by Yours Truly
The other night, as part of the research for an article on the subject, Lady Z and I sat down to watch Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017, dir. Angela Robinson), a romantic drama depicting the relationship between Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), and their lifelong romantic partner Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).
In many ways I was primed and ready to love this movie, being square in the middle of its target audience; I knew the story of Marston and his partners, knew about Wonder Woman’s erotic, feminist origins, and was certainly keen to know more. And more than that, Marston and I are in many ways cut from the same cloth, sharing a good deal of the same values and approach when it comes to women’s edification and empowerment, and we have much in common as regards the tenor and timbre of how that is expressed sexually and romantically through femdom, fetish, and kink.
As I’ve gone through this project (SMUT Project), trying to compile and exhibit historic cultural representation of these same values, attitudes, and perspectives, I’ve encountered and found a worthy friend in Wonder Woman many times, not just because she’s the apex, Superman equivalent superhero in the Pantheon of comic book characters (the one who is most iconic, recognized, and implicitly emblematic of her type), but also because I managed to get connected with the placidly and candidly presented kinkiness and erotic female dominance that pervades her earliest incarnations.
The specifics of this are better covered in another article, but it will suffice to say that Wonder Woman has earned a special place in my heart not just because she was powerful, but particularly because of the way in which she was powerful, and what that power was characterized to mean, signify, and import. And similarly, the historical figures of these three loving, intelligent, thoughtful, feminist people were welcome additions to the catalog of real human beings who have engaged with and contributed to that same culture we work at SMUT to present.
In other words, both the fictional characters and the fictionalized real world figures around which this movie centers were right up the alley of things very near and dear to my heart, and because of this not only was I in a great position to be won by this movie, I was also in a unique position to be betrayed, let down, and disappointed by it.
Like any fan of anything, I am sensitive to versions and adaptations of the things I love, and like anyone who nerds out over anything in particular dissecting and inspecting and comparing new incarnations and iterations is half the fun. There’s an oddly protective impulse that is felt exactly alongside the desire to embrace.
And as someone who is connected with nearly every theme that this movie regards, like many (I think), I am sensitive to those depictions too, and in nearly the same way. The way that kink, fetishes, polyamory, lesbianism, and femdom are portrayed on film, to whatever extent that they are, is entirely down to the ethics and sensibilities of the creative forces involved in the production, and often are those themes left in, to put it mildly, uncareful hands.
I’m used to seeing these things called up as boogeymen, or as punchlines, or as furtive, supposedly incendiary throwaways. I’m used to the tabloidish gossip factor and pearl clutching, I’m used to every story being one of tragic, errant disharmony, or less. Most often I’m used to the inability to see anything human and vital beneath the caricaturization, because there is a disconnect between these depictions and the people who construct them, and representations somehow include the people who would connect with them while at the same time banishing them into otherness.
And cue Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.
To begin at the surface the film is beautifully and lovingly shot, the set dressing and costumes are delicious, and the aesthetics of the cinematography manage to neatly avoid excessive high contrast, pedantic soft focus, and cheap, made-for-TV colors all at once. There is a sense of this film’s gaze being romantically and affectionately crafted, and nothing looks unconsidered.
The performances are strong, but most intensely from Rebecca Hall, who brings a surprising and unexpected level of nuance and verisimilitude to even seemingly unimportant moments and lines, finding an expressive virtuosity that feels like a concert pianist reinterpreting something simple in a way that makes it vital, and important, and new.
To be fair, in the first 20 or 30 minutes some of the exposition in the writing felt a bit heavy handed, but I think to some extent those things stuck out at me more because I knew them to be bullet point facts that were trying to be worked in to the story, and I think that approach serves the bigger picture for audiences who are unacquainted with some of the interesting particulars of the story’s context.
But however it gets there, what happens at the end of the first act is more than enough to trivialize this minor flaw.
There are a number of points throughout this movie where Lady Z and I both found ourselves staring dumbstruck, mouths literally slightly agape at what we were seeing actually portrayed and depicted on screen.
The first of these reflects an interesting moment in the Marston story, where early in his career as an academic psychologist he secretly attended an initiation ceremony for one of the college’s sorority pledges, about which he wrote a number of times in his scholarly work. In the course of this, he witnesses the punishment of an initiate dressed in humiliating clothes, at the hands of one of her new sisters, for speaking out of turn, in the form of a slow, quiet over the knee spanking.
