Episode 29 - Professor Marston & The Wonder Women
Post date: Oct 17, 2017 9:44:56 PM
Professor Marston & The Wonder Women (2017) www.imdb.com/title/tt6133130/ - Internet Movie Data Basehttp://professorm.movie/ - Official Website www.fandango.com/professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women-202730/movie-times - Fandango Movie Tickets
This movie has so much to discuss! First, let's get the obvious out of the way - this is definitely a poly movie. The plot does not shy away from the idea that all 3 characters were intimately, romantically, and sexually involved with each other. I also thought it was a beautiful movie, both in production value and in poly values.
How historically accurate was it? Well, I am a movie reviewer, not a historian, and I don't read comic books myself, although I have since fallen in love with the comic-action movie genre and most of the people I care about are comic geeks. So I did not do a whole lot of research into the historicity of this story.
I have long heard, however, about Marston's poly-like arrangement with the two women who inspired his creation of Wonder Woman, his feminist, or should I say, misandrist, ideals, and his blatant interest in kink. So, at least that part wasn't a surprise to me, and was the reason why I was so interested in seeing this movie in time for this month's review so that my review could hopefully inspire theater attendance.
So, my knowledge of the historicity of this movie is superficial. I'm pretty sure, though, that the movie got the grand themes correct, but took some creative license with the details. For instance, in the movie, Marston pitches the Wonder Woman comic to publisher Max Gaines, who "discovered" Superman. We see them as strangers, meeting for the first time when Marston makes an appointment to pitch his idea, and Gaines being dubious at first, and then won over by Marston's impassioned plea. Marston makes this appointment after coming up with the idea of a feminist superhero that his partners, Elizabeth and Olive, both believe will fail. Neither have any faith in comics as an art form or culture-changing medium, and Marston had shown no interest in comics before this scene.
In reality, however, Marston did an interview with the magazine Family Circle in 1940 (conducted by his own partner, Olive) where he discussed what he saw as the unfulfilled potential of the comic book medium. Gaines saw this interview and hired Marston as a consultant for the two companies that Gaines owned, which would eventually merge into DC Comics. Sometime around this point, Marston had the idea to create a new superhero, but it was his wife, Elizabeth, who suggested making her a woman. He then pitched the story to Gaines, now his "employer", who gave him the green light to create the comic and it was first debuted in December of 1941.
What does seem to be true is Marston's feminist ideals and his deliberate use of the Wonder Woman comic as a vehicle to infuse those ideals into children to create a more feminist, more peaceful future for his society. He has been quoted in interviews and writings as believing that women are the more peaceful, loving gender, and that boys needed to learn how to "submit to a loving authority" and so hoped to teach them to desire this submission through the Wonder Woman comic, featuring a pacifist, strong superheroine. He also admitted to including kink and erotica in his work because he believed that the submission must come willingly, and that submission "cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element."
In other words, he believed strongly in consent and used erotic imagery to "train" young boys to want to give consent to submitting to women leaders. He actually called it "sex love training". Through his Wonder Woman comics, he aimed to condition readers to becoming more readily accepting of loving submission to loving authorities rather than being so assertive with their own destructive egos.
Given that this was the 1920s through the 1940s, I'm willing to overlook the misandrist gender binary essentialism of believing that men and women are essentially two opposing or complimentary monoliths and that women are the superior category because I *do* agree with his assessment that the ideals that women are trained to embody - compassion, empathy, cooperation, peace-loving, nurturing, etc. - are better for society and that those who do embody those ideals are the ones who would make better leaders, while the ideals of masculinity that men are programmed with - violence, anger, aggression, pride, competition, etc. - make for poor leadership qualities in a fair and democratic egalitarian society.
So, while I inwardly cringe just a little bit every time I hear him make a sweeping generalization about women being "better" than men, from my lofty vantage point of the year 2017, I do applaud his emphatic embrace of those characteristics that he identifies as "feminine" as the more noble characteristics for society's leaders.
Now, onto the cinematic elements of the film.
I thought it was beautifully shot. The movie was told slightly out of sequence, through flashbacks during an interrogation by a conservative social leader about the erotic and kinky elements of the comic. As Marston was forced to explain and defend himself, we are brought back in time to the creation and formation of his poly family.
