I first heard about Professor Marston and the Wonder Women two years ago. The trailer was promising. It featured Rebecca Hall’s face, which is, quite frankly, always a win.
It gave me a strong feeling that I couldn’t quite pinpoint at the time. Turns out, it was solidarity: the movie features two bisexual women, is also directed by a lesbian, and has a male lead portrayed by a gay man.
Anxiously, I awaited the release until I was finally able to see it during January of this year!
Regardless of my excitement, I watched it with caution. Used to mediocre portrayals of LGBTQ+ storylines, I am too tired at this point to just accept anything: I want nothing less than solid, and respectful representation. Thus, my standards for Professor Marston were high, but my expectations low.
Every new scene, every shot, every frame kept me on edge in a weird combination of excitement that so far nothing bad had happened, and nervousness because a tiresome trope doesn’t need build-up: a cheating arc could have been right around the corner!
When the movie was over I couldn’t believe it. It was beautiful. The framing and directional work was outstanding. The script was carefully structured – I’ll admit the dialogue is a bit too structured and unnatural at times.
The clean dialogue is one of those things that make you aware of the work that’s behind a movie, rather than something that startles you. Director Angela Robinson’s desire to be as authentic, and respectful as possible took over. Though, as a viewer, it was a bit obvious at times, it was never enough to fully break the fourth wall, either. Maybe I’m just biased.
The movie is about the creation of Wonder Woman and the women in Professor Marston (Charles Moulton)’s life who inspired her inception. It’s about their relationship, their inventions, theories Marston had developed in his career as a psychology professor, and how these are reflected in the comics.
Robinson had wanted to write a biopic on William Marston for a long time but expanded this idea while researching his life. She’d known that Marston had a wife, Elizabeth, and a mistress, Olive Byrne. She’d known that they had all lived together, but during her readings she found out that Elizabeth and Olive kept living together well after William’s death. Now, that doesn’t have to mean anything – this could have been practical: Their children were siblings and they had lived together for decades now. Might as well just stay that way. However, another detail of their relationship was brought to Robinson’s attention: Elizabeth named her only daughter after Olive. They weren’t only tolerant of each other, Robinson realized, but there must have been love and mutual-respect that goes beyond as well. Robinson questioned the cis-heteronormativity of the story, as a queer woman herself. The movie even opens with William asking, “What is normal?” Robinson proposes the idea that maybe the three were in a consensual, polyamorous relationship, other than two separate relationships. That’s what the movie explores: debating how their relationship might have played out by using the comics and what is public knowledge of their fairly private lives as arguments.
Marston has never been subtle about how his reality influenced the Wonder Woman comics. His and Elizabeth’s invention of the lie detector, for example, is kept in Wonder Woman comics in many forms, most prominently though in her weapon: the lasso of truth. Similarly, his DISC Theory is a consistent theme in the comics: Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. It’s about the most basic idea of feeling comfortable, or uncomfortable, in the roles of either submissive, dominant, or both, relating to communication and the roles one takes on within any dynamic.
Robinson has used the DISC Theory to structure her film. It felt the most natural since William was so dedicated to it. While all characters are seen in either role and how they navigate through it, I want to unpack the depiction of Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall). She’s first introduced in William’s (Luke Evans) psychology lecture, sitting by the window, quietly taking notes. She’s rather passive while she examines the whole class – William’s audience – exclusively female students. She’s on the same side with them to watch William on his “stage”– the front of the class. She’s still on a higher position, though, the windowsill is her own stage. It’s not part of the desk rows, it’s its own space. It’s enlightened, the window behind her shows the whole world but closes it off in the same manner. She doesn’t stand up, or speak. She sits there casually, while seeming fairly unimpressed, taking notes, as if she’s used to this position: William talks, and she sits somewhere in between the background and his side.
William first mentions her by name at the end of the lecture, while the students are leaving, and he encourages them to sign up as a teacher’s assistant for his and Elizabeth’s project: the Lie Detector. As soon as the students leave the room, and the Marstons are alone, Elizabeth’s tone, attitude and volume shifts, while her body language gets more tense. Though not changing her position, she only looks up, slightly, she announces confidently: “The cocksuckers denied me again”, referencing the PhD that Harvard doesn’t want to give her. Her nature is so loud, so sure of herself and her abilities. She’s described by other characters to make quite an impression. However, there’s an obvious difference depending on whether she’s alone with William, with William and Olive, or in front of other men. For a woman who seeks an unconventional life, she’s quite accommodated to compromise herself, as a woman in the 40s and a woman in science to have a voice at all. The men don’t hear her without William amplifying her voice.
She is used to William as her Trojan Horse, to make her voice be heard even if it’s through his filter. It frustrates her more and more, being a woman behind her husband but until she can prove herself with action, it’s the only way she can be heard at all. “We will make a great discovery, then they are forced to acknowledge us.” She hopes that their invention of the Lie Detector will give her a higher rank and some sort of credibility. The Lie Detector is to her, what DISC Theory is to William.
William’s DISC Theory says that compliance creates unhappiness. You’re compromising yourself and parts of yourself for others, for ideas you don’t believe in.
