The story of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has long been written in whispers and rumors. In my review of the compelling biopic, I recounted how its story had first been presented to me as a confrontation of Wonder Woman’s reputation as a feminist figure.
For decades, those who knew about the relationship between Professor William Marston, his research partner and wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and their student turned lover Olive Byrne, tended to tell it as a salacious tale of a sex-crazed man, his duped wife, and young mistress. The fact that this threesome was interested in bondage and kinky sex only added fuel to the fires of snide gossip. But when writer/director Angela Robinson researched the Marstons (which includes Byrne), she discovered a deep and lasting love that saw them through victories and hardships alike.
In a revealing interview, Robinson talked with CBR about her history with Wonder Woman, research into Wonder Woman’s curious inspirations, and even its most notable omission. But as we spoke, she shared