Movie Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

I just got done watching the 2017 film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and I must say, it was definitely a movie that makes you think. It is a biopic about William (“Bill”) Moulton Marston, a Boston-based psychology professor who teaches his mostly-female class about DISC theory, which means that every social situation, every interaction between individuals, could be broken down into four categories of emotion: dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. He catches the eye of Olive, one of his students who appears to be a quiet innocent young girl, and falls for her. But his wife, Elizabeth, is jealous of Olive and dismisses her at first. However, after taking a lie detector test, the two women find out they love both each other and Bill, and the three have a poly-amorous relationship with each other. However, the university that Bill and Elizabeth teach at finds out they were in a relationship and fire them, forcing Bill and Elizabeth into unemployment. Then, when all three are at a burlesque dress store in Greenwich Village, Olive tries on a Wonder Woman costume, sparking the inspiration for Bill’s comic book character, Suprema the Wonder Woman. At first, when Bill takes his manuscript to get published, Mr. Gaines, the publisher, tells him female superheros failed too many times before, but after convincing him Gaines finally publishes it and the comic book takes off, selling millions of copies. However, the Wonder Woman comic books receive backlash for their explicit depictions of submission and bondage; however, Bill calls for the publishers to fight back against the backlash by publishing more explicit scenes in the comic. Unfortunately, when a neighbor finds out about Bill, Olive and Elizabeth’s relationship, it takes a deep and nasty toll on not just the success of Wonder Woman but the beautiful relationship that has unfolded for all this time between the three people.

Honestly, this movie made me cry not just because of its incredible score (thanks, Tom Howe) but because it is a story that is missing from a lot of standard Hollywood period films. Many of the period films I have seen (except for Carol and a few other films) have depicted monogamous relationships between a man and a woman, but this film takes it up a notch because it features a love triangle that actually is fully developed throughout the film. Bill, Olive and Elizabeth raise kids who grew up really chill about having two moms and a dad. But like any LGBTQ+ relationship depicted in movies, some homophobic, transphobic or biphobic person finds out and then the supposedly innocent young woman (or man) involved in the relationship has to leave or deal with the older person getting married to someone of the opposite sex. I only say this because during the film I thought about Call Me By Your Name, and how Elio had to deal with Oliver getting married and settling into a heterosexual marriage. Today, of course, things have gotten slightly better in terms of accepting kids who grew up with various expressions of parenthood: two moms, two dads, two moms and a dad, two dads and a mom, and so on. I would be surprised if anyone in 2019 still batted an eyelash if they saw a perfectly normal family of two moms and a dad playing with their kids in the park like every other American family.

I also really like how the director, Angela Robinson, wrestles with Bill’s motivation for publishing Wonder Woman. In the special feature after the movie, Robinson says that while extensively researching the film and directing it (it took her eight long years to get this project off the ground) she wanted to wrestle with the question of whether Bill created Wonder Woman to satisfy his own sexual pleasure or whether he created it because he actually was a feminist who supported the suffrage movement. Indeed, when I first saw the trailer, I sort of rolled my eyes and thought, “Why is this film centered around a dude and his flings with women? Sounds pretty sexist to me.” However, after seeing the film I understood that Bill’s life was complicated, and that no one can really give a one-or-the-other answer to this question. Honestly, I think it was both. In a comparative literature course I took, we read about the concept of the male gaze and how it impacted people’s perceptions of women, as well as women’s perceptions of themselves. It seems that during the film, Bill was trying to manipulate both Olive and Elizabeth, even though it turns out that the two actually did genuinely love each other. While watching Olive and Elizabeth kiss, Bill is turned on and just watches for the longest time. When he proceeds to have Olive get in a submissive position in the burlesque shop, Elizabeth asks him when he is ever going to stop using science as an excuse for satisfying his own sexual whims; she also tells him earlier in the film that the three of them can’t be together because it’s a mere fantasy and they have to understand that their lives are essentially in danger if they openly express their poly-amorous relationship with each other. Robinson doesn’t aim for us to deify Marston but think about the role that this man, one of many individuals, played in discussions about feminism and female sexuality.