When Elizabeth and William first see Olive (Bella Heathcote), who’d assist later with the Lie Detector, Elizabeth agrees that he can have sex with her. “You won’t be jealous?”, he asks, and Elizabeth responds truthfully: “I don’t experience sexual jealousy”. “The Lie Detector, it was your wife’s idea, wasn’t it?”, Josette Frank (Connie Britton) asked William in his interview with the Child Study Association in regard to themes portrayed in the Wonder Woman Comics, to see if they were suitable for children. He fumbles around to explain that yes, it was her idea to measure the heart rate: the crucial element of a physiological unit to measure. But they figured the Lie Detector out.
William hadn’t patented the Lie Detector, wanting to make it accessible to all. “Science should be for everyone”. He sometimes failed to see his own privilege as a man, or how much easier it is for him to access things intended “for everyone”. When she was advised to get a PhD from Radcliff instead of Harvard he encouraged this, failing to understand that the same degree, taught by the same professors by Radcliff was valued less. Maybe he thought girls and women could be able to access the lie detector, too. However, he didn’t think of what it could have meant for the same girls and women to have a woman be credited for an invention such as this.
By not patenting it, he discredited Elizabeth and Olive. Maybe he considered that and knew he’d discredit Elizabeth’s role in this invention and yet, he decided against the patent. She couldn’t patent it without him. He, however, could not patent it without her. Compliance. She compromises, again, even though William promises to amplify her voice. If one does not submit willfully, to avoid compliance, Inducement is needed. Inducement. Seduction. Making them do, what you want to do. Make them see that you have the best interest at heart with empathy and mutual respect.
In the same scene Olive comforts Elizabeth. Olive follows her as she leaves the room. Olive tries to touch her, to make her look at her, but Elizabeth avoids her gaze. Olive tries again, and Elizabeth finally looks up. They don’t speak and yet, fully understand each other, Elizabeth submits.
According to William, willful submission to a loving authority is the key to happiness, and yet, submission is the hardest role for Elizabeth. With compliance she’d still have her own agenda, some sort of control of herself at least but giving herself away to others, fully, equates to giving up mid-fight. It’s the hardest when it comes to her career, and that’s basically it: all of her submission to her loves, would ultimately mean sacrificing her career. A step she’s just not ready to take.
That’s not to say, she never submits. William could seduce her in their laboratory and she was more than willing to let him do that. Olive could seduce her to call in sick from work, and stay home. She’d obey happily.
However, when it comes to submission of her feelings to the public face, her ideas, she’s stubborn and frankly scared. She’d comply to societal pressure: work in the background quietly, being quiet about who she loves, making up stories of why Olive and her children live with them; than to submit or stand up for those things. “What we want can never happen“, she says in a conversation with William before asking Olive to be with them, “the world won’t let it.“
However, Elizabeth feels most secure as a dominant. She fails to realize that even conversations she dominates, she submits, too. Many scenes where Elizabeth takes the lead she’s positioned visually under William. Whether it’s in her introduction scene, where she sits on the table while William leans over her, or when they ask Olive to be with them, where William is still positioned higher than her.
All while, she dominates by using “we“. It’s her protection, a Trojan Horse, a way to induce people of her ideas, and thoughts. Within the relationship it’s a form of deflection as well. She’s not in love with a woman, they are. They’re in a relationship, not her alone.
The night they first tested the Lie Detector after having found the missing link, Elizabeth asks William who was plugged in), if he was in love with Olive. He was and Elizabeth broke off the experiment. She escapes to her office, followed by Olive, who says that she doesn’t love him, that she loves Elizabeth. They kiss and Elizabeth rejects her.
After a conversation with William they decide to ask Olive to be with them. Elizabeth does the speaking, dominating with “we“, controlling the conversation, behind her shield, and protecting herself from rejection. She’s still positioned lower to William, but she’s in the most vocal position.
Years into their relationship, a neighbor found out about the nature of their relationship and as a result their children were bullied. At the birth of their first son Elizabeth says that they can never let it get back on their children. Holding this promise now, she breaks up with Olive, for all of them. Neither is happy with this.
While they are broken-up William is diagnosed with cancer. He asks to see Olive. Even though William demands Elizabeth to ask Olive for forgiveness in the last chapter of his life, asks Elizabeth if she loved her, to get on her knees and beg, Elizabeth has to submit. She’s on her knees in front of Olive when she says: “I thought I knew everything. I thought love wasn’t enough. But it… It has to. It has to be enough because we cannot… We cannot live without you. I cannot live without you. “
The movie is Elizabeth’s acceptance of her normal, herself. In a way, it’s her coming to terms with herself as a bisexual woman, and what that could mean for her. Compliant with her rejection of her feelings, her attraction to women and insecurity as she internalizes shame. Compliant with the idea that being queer was just another thing that could and would discredit her. Until, finally, submission to her truth. Elizabeth, like all other characters, is a full person, with complexity and depth. Mostly, she’s a paradox. Rebecca Hall has done an outstanding job in portraying her, and the chemistry between the cast and directing is enchanting.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is available on Hulu, and available to purchase on DVD, and Blu-Ray.
by Ell Hoffman
Categories: Anything and Everything