PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN As Cultural Critique

Mixing taboo and modern myth.

“In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.”

– Jean-Luc Godard 

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women had been in the works well before Wonder Woman, the big-screen arrival of Diana of Themyscira, yet it can’t help but play like a response a mere four months later. While the Patty Jenkins’ film is one of 2017’s best, a transposition and amalgam of several of Diana’s recent iterations, it’s also a mainstream studio film that follows seven decades worth of comics that have, in part, shifted the character drastically away from the psychosexual aspects of her inception, or at the very least buried them further within the subtext. Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston not only works to unearth them, telling the origin of her origin as it were, but it gets right in between the process of artistic transposition itself, presenting Wonder Woman’s journey from mythology to modern superheroism as something of a creation myth in itself.

Whether in the context of academia or merely passing curiosity, the story behind Wonder Woman is fascinating. The film does a fine job of chronicling the various “a-ha!” connections between her creator(s) and her mythology – Olive Byrne’s bracelets/Diana’s bracelets of submission, the Marstons’ lie detector/the lasso of truth, the prevalence of fettering in her early pages – but it’s the film’s framing that separates it from your conventional biopic, even though it’s undoubtedly and intentionally drawn within the lines of convention. Most of the plot takes place in flashback, relative to William Marston’s conversation with Josette Frank, in what amounts to her investigation into Wonder Woman’s subtext. That’s the movie in its entirety, though only a third of its runtime (or less) is actually dedicated to Wonder Woman herself, from her creation to her success to concerns over her child-friendliness. The rest of the film finds its focus along the same lines, only the success and social concerns in question aren’t over a fictional character, but a trio of real people.

Byrne and the Marstons were in a polyamorous relationship (our own Leigh Monson has an enlightening read on that perspective), but what was once and still remains a radical social construct is treated with the touching evenness of, say, an interracial or same-sex relationship between two people, from the presentation of their neighbors’ aggressive ostracizing to the film’s conventional structure. It 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. That may not be the actual case in society, but it’s part of the film’s bold conceit, even framing its characters’ discovery of kink/BDSM as if it were the moment in a sports film where an athlete’s skills come to fruition, or in a great artist’s biopic wherein they embrace their talent.

Not only is this discovery treated as a realization of personal truth, it comes specifically in the form of the Marstons gazing upon the previously prudish Byrne in a corset, tiara and bracelets with a lasso by her side before they proceed to tie her up. This moment in the film comes several years into their relationship, and it’s not only said relationship reaching its inevitable sexual liberation (the trio first knew each other in the context of Bryne studying human psychosexuality under the Marstons) but it is also very explicitly the birth of Wonder Woman, a character born of radical, resilient love and the bonds of submission.

This moment of birth features heavily in the trailer, but what’s equally fascinating is the moment of conception. Years earlier when William Marston was studying Greek myths for inspiration, our three leads spent their first night together after some tumultuous drama, before even they could fully comprehend their dynamic. They first begin to hook up in their university’s theatre (which happens to be putting on a Greek production) before making their way backstage, losing themselves amidst the sets and costumes. William inevitably puts on a military uniform. Elizabeth, a Leopard-print fur. And Olive, a costume resembling Artemis, whose Greek equivalent is named Diana. As they explore for the first time, lost in the throngs of passion, the camera pulls out to reveal them making love atop the set of Mount Olympus whilst looking like early sketches of Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor and the villainess Cheetah. Not only are the outlines for these characters conceived in a moment of polyamorous love-making, but they knock the Old Gods off their pedestal in the process, replacing them as our modern mythology.

Wonder Woman may have been watered down in the years since William Marston’s death (though recent comics like Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s Wonder Woman: Earth One help return her to her queer and kinky roots), but as a recently prevalent fixture of modern culture, understanding Diana and all that she is feels vital to understanding ourselves as a society. The Gods of old were created as our own reflections, from war, to love, to lust, to any and all facets of the human psyche, albeit in a more rudimentary sense. Wonder Woman and her ilk are the modern equivalent of that dynamic, and understanding where she comes from (and why her origins were buried for so long) is necessary in order to understand those parts of ourselves we’re forced to suppress due to social convention. The alternative is a more open, more accepting and more sexually healthy society, and regardless of where Wonder Woman is right now, where she’s been and how she came to be is as worthy a cultural criticism as any review of her new movie.

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