So Happy Together: Love and Desire in Professor Marston and The Wonder Women
Wonder Woman has burst back onto the silver screen in the last few years, but it’s crucial to rediscover how she first came to be. Chronicling a loving relationship between three brilliant open minds, Professor Marston and The Wonder Women honours William, Elizabeth, and Olive. Sabina Stent looks back on the mutual desire that birthed an icon.
In 1943, the psychologist and inventor William Moulton Marston, creator of an early prototype of the lie detector test, wrote in The American Scholar: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are”. He believed that “women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness”. Marston was determined to rectify this public perception, and saw a popular medium as the outlet to societal change. He surmised that “the obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman, plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”. His solution? An Amazonian warrior whose charm and compassion was equal to her power.
She was, of course, Wonder Woman, the comic book icon first immortalised in the 1970s television series by Lynda Carter. And yet audiences still had to wait until 2017 for a Diana Prince stand-alone movie – Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman starring Gal Galdot, who reprised her scene-stealing role from Batman vs Superman, broke box office records. Now with the sequel, Woman Woman: 1984, being one of the most anticipated movies of 2020, the global love for the superhero has never been stronger. It’s rousing, then, that the story behind the warrior – and the people who inspired her – is just as stimulating as Wonder Woman’s adventures. The loose biopic of Marston’s life, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, tells the story of how the character came to be. Her birth stems from the love story between one man and two fiercely intelligent women that broke convention, and established the roots of the most famous female superhero and crucially influential feminist icon.
The film opens in 1945, as Marston is being interviewed by the Child Studies Association of America, and flits into flashbacks leading up to this point. We travel back to 1928, when William (portrayed with intelligence and potent charisma by Luke Evans) hires gentle and curious student Olive Byrne (an understated, radiant Bella Heathcote) to assist him and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall playing her character with authority and underlying mischief) in their research and William’s experiments. The couple’s work includes what would become the first model of the lie detector, and the inception of D.I.S.C. Theory (Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance), which Marston defends as understanding the behaviour core of all human beings. They are a dynamic couple; Elizabeth is highly accomplished (as much as, if not more than her husband), but still continuously denied commendation from Harvard University because she is a woman. As she bluntly states, “If it is the same work, then why can I not receive a Ph.D. from Harvard? Because I have a vagina?”. She understands that to succeed, she must play men at their own game. The only man who respects and knows her worth is William.
Soon enough, Elizabeth begins to suspect William’s desire for Olive. When the three start working together, Elizabeth bluntly asks Olive, “Do you want to fuck my husband?”. Her controlled demeanour, the woman who once said “I’m your wife, not your jailer”, soon starts to feel very differently when her own feelings of love and jealousy intervene. But love is complicated – Olive loves Elizabeth, not William. The desire within the triumvirate is too potent to be ignored, and soon Elizabeth cannot contain her own feelings for Olive. “Maybe I’m in love with her too,” she tells her husband, before giving in. “Or maybe I just want her because you do”. When Elizabeth asks what attracted him to Olive, William replies, “You are brilliant, ferocious, hilarious, and a grade-A bitch. Together, you are the perfect woman.” It's only when Elizabeth allows herself to be consumed by her feelings for Olive that the dynamic between the group shifts, and they all submit to each other.
Sex scenes can often pander to the male gaze, but tend to offer a different viewpoint when directed by women. Angela Robinson allows the intimate moments between William, Elizabeth and Olive to feel playful and sensual, orchestrating a dance of desire that allows the three characters to express and act on their mutual attraction. The scene takes place behind the stage of the University’s theatre — which adds something even more taboo about formicating in their place of work. William, Elizabeth and Olive allow themselves to be consumed by each other, using the stage costumes to dress up and perform their very own private burlesque show. Sheathed in white, Olive resembles Diana the Huntress, the mythological goddess associated with childbirth and fertility. Wonder Woman’s lore is of a woman moulded from clay by her mother Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, and gifted superhuman powers by the Greek gods. Olive’s appearance hints that, like Diana Prince, she too has a power, although hers is non-mighty. Her power is over the Marstons and wields reciprocal feelings of lust, desire and pleasure that are too strong to be ignored. As they cave into their feelings, the non-gratuitous scene, scored by Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, offers a gorgeous display of desire, culminating with Olive astride William. As he submits to her dominance, Olive cranes her face upwards to kiss Elizabeth in a striking power-play: she is no longer their assistant, but a woman in full control of her desire.
