“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is the Representation I’ve Always Needed

Professor and the Wonder Women is the Representation I've always needed

Megan Robinson writes on the film's welcome celebration of bisexuality, kink, and polyamory

By Megan Robinson

To exist as a young bisexual woman studying media often means seeing characters who could be like you, but don’t like to label themselves. They say they “go both ways,” but that’s more about sex than love. Women and non-binary characters in media will often be relegated to straight or gay/lesbian, even if they actually label themselves as bisexual or are in relationships with people of all genders. In one notable example, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) on How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020) was involved with men and women, but audiences often ignored this to favor either her relationships with men exclusively or with women exclusively. When these characters enter monogamous relationships, it’s treated as if their bisexuality is gone, as if the gender of their current partner determines their sexuality. 

To exist as a woman interested in kink, like submission, dominance, or rope play complicates things further: BDSM is often portrayed as abusive. Writers with little regard for the actual practices in the community tend to misunderstand it, leading to abusive “romances,” like Fifty Shades of Grey, which dominate the popular idea of what kink is. Sure, movies like Secretary exist, which portrays an actually erotic Dom/sub  heterosexual relationship, but so often I find myself only witnessing a part of my identity on screen. That is, until I saw Angela Robinson’s 2017 film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women focuses on  real-life creator of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), wife and fellow psychologist and writer Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), and their partner Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a student of William’s. Everything from the beginning of the film signals to the audience just how inseparable these characters and the character of Wonder Woman are from bisexuality, polyamory, and kink. The film’s premise follows William being interrogated by the Child Study Association of America for the content of his comics, in which Wonder Woman is often tied up and restrained while wearing an outfit similar to lingerie of the early 20th century. This story, though, is much more about the women and love that inspired the comics than the comics themselves.

There are particular moments, so viscerally ingrained in my mind, that to me represent my bisexuality perfectly. Of course, Elizabeth and Olive never actually say the word “bisexual,” and fans of the film online typically focus on the relationship between the two women, excluding William entirely. Robinson’s film, however, never shies away from their identity as bisexual women. In one scene, William and Elizabeth attend Olive’s sorority meeting, and as Olive is spanked as part of initiation, Elizabeth grabs for William — she’s turned on. William develops a love for Olive, and though we as the audience are meant to believe Elizabeth is jealous of Olive, in actuality she’s jealous of William; she wants Olive’s love, and, to her surprise, Olive wants hers too. 

These revelations about their sexuality mirror my own. I remember seeing a Donna Summer album cover for the first time and being so enthralled, like Elizabeth watching that spanking. I remember in freshman year the fear of having my first crush on a girl, a cheerleader I had English class with. The first time I saw women tied up in ropes, blindfolded, and spanked was on Tumblr, and I felt a pit in my stomach, frightened to see women restrained for male pleasure. When I finally saw Secretary, seeing that a woman could find freedom and arousal in bondage, it was hard not to get aroused myself. You don’t forget these first feelings, and Elizabeth and Olive are lucky enough to follow through with their passion and love.

My favorite sequence occurs after the throuple’s love confessions. The three have made breakthroughs on the polygraph, discovering that blood pressure may be the key to discover whether someone is lying. This is something William and Elizabeth had been trying to perfect, and Elizabeth then uses it to determine if Olive is after William. Olive confesses she is in love with both William and Elizabeth, and when they all confess their love, they then make love.

In Robinson’s hands, everything is tender. Bathed in orange light, the three make love as if against the sunset. They put on costumes, they tie each other up — they’re all included in this exploration of sex and pleasure. But it’s tender, too. The moment that sticks in my mind, the truest representation of my being, nearly brought me to tears on my initial watch. As Olive rides William, Elizabeth leans down, and the two women kiss, drenched in that orange light, warmth permeating off the screen. It’s pure love.

Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), Bill (Luke Evans) and Olive (Bella Heathcote) in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), Bill (Luke Evans) and Olive (Bella Heathcote) in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Kink is imbued into the film’s fabric. A biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman, for many, would be a cog in the content machine, focusing on William entirely while making Olive and Elizabeth muses. Instead, we learn about Marston beginning with his DISC theory, describing emotion through the behavioral types of dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance, cornerstones of kink. With lectures on the DISC theory throughout the film separating the film into parts in line with the theory, we watch as love and kink blossom, and the group struggles for acceptance. Olive is just a family friend in public, but at home she and Elizabeth are both “mom” to their children. The children are harassed at school for their parents’ alternative lifestyle, and a neighbor catches the polyamorous couple in what begins as a fun moment of sexual expression; dressed up in costume, laughing and kissing and teasing each other. 

When William takes the two women to a lingerie shop, kink as a cornerstone of the character of Wonder Woman becomes clearer. Olive wears a piece similar to what would become Wonder Woman’s costume, and William begins to tie her in rope. Elizabeth objects to this, and instead she wraps Olive up, their faces close, their breathing heavy. Elizabeth, in that moment, centers women’s pleasure, mirroring my own discovery of submission as just plain hot. As a kinky bisexual, it’s hard not to get just as turned on as the characters, yet it’s is a shocking moment in mainstream cinema — a woman is the genuine dominant. And when William and Elizabeth have a falling out with Olive, they get on their knees and beg for forgiveness, accepting submission.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the representation I’ve needed for years. So often I can forget the nuance of my identity when watching romance on screen. I can find different parts of myself represented in straight and lesbian films with ease; however, this neglects the importance of my unique identity. I love all people, I find strength in that love, and marvel at all the beautiful people in the world. Polyamory is a wonderful way to capture the nuance of polysexualities. Even though I have yet to explore a polyamorous relationship, it is such a joy to see Elizabeth and Olive love each other and William, no doubt in their minds. Their assuredness of their love and their sexual expression is something I long to see again, in the media and in myself. 

Megan Robinson (she/her) is a freelance writer and student at Ithaca College studying Communications. When she’s not procrastinating by making playlists and Pinterest boards for movies she hasn’t written, she writes features and film reviews. Follow her on Twitter @hughjmungo_ and Instagram @megan.t.robinson

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