of the romantically-charged scenes revolve around the relationship between Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway Marston. The two women exude love and compassion together whether or not Dr. Marston is around. Olive and Elizabeth embrace their own relationship in tandem with their collective and individual dynamics with Bill Marston. The end of the film even states that the women lived together after Dr. Marston’s death for almost four decades until Olive’s death in 1985. It’s a refreshing plot that allows a happy ending for queer women, who often fall victim to the tragic lesbian treatment. Writer-director Angela Robinson (who is also the director, writer, and producer of The L-Word) does these queer ladies justice, something she said in an interview with Refinery29 was of importance to her as a queer woman working in the film and television industry.

Polyamory is an element of the film that Robinson made sure to accurately depict as well. When Elizabeth and Dr. Marston speak about his attraction to Olive for the first time, Elizabeth simply says, “I’m your wife, not your jailer.” As their relationship develops, the viewer can sense the autonomy of both female characters and the mutual respect between themselves and Marston, both in and out of sex scenes. The three characters struggle to balance their unconventional lifestyle and the social expectations of the world around them that simply does not understand, the film makes one thing very clear: their family is perfectly normal, it is the outside world that is problematic. In his editorial critique of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Adlakha points out that the movie “doesn’t treat polyamory as radical, but instead employs the kind of lens that posits it as a norm that most folks have already accepted.” Robinson makes sure that this film does pose the topic of polyamory as deviant; she embraces and normalizes it instead.

BDSM/kink is the third and arguably most taboo topic the movie takes care to represent and normalize. One of the most memorable moments of the film is when the triad is formally introduced to BDSM as a sexual practice. After spending time at an S&M sex and burlesque shop, Marston brings Elizabeth and Olive to what appears to be a seminar on bondage. Olive is seen bathed in white, red, and blue light, wearing a bustier adorned with gold wings on the bust, and accessorized with a gold tiara, gold lasso, and thick silver bracelets; an obvious homage to Wonder Woman that became the image used for most media advertising for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. The film does an excellent job of portraying BDSM in a positive way, with Olive assuring Elizabeth and Bill that she wants to engage in this act with them and the three learning how to participate in bondage from the owner of the shop, who is an experienced practitioner. This incredibly loving scene was meticulously curated by Robinson, who explained the efforts she took to depict this aspect of the characters’ lives to Refinery29, saying, “I think depictions of any sort of kink on film has been not great. So, I consulted with two women, who wanted to be referred to as ‘rope experts,’ and they were incredible. They came and did a workshop with the actors and designed the rope sequences in the film. I really tried to educate myself. It was really important to me because I’m a Wonder Woman fan, to kind of respect the fandom, and to treat the story with respect and love. I thought this was kind of a loving extension of the relationship, and usually it’s portrayed as ‘Oh it’s so kinky, it’s so weird.’ I didn’t want to otherize their experience.”

Overall, Robinson’s film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, allows the triad to let their proverbial freak flag fly on the silver screen without feeling problematic or pandering, which was my main fear when I went to see the film at my local theater. It is made abundantly clear that Robinson dedicated a great deal of attention and consideration into her adaptation of Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive’s lives. She provides a realistic take on how queerness, kink, and polyamory factored into their relationship with one another and culminated with the popular superheroine that is Wonder Woman. Robinson effectively exhumed Wonder Woman’s past onto film, providing contemporary fans of all things Wonder Woman with a historical background story founded on love and respect.

 

Works Cited

Adlakha, Siddhant. “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women as Cultural Critique.” Birth. Movies. Death. 13 Oct. 2017. http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2017/10/13/professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women-as-cultural-critique. Accessed 08 Nov. 2017.

Cohen, Anne. “Meet the Women Behind Professor Marston.” Refinery 29, 12 Oct. 2017. http://www.refinery29.com/2017/10/176159/professor-marston-wonder-woman-sex-scenes-feminist-story. Accessed 08 November 2017.

Hanley, Tim. Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine. Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Held, Jacob M. Wonder Womanand Philosophy: The Amazonian Mystique. Wiley, 2107.

Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Penguin Random House, 2014.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Directed by Angela Robinson, performances by Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, and Connie Britton, Annapurna Pictures, 2017.

Rife, Katie. “Female Directors Bring Kinky Wonder Woman and Bloody Revenge to Fantastic Fest.” The A.V. Club, 09 Sept. 2017. https://www.avclub.com/female-directors-bring-kinky-wonder-women-and-bloody-re-1818853920. Accessed 08 Nov. 2017.


MM is current a student in WMST 595, Sexing the Body. Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section!