Soon, the three lovers are living and working together in a polyamorous relationship. The trio’s unconventionality riles the University and they are dismissed from their jobs. Elizabeth securess a secretarial position, mirroring Wonder Woman’s guise as Diana the secretary to Steve Trevor. She is now, at last, an independent woman making her own money, and becomes the family’s primary provider, while Olive takes on a homemaker role. Both women have children by Marston.
The neighbours believe William and Elizabeth are a married couple who have taken in the young widow Olive and her child. Yet behind closed doors they are silently subverting the traditional family model through their unconventional domesticity. They take it further in the 1940s after Marston meets Charles Guyette, ‘The G-String King,’ in his New York lingerie store. As Guyette shows William fetish comics and photographs, pulled out from underneath the counter, William notices that the various images, depicting scenes of bondage, submission and dominance—women holding whips, people tied up, couples yielding—are the individual stages of his D.I.S.C. theory brought to life.
This location establishes one of the film’s most visually powerful scenes. At Guyette’s showcase, we see a disapproving Elizabeth’s head visibly turn at the sight of Olive in a basque. The outfit is familiar, as are the colours: the reds and gold gleam as Olive stands radiant, practically glowing in the shop’s private presentation room. The delicate crown on her head. The high boots and the lasso of rope in her hand. Her stance is powerful, strident even, as she stands dominant. It is more armour than lingerie.
Marston noticed the “great educational potential” of comic books, and noticed a gap in the market for a superhero who could conquer with kindness and compassion. It was only when Marston suggested his idea to Elizabeth and she answered, “Fine, but make her a woman”, that his idea really took shape. It is clear how Marston’s theories and lifestyle found their way into his comics: the lie detector test becomes Diana’s lasso of truth.
The world of William, Elizabeth and Olive changes when they are discovered in a bondage game, and soon William is called before a committee questioning his “interests”. The comics are burned for indecency, Olive (temporarily) moves out of the family home. But the lovers’ bond is too powerful, and they reunite after William collapses from the illness that would eventually lead to his death. Following Marston’s death in 1947, Wonder Woman would be depowered, and her feminism silenced. She was no longer the formidable warrior and free woman created in his original vision. It was only in 1972 when Gloria Steinem, offended that a character she had grown up reading had been downgraded over time, put Wonder Woman back in uniform and made her the cover star of Ms. Magazine’s inaugural issue. Diana Prince was back in the spotlight, as the superhero became a culturally relevant feminist icon once more.
Marston’s respectful love for the women in his life breathes in the film. His comics, censored and burned for implied sexual content, were never intended to degrade women. Quite the opposite, in fact: Marston insisted that the best way for young boys to learn respect and submit to powerful women was to read about powerful, dominant women. Wonder Woman may end up in chains, but she always breaks free.
It is shocking to think of the lost Wonder Woman comics, and how the comic book industry’s misogyny relinquished this powerful, autonomous warrior woman, capable of leading armies, to the secretary of the Justice Society of America (more commonly referred to in comics and films as ‘The Justice League’), despite her status as a founding member. But in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, there are hints that the idealised warrior fighting with a loving heart is still present, still standing for her cause despite the upheaval the Marstons endured: both in the exposure and disapproval of their polyamorous relationship, and the ‘amoral’ association of Wonder Woman’s BDSM undertones. Some key visual cues are present in Olive, who has continually worn a chunky metal cuff on each wrist (inspired by the real Olive Byrne’s bracelets), for the duration of the film. Unless she wears short sleeves, they go mostly unnoticed, concealed under jackets or blouses – yet they are always present. But when she is wearing the bustier in Guyette’s shop, the light centred upon her, Olive’s demeanour changes. She is a confident, self-assured woman comfortably submitting and dominating her lover. As she places her wrists behind her back and she surrenders to Elizabeth’s bondage, the cuffs glint and clink, grabbing the viewer’s attention.
It’s a signal of the warrior woman who was built on unconventional love and consensual desire, and of the women who inspired Marston’s legacy. Bondage undertones and the sight of Wonder Woman in chains may have angered puritanical thinking, and her powers may have been temporarily taken away need they threaten fragile masculinity, but her strength won in the end. Professor Marston and The Wonder Women is a symbol of not only the Amazonian Warrior who reclaimed her powers, but of the formidable, brilliant women who did not pander to sociological expectations and, much like Wonder Woman, refused to be subjugated.
Sabina Stent (@SabinaStent) is a freelance arts and culture writer for AnOther Magazine, Polygon, Women Write About Comics, FANDOM, and is a contributing editor of MAI: A Journal of Feminism and Visual Culture. She has a Ph.D. in Women Surrealists and continues to guest lecture on the subject. She loves Old Hollywood, superheroes, and cats.