The lighting and cinematography of the film was ... well, subtle isn't the word for it because it's fairly obvious but it wasn't jarring either. It felt ... smooth and seamless while noticeable. The interrogation is all shot in a very cold, monochrome color palette, while the flashback, loving triad scenes are in a very warm, almost nostalgic color palette. The happy scenes are warm and soft and mostly high key lighting, which is a bright, evenly lit lighting pattern found in sitcoms and romantic comedies and in older movies because early film material couldn't handle a lot of contrast.
The dramatic flashback scenes - both the conflicts or those simply serious in tone and the more instrumental, erotic turning point scenes - use low key lighting within that warm, vintage color palette, adding strong shadows to highlight certain parts of the scene and making liberal use of silhouette as a dramatic storytelling device.
What I especially liked about this was that the low-key lighting in both the warm color palette for the instrumental scenes and the cool color palette in the interrogation scenes, combined with a wonderful Art Deco sense of costuming and set design, made those scenes feel like live-action comic book art. They were contrasty and blocky, with soft, vague backgrounds and strong, hard lines in the foreground with our characters, just like the Golden Age of comics in which Wonder Woman was born. The more important it is for the scene to imply to the audience that it was influential on the future development of the comic book, the more comic booky the scene looked with shadows and silhouettes and blocky set elements.
But, what about the poly stuff? That's why y'all listen to this podcast in the first place, right? I mean, we can study cinematography in a number of different venues, but this podcast is all about polyamory in film. So, let's talk polyamory in this film.
The modern poly movement is largely considered to be a feminist movement. Most of its more vocal "leaders" are women and nonbinary people, with only a handful of cismale names attached to the shaping of our communities and our philosophies. One of our most common talking points is the response to the concern about "misogyny" and "patriarchy" so common in religious polygynous cults, which is that polyamory is what results when you give women the freedom to love who we will, without sexual shame or patriarchal power constricting our behaviour or our emotions. When women find a community that embraces our sexuality and our relationship freedom, we choose multiple partnerships of our own. Many of us came to polyamory by ourselves, as "single" women, not coerced into it by a male partner hoping to find a harem. In fact, when men *do* attempt to form harems through the poly community, they often find it backfiring on them, as the women discover themselves and their power through the love of other people and the supportive network that polyamory provides that other forms of non-monogamy do not embrace.
I felt this fact of the polyamory experience was paralleled in the movie itself. The movie title, even, only names the man and implies the women, but throughout the movie, it is the women who drive the relationship. I feel that this is the experience of many women in the poly community - overlooked and dismissed by society as being accessories to the men's fantasy but in reality being the driving force in their own relationships. Bill Marston, as the person with the most social power, gives the women the space to decide their fate, and make decisions they do.
First, it is Elizabeth who gives Bill the green light for an extramarital affair. Then it is Elizabeth who puts a stop to it, before it even begins. Then it is Olive who makes the first overtures, but she makes them to Elizabeth, denying Bill. Then Elizabeth puts the brakes on again. Later, after Bill guides Elizabeth to a better understanding of herself, it is Elizabeth who reaches out to mend fences with Olive. Then Olive again opens the door to a romantic relationship, again with Elizabeth. And it is *Elizabeth* who finally invites Bill in.
Each step in their relationship, from escalation to setback, is instigated by one of the women. Bill is there, holding space for them, making clear his own desires and intentions, but the women are driving the show. And it is the story between the women that creates all the conflict and resolution. The character of Bill embodies his ideal of "loving submission to a loving authority" - a choice of his own free will to submit himself to the lead of the women in his life. But he's not passive and he's not a doormat. He holds the women accountable when they fuck up. But he doesn't "rescue" them. He actually holds them accountable, making them acknowledge their part and be active participants in their own "rescue", or the resolution to the problem.
Elizabeth, I absolutely loved. I couldn't help whispering throughout the movie "she is SO BAD at this!" When my partner, Ben, asked me to elaborate - bad at what? Polyamory? - I said "no, at being human!" She was terrible at empathy and at communicating with any delicacy for other people's feelings. She was blunt and awkward and she had a tendency to hide from her feelings under this cold and logical, scientific facade. She cussed all the time and she resented men in general for holding her back from what she believed was her true potential. She was wicked smart and assertive and she knew herself, but she was also private and reserved and did not like other people butting into her business.
As you may have guessed, I identified very strongly with the character of Elizabeth.
Olive was sweet and genuine and caring. At first glance, this seemed to be a classic Unicorn Hunter setup, with the older, more established couple, the husband not really having much of a personality at all but still somehow being charismatic and charming while the wife was dominant and overbearing, courting a young, naive, star-struck girl who hoped to learn from them and who they hoped to mold in their image. But Olive has more of a sense of self than our typical Unicorn Hunters like to see in their fantasy prey. Olive is the one who pursued them, she wasn't hunted.
While she had less social power than they (and, really, don't get me started on the ethics of professors dating their students), she had what I like to describe as velvet-covered steel - a core strength inside of her, underneath the softness. She is what I would call an archetypal submissive - one who willingly submits to another because she has the will to do so; she knows what she wants, she takes an active role in crafting her relationships, she advocates for her own needs and doesn't let herself be taken advantage of, but she just happens to find happiness in domesticity and restraint and submission and in pleasing her lovers.
Here is where I have one quibble. It's really very minor in the scope of the entire movie, but it's something that I see repeatedly in the community and it's a sticking point for me. [inserted movie clip about two combining to make the perfect woman]
E. "What is it that attracts you to her?"
B. "She is beautiful, guilless kind, pure of heart. And you are brilliant, ferocious, hilarious, and a grade-A bitch. Together you are the perfect woman."
Again, this is nearly a century ago, but it still bothers me every time I hear it. While two people can have complimentary traits such as one being assertive and one being gentle and nurturing, they do not combine to make a single person. They are whole and complete people all by themselves. Elizabeth, with her fierce brilliance, is not half of a woman because she does not have Olive's beauty and kindness. She is a fully fledged human being. Her shortcomings may be complimented by Olive's strengths, and vice versa, but neither woman is a partial person.
I heard Bill's description of Elizabeth, and I actually formed tears because, when I heard it, I felt a longing to hear that same description applied to me. And I have. Of the people who have loved me who have really *seen* me, this is how I have been described and how I *want* to be described by them. This is how I see myself, and, like most of us, I desire to see myself reflected in the eyes of those who love me.
So I felt personally affected when I heard that description. To then immediately follow that up with "together you make the perfect woman", I felt like the wind had been let out of my sails. I felt desired and proud when I imagined a partner describing me as such, as though they really *got* me, much like Elizabeth's expression implied that she felt when Bill described her, so when Bill next implied that both women were necessary to make "the perfect woman", I felt ... punctured, discarded, as though all those qualities that I am so proud of are not "enough" to be accepted by someone I love.
And I know that a lot of people feel that way when described as "together, you make the perfect partner". I know that even more people feel that way when they are monogamous and they struggle to understand why their partner desires another. "Why aren't I enough?" That's a common, plaintive question among monogamous partners. Why am I not enough for you? When we view people as incomplete, as puzzle pieces that need the presence of others to make ourselves whole, lacking a certain quality or qualities can trigger exactly that insecurity because we are, indeed, seen as "not whole".
When monogamous people see themselves as half of a whole, to be completed by their monogamous partner, and their partner desires another, they can feel as though they aren't even "enough" to fill up their half. If, given the monogamous assumption of "completing" each other, their partner doesn't feel "complete" with just them, then they must not be "enough", because if they were "enough", then their partner would feel "complete".
If we want to help our more monogamously minded partners, and our monogamously minded society, better understand why we love multiple people, we need to reach a point of understanding that we *are* whole and complete people, that we are not combined with others to become "perfect", implying that we are imperfect on our own. Elizabeth is complete and wonderful in her ferocity, in her hilarity, in her bitchiness. Olive is complete and wonderful in her guilelessness, in her kindness. Together, they make up two wonderful, complete, and complimentary people in a family that balances each other out - each supporting and relieving the other in a cooperative, interdependent web of relationships. Together, they are both "enough" because it's not about being "enough". It's not about "completing" each other. It's about each of us bringing our own unique combination of selves to the table and adding richness and complexity to the tapestry of our relationships.
Another notable part of the film that I want to highlight is the issue of the closet. Given the era, the triad's choice to commit themselves to a lie to protect their children is absolutely understandable. I do not support the idea of the closet at all, but I am also in a privileged position to hold this opinion. I have the freedom to have made choices to remove the power of the closet from my life.
But I have also supported deception in other movies in the context of the era or culture that the characters live in. This, of course, reinforces couple privilege, which we see in this movie how it disempowers the one without the privilege. It's all well and good to say that nobody plans to *wield* one's privilege when things are going well. But having it means that we can fall back on it when things are not going well. The closet insures that we have this privilege at our disposal, for some future, indeterminate circumstance that we can't always anticipate when we say that we "won't ever use it".