When I first heard of polyamory, it was in college. I wasn’t sure who I loved yet, and some classmates of mine and I ended up talking about different expressions of love, and one of these expressions happened to be poly-amorous love. I haven’t seen many movies or much media about poly-amorous relationships; I have seen bisexuality depicted of course, but not so much poly-amorous relationships. The media that depict polyamory often make a joke out of it, such as The Lonely Island’s “Three Way (The Golden Rule)”song. At first, I laughed but after seeing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women I think that song (and its accompanying music video) is a little outdated in how it thinks about poly-amorous love. Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake seem to poke fun at the idea that three-way relationships can be on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and try to assert a hyper-masculinity in their “relationship” with the girl (played by Lady Gaga) in order to keep the relationship strictly straight. But, as Professor Marston depicts, poly-amorous love can be sweet and beautiful as long as the people in the relationship are consenting adults. Robinson explores the theme of consent in the film because we think at first that Bill and Elizabeth both tricked Olive into falling for both of them, but, as we see later in the film, we realize that Olive genuinely loved Bill and Elizabeth and didn’t mind falling in love with them. Olive isn’t all that happy being married to her husband and so she calls the marriage off between them because she actually does love Bill and Elizabeth more than she does her husband. It reminded me of Carol, when Therese and Carol both fall in love but then the men in their lives find out and they feel constrained by these heterosexual marriages they are in.

When I first saw the film Wonder Woman with Gal Gadot, I was incredibly thrilled, especially because Wonder Woman was raised on an island where all these strong women raise each other and support one another (a friend of mine wondered what the film would be like if they just depicted all the woman warriors just living their average lives on Themyscira. I, too, wondered about this.) And I think it is important to know the history of Wonder Woman in order to really appreciate her creation. Again, I am not hailing William Marston as the sole saint behind the creation of Wonder Women (in fact, Elizabeth is actually the one who suggested he create a female superhero). Robinson’s purpose for this biopic was to show the role that Elizabeth and Olive, two incredibly brilliant women figures, played in Marston’s life. After Marston’s death, editors took out the sexually explicit scenes of bondage in the Wonder Woman comics in order to make it more accessible to kids(in one depressing scene we see a bunch of kids throwing Wonder Woman comics in a fire and cheering while Bill just watches them burn the comics in silence). However, feminist Gloria Steinem, in 1972, put Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. Magazine’s first issue and thus Wonder Woman’s superpowers made it back into the comics. Before seeing this movie I literally had no idea that Bill published Wonder Woman as a way for Bill to integrate his psychological research into an accessible form of entertainment. And I also had no prior knowledge of the comic’s sexual history. This is why I needed to see this film, though, because many of us don’t know about the history of Wonder Woman. There is a reason it is called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (plural) and not Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman (singular).

In the scene when Josette Frank, a child development expert, questions Bill’s motives for including sexual imagery in Wonder Woman, he explains that he wants boys to see these images so that they learn to respect women and embrace their power. When he said this I thought about two ads, an Ad Council commercial and the Gillette ad. In the former, a few boys walk up to men and ask if they can teach them how to treat women since these men haven’t taught their sons how to treat women. The commercial basically tells adult men to teach their sons that violence against women is wrong and they should speak out when they witness it rather than be passive bystanders. The Gillette commercial, which came out just a couple of months ago, features a bunch of boys enacting traditionally masculine behaviors such as fighting each other and saying things such as “You play like a girl” to other boys, but then depicts scenes of men challenging these toxic masculine behaviors by checking their behavior, such as telling their male friends to stop catcalling women who walk by, as well as news footage of Terry Crews calling for men to hold themselves accountable and news reporters talking about the #metoo movement. After seeing this film, I think it would be a good film to discuss in the wake of the #metoo movement because then viewers can discuss the ways in which Marston both empowered and disempowered women in his depictions of Wonder Woman.

Also, I was literally just waiting for a movie to use Nina Simone’s song “Feeling Good”, and I can now say I finally chanced upon a film that uses this song. While Olive, Bill and Elizabeth get it on, Nina’s song plays to give the scene its steamy character. In this scene it is a song celebrating Bill, Olive and Elizabeth’s freedom at that moment to love each other without judgment (I think it’s pretty cool that the openly gay actor Luke Evans, who plays William Marston, got a chance to star in this LGBTQ+ themed film). Also, I love the acting of Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote; Hall’s simmering gaze, with her dark eyes, wraps you in and never lets you go. Bella Heathcote, in the special feature after the film, said that at first she was apprehensive about starring in this movie because of its sexuality and the emotional heaviness of Olive’s relationship with Bill and Elizabeth, but she said she is glad to have played Olive because she really felt deeply for her.

Overall, I think this film is a must. And to follow up, here is a hilarious video celebrating bi-sexuality and debunking misconceptions about it. I definitely needed to watch this for a good laugh after tearing up during the film.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. 1 hr 48 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language.

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