The film’s biggest strength, and what so sets it apart from anything like it I’ve seen, is the ability to stay with scenes like this far, far longer than any other media depiction usually would. When things get hot, the film doesn’t pull back, it lingers.
The sister in charge orders 20 swats, and the film doesn’t stare, it watches, as every single one of the blows is dealt, consuming every one of the characters involved and the audience along with it.
And this regard and this candid, present, witnessing tone is doubly true of the scene where the three lovers finally unite, which begins with a passionate, delicate, award worthy kiss that could well have been the end of the scene, and in any other production it would have been. But the scene keeps rolling and the moment goes on, and like a lover beckoning you to stay at the end of a wonderful evening the camera sticks around, and the viewer is gifted with a sex scene that rivals any I can think of for sheer, effusive, ebullient love. It manages to show you as little as it has to to convince you you’ve seen everything, and the choreography feels like a ballet scene, letting the characters weave in and out of each other’s attention in a way that was so incredibly touching and completely unexpected.
There are other scenes that are notable, and yes, it is incredibly hot. But more than that Lady Z and I found ourselves so incredibly touched by the harmony and fluidity and ease of the way these people’s relationship was depicted, and it felt, more than anything, astonishingly wholesome and cute. It worked. And it felt good.
The scenes of the shibari lesson and the fetish shop, the Birth of Wonder Woman scene, all of these were more lovely and beautiful and dazzling than I had any way to hope for, but more moving and touching than those were the scenes of the shared domestic bliss that the trio enjoyed; little moments of Elizabeth coming home to Olive and “Bill”, their love for their children, the little gifts and life moments and joy. It’s not in any movie I’ve ever seen or heard of to say such a thing is possible, even to hint that such a thing exists, and this movie spends several of its minutes, going well out of its way to show that for all their “weirdness” and “perversion” in the eyes of society these people lived and led wonderful, wholesome, and beautiful lives.
By the end of it, I was more than willing to forgive the frustration I felt with some of what, I felt, were necessary evils in the storytelling, e.g., the orientation of dramatic scenes around high emotion connected with clashing and strife. I think the real critique I have of the way this movie gets to such an amazing place is that it relies briefly on a fairly garden variety set of scenes involving the characters’ struggle to overcome their personal barriers and fraught emotions in a way that I think realistically is beneath the actual people this movie is about. I think it does actually make sense to write it that way though, again, for an audience that isn’t quite as squarely in the sights of a movie like this, but it did occur to me.
But at the same time it got me thinking about the way that people in the late 1920s, almost a hundred years ago now and without the benefit of social networks, the internet, or any of the cultural elements we take for granted as kinky people today, must have struggled to process and make progress in trying to navigate things, but I will say I felt this overrelied on emotional strife and identity struggle rather than on the far more productive, proactive conversations I felt sure these three people must have had. But I agree, that makes for a different kind of movie, and there’s a need in some areas to keep things simple or direct. It keeps the pace going and it probably makes for a better “movie” this way.
By the end of the movie, after the troubling conflicts in the second act (which are unfortunately all to accurate), the film lands on a resolution that is satisfying and uplifting, via a route that includes what I think are astonishingly sweet and impressive moments that amount to something entirely new said in the language of kinky romantic screenwriting, and director brings it all together in a way that not only feels satisfying, but that lays the entire story to rest in a way that assures the viewer that whatever the characters would face as they walked together into the future, their conclusion was a happy one.
I was left feeling that it was the most incredible, sympathetic, representative, relatable kink film, and polyamory film, and fetish film, and sapphic film I had ever seen. By a mile, all at once.
I had never felt more seen, or more shown, or more validated, or more gratified by any depiction of the relationships, ethics, values, and practices of the BDSM to which I subscribe, or of the sexuality and orientation that I identify with. Characteristic opinions and ethical tenets and statements of values are let stand on their own, with no equivocations or apologies, and all of these things have a face value that seems fit to acknowledge entirely on their own.
It’s tasteful, it’s sincere, it’s authentic and adorable and charming, it’s heartwarming, wholesome, and lovely, and it’s so many other valuable things, and I think it’s the high water mark for the depiction and approach towards kink and kinky people in media. Full stop.
I’ve recommended it to several friends and like minded individuals already, and it is with great satisfaction that I happily recommend it to you. A+, five enthusiastic stars. With gratitude and appreciation for everyone involved.
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NOTE: At the time of this writing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is available for streaming on Hulu.