Almost a decade before Patty Jenkins brought Wonder Woman to the big screen, director Angela Robinson was gifted a book about the history of her favorite superhero. In the last chapter — almost as an addendum — she found a mention of the comic's creator, William Moulton Marston, who, among other things, invented the lie detector test, and lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women.
Robinson was blown away. After some research, she realised that Marston, a psychologist, had started writing the comic as a form of feminist propaganda, aimed at disseminating his theories about emotions, and to educate young men about the benefits of female power. For inspiration, he turned to the two women in his life: wife Elizabeth Holloway, and their lover, Olive Byrne.
Robinson's film, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women — starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote as Marston, Holloway and Byrne, respectively — shines a light on the man, and most strikingly, the women behind the red boots, invisible jet, and lasso of truth. At its core, the film is a love story. But it's also a tale of acceptance, feminism, queerness, polyamory, and sexual exploration, all themes that eventually made it into the early Wonder Woman narrative. (After Marston's death in 1947, the superhero was largely stripped of her powers and sexual innuendo, and wouldn't reclaim either until decades later.)
Many facts about the Marstons are up for debate, but here are some we know for sure. Marston had sexual relationships with both his wife and Byrne, and all three lived together with their children. Holloway worked as a psychologist and then as an editor, and was often frustrated by the lack of opportunities women were afforded at the time. Byrne, on the other hand, was related to some of the influential feminists of the early 20th century: her mother, Edith Byrne, and her aunt, Margaret Sanger, mother of the birth control movement.
While Marston definitely imbued his work with bondage imagery, Robinson made a choice to explore the relationship that Byrne and Holloway might have had with BDSM, and also each other. The movie shows them exploring their own emotional and sexual boundaries, and grapples with the idea that bondage can be a feminist act.
"What about it didn’t surprise me?" Robinson exclaimed when I asked her. "That Marston invented the lie detector test, that [he and his wife] were early psychologists, that they fell in love [with another woman] and all lived together in this relationship — it was really the love story at the core of it and how that was reflected in the pages of the Wonder Woman comic that blew my mind. I thought ‘Oh, there’s this incredible untold story here.’
But the road to tell that story wasn't an easy one. Initially, Robinson said, her desire to make this film stemmed from frustration that there hadn't yet been a superhero movie devoted to Wonder Woman. Over the next eight years, she did research in her spare time, reading all of Marston's books, developing a feel for his personality, and ideas, and eventually, writing and selling a script. And then, it was time to cast the film — specifically the women, so integral to the future Wonder Woman figure.
Rebecca Hall, it turns out, had also been fascinated with the story of the Marstons and was thinking about adapting it herself. But after reading Robinson's interpretation, she decided to take on the role of Elizabeth Holloway. For Olive Byrne, Robinson was looking for someone who could be both vulnerable and strong — someone who could embody the journey that Olive embarks on throughout the film, going from blonde ingenue to confident adventuress. After meeting with a number of actresses, Bella Heathcote sent Robinson a tape of her doing Olive's scene in her living room. She was, in her words, "blown away."
Heathcote, for her part, was immediately drawn to Olive. "The arc that the character goes through," she said when asked what she loved most about the character. "The fact that there even is an arc!"
Once Luke Evans was cast as Marston, the movie was shot in a mere 25 days. And through a happy accident, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women will hit UK cinemas on 10th November, just months after the Wonder Woman movie sparked a renewed frenzy for the most famous female superhero of all time. In a way, it's no coincidence that two films about Wonder Woman have emerged within months of each other. It speaks to a hunger for this kind of female role model, and for a better understanding of how she came to be.
Ahead of the film's release, Refinery29 sat down with Robinson, Hall and Heathcote to chat about what it was like to bring these strong women characters to life. Here's what they had to say about Wonder Woman, feminism, and their unique roles in Professor Marston.
On why Wonder Woman is so important today:
Angela Robinson: "We’re in this moment of Wonder Woman where she’s this huge phenomenon. It’s the perfect time to go back and look at the people whose ideas and ideals really inspired her. The Marstons wanted to save the world with their ideas. They were at a moment where they thought that psychology could really change hearts and minds, and it was a very literal attempt to try to stop violence, to stop war on the planet by creating this pop culture phenomenon. It’s the perfect time to look back at these people who created the thing that we all love today, and see what they were about."
Rebecca Hall: "It's been a long time coming. I think on a really basic level it's a question of representation. Women haven't been represented in that superhero world. But I also think that it's the story we're telling the origin of. You learn from watching this movie that this figure was conceived of as a peacekeeper. She's a superhero that's meant to go out and stop war. I can see why that's attractive right now."
On the experience of working with women on this film:
Bella Heathcote: "Things that are conflicting, or contradictory, like being sensitive and strong as a woman, are so rarely depicted in scripts. I always felt like Angela was just the right person for the role, because she was so enthusiastic, such a fan of Wonder Woman, and because she's been trying to make this film for so long. Being on set with her was a delight, and I'm not sure that was because of her gender. But I definitely felt safe to explore the character."
RH: "There's no risk that the telling of this story becomes this Hollywood male fantasy. All of the sexuality in the film is rooted in an emotional story. You can tell that Angela is really preoccupied with what is happening to the women in those scenes. And she's really preoccupied with consent, and she uses it throughout the film. [The characters] don't do anything without making sure that they've communicated with each other exactly what's going on, and making sure each person wants to do it."