Throughout the movie, Elizabeth repeatedly displays internalized shame over her unconventional relationship, for all that she champions women's rights and equality for all. Every relationship conflict the triad experiences stems from Elizabeth feeling some form of cognitive dissonance between her ideals and her societally programmed shame. She is not willing to face, head on, the social disapproval for her sexual freedom, in spite of all her talk of "I don't experience sexual jealousy" and other progressive ideas. She is deeply uncomfortable at her first exposure to kink, her feminist philosophy of women's empowerment seeming to conflict with women in a kinky submissive role. We continue to debate this very thing in feminist circles nearly a century later - how can we support women's choice when that woman chooses the status quo or a traditional role that the rest of us are trying to crawl out from under?
When things get difficult, Elizabeth retreats, back to where she feels safe. For all of Olive's gentleness and submissiveness, she is consistently the one to lead the others into more progressive, more challenging situations. Elizabeth is like many white feminist women - aggressive and assertive and confident in her position, but not "too much". When it becomes "too much" for her comfort, she stalls, and retreats into what privilege she does have. In some cases, this means she retreats into the closet, because as part of a socially recognized couple, that closet is one of her privileges.
It's easy to defend the closet as a protective cocoon. If it didn't have any protections at all, nobody would hide in it. But being in the closet has a cost as well. Depending on the individual circumstance, that cost may be more or less than the penalty. It may be worth the expense. But we do need to acknowledge that it *does* cost us.
[inserted movie clip about protecting children vs. passing on shame]
B. "And you will be left all alone with your bitterness and your rage and your knowledge that you loved her and she loved you and you threw it away for them."
E. "Our kids don't deserve to be attacked, to be ostracized."
B. "Our children are inheriting your shame. Is that how you want them to live? Is that the lesson that you want to teach them?"
This scene was so powerful for me. It went on from here, showing us the importance of vulnerability and humility in a relationship. This was a true shift in the balance of power. Always, Olive was loved and accepted, but she was still "the third", without legal protection and without social support. Always, there was a subtle, invisible, but existing Sword of Damocles over her head, where couple privilege could step in at any time. The triad was happy and functional, but here, in the very foundation, was an unequal distribution of power. Until this moment, when Elizabeth was forced to confront herself and her insecurities and how she used the closet to protect herself to the detriment of her "third". The only way to undo the damage to herself, her husband, her lover, and her children, was to let down her walls, stop using the closet as a weapon and a shield, and to be vulnerable to Olive, thereby shifting the power balance to a truly equal relationship where she could not hide behind couple privilege or use it as a weapon when she gets scared.
This is a very subtle underpinning of poly relationships. So subtle that most people, particularly those who are new to polyamory, can't see it. As I said, for the entire movie up to this point, Olive is a loved and accepted part of the family. It's really difficult to see that her position of "equal member" is an illusion because of that couple privilege, until she loses her position at the whim of the wife. There is never a point at which she can consider not bowing to the wife's position. There is never a suggestion that Elizabeth be the one to leave whenever there is a conflict.
And a lot of couples who open up their relationships will see this as right and just and fair and expected. And that's exactly the problem. This scene shows us why that's a problem. Their family, indeed each individual person, is diminished by being built on a foundation of couple privilege. Things don't work until they dismantle their positions of privilege, become vulnerable, and empower the disempowered. Only then is the family "complete". Only then is lasting happiness found. Only then does the relationship work. Even though it appeared to work for years before, that appearance was superficial, an illusion, wrested away at the first sign of real conflict. It took this power exchange to finally make the relationship between the three of them solid enough to last "all the days of their lives".
And I so wish more "couples" would learn that lesson before "opening up" and hurting their "thirds" simply because they can't see their privilege from the inside.
I loved this movie. I thought it felt real. I loved the focus on the women, in spite of the title.
These are the takeaways that I felt from the film: couple privilege is real; if you break your lover's heart by making them end a relationship that they desire you will do damage to your relationship with your lover; vulnerability is the path to intimacy and necessary for an equal distribution of power; and life rewards those who take the path of greater courage, where the rewards are a happy and healthy family and courage is being vulnerable and humble and honest.
And when we embark on a journey of truth and justice tempered with compassion, empathy, nurturing, and love, there is a little bit of Wonder Woman inside all of us.
[inserted unscripted conversation with Alan M and Nicole about seeing the movie in theaters on opening night]
Some references from the conversation:
Professor M In The Media - Alan's Poly In The Media blog tracks all the media coverage of the movie.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
Mimi Schippers - Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University and poly speaker who lectures on the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman at the Smithsonian
Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art by Richard Peréz Sevez
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