AR: "I think part of the reason that the sex scenes don’t feel exploitative, or gratuitous, is I really did think a lot about the female gaze, and how to portray it in a way where the women were in control, and they were in power. I don’t think there’s a lot of explorations of female desire. I think it’s always looked at from the male POV. Female desire is basically erased, or seen in the context of what the man is feeling. I decided to look at it from the women’s point of view. They’re guiding the action. I became really obsessed with consent as foreplay. They’re always asking each other ‘Is this what you want? Do you want this?’ They’re always checking in, and I found it more erotic the emotional leaps they were making with each other. I wasn’t that interested in what they were physically doing to each other, it was more this kind of going out on an emotional limb, and testing each other’s desire and boundaries. It’s not about the sex, it’s about this emotional and literal freedom they’re finding by being together."
On bondage and empowerment:
AR: "I’d done a lot of work on the L Word and True Blood, so I know how important representation is. And I really wanted to be respectful about that part of the story. I think depictions of any sort of kink on film have been not great. So I consulted with two women, who wanted to be referred to as 'rope experts,' and they were incredible. They came and did a workshop with the actors and designed the rope sequences in the film. I really tried to educate myself. It was really important to me because I’m a Wonder Woman fan, to kind of respect the fandom, and to treat the story with respect and love. I thought this was kind of a loving extension of the relationship, and usually it’s portrayed as ‘Oh it’s so kinky, it’s so weird.’ I didn’t want to otherise their experience."
RH: "The first time, Elizabeth has quite a normal reaction to BDSM, like 'Why would you want to be doing that; surely this is wrong.' And then she goes on this voyage of self-discovery, and realises that it's possible to be feminist and be into this. Because it's choice. The way that whole thing works is the submissive has all the power because they're giving you the consent to be dominant."
BH: "It's just another example of where [Olive] is learning more about herself. It's part of her journey. And that's what I loved. I love her growth. It's part of what turns her on, it's part of her sexual identity, and part of who she is. The thing that I love about this film, is that it normalises that. Anything that takes place between consenting adults who love and respect each other, as far as I'm concerned, anything goes."
On Marston's feminism:
AR: "A lot of the film is me wrestling with Marston’s ideas. To do that, I surrounded him with a lot of strong women characters who really debate and take his theories to task. I myself found lots of them contradictory and problematic. I tried to explore the misogyny within his feminism. There’s both. And his entitlement versus Elizabeth and Olive. Even his essentialism about women being better, more loving. I went round, and around and around in my head. It’s so exciting and progressive, but also so limiting and problematic. And so I just put it all in the movie. Even the whole conflict between feminism, empowerment and bondage. One of my favourite exchanges is when Marston starts to tie Olive’s hands, and Elizabeth says, 'Don’t let him do that to you,’ and she says, ‘ I don’t mind,’ and Elizabeth says,‘Why the fuck don’t you mind?’ It’s all part of who Wonder Woman is."
RH: "None of these things are black and white. He was a male feminist at a time where there really weren't any, but also he was a product of that time. He was probably the first one to admit that he couldn't escape his own masculinity and the pitfalls of that. I think Angela deals with it really wittily. He's sort of written and conceived of as a slightly out-of-control puppy dog, that women occasionally have to be like, 'No, Bill' to. But at the end of the day, he was a feminist. He didn't accidentally drop a bunch of feminist theory into a comic book. He explicitly set out to write a comic book that would be feminist propaganda for boys and men to respect female authority."
BH: " I love the fact that we can all be full of contradictions, because we all are. And if he'd been painted as this picture-perfect, idealised person, that wouldn't be real."
On portraying polyamory in a positive way:
AR: "A number of years ago, I was talking to a friend, and I said: ‘Okay, I’m writing a movie about three people who fall in love, and they live together and they have a family together and they get into BDSM and it all ends up adding up to how WW was created. And I want America to root for their love.’ And she was like, ‘That’s a tall freakin’ order.’ I know it is, but I think I can do it. I made the directorial choice to direct it like a prestige biopic, to treat them almost like any other subject matter, so that it’s a conventional story about unconventional people. "
BH: "When I read the script, I was rooting for it! It's about these three people who loved each other, who were all equals, who see each other as equals, and respect each other as equals. And it's rare and fantastic when it happens."
On Olive and Elizabeth's relationship:
AR: "I originally thought many, many years ago that I was going to write a story about a man who had a wife and a mistress. And then I read that they lived together for 38 years after Marston died, and I was like, ‘Wait, hold on a second.’ And then I read that Elizabeth named her only daughter after Olive. There’s a ton of love here. ‘I have to go back and relearn this whole thing.’"
RH: "It avoids that cliché and it's such a relief. I don't think I could have made the other version — it's been done to death. It's conceivable that two women could be into this and long for something that's unconventional, and different, and feel empowered by it. I don't know if I've ever seen that story written. I've seen the version where one party feels left out, and it's doomed and miserable. But I've never seen the part of the story where it's like 'Oh, I've just figured out who I really am, and I'm really into this!'"
BH: "I love their relationship. It's funny because I've had such a girl crush on Rebecca for so long, and she's one of those people that exceeded my expectations and everything that I wanted her to be, so it was really easy for me to create that infatuation that grows into a real love for Olive. Those two women lived together for the remainder of their days."
On what they hope the audience will take away from the film:
AR: "To me, at the baseline, it was this incredible love story. Wonder Woman is about love. And I think the world really needs fresh ideas. It’s in a really scary place, and I think that’s why W.W. is resonating — people are really responding to her message. I was most struck by how much love there was in the [Marstons'] life and how they turned that into these exciting progressive ideas. W.W. is much more than what she seems. I hope people take away that message of love, and also living your truth."
RH: "I hope people go in expecting one thing, and come out just rooting for these people and loving them. And I think they will, actually. It's not boring — Elizabeth says that."
BH: "Love is love. And also the fact — it still stuns me as I'm saying it — that this character of Wonder Woman was created by a man who was a feminist long before it was fashionable to encourage young boys to submit to female authority. And that's an incredible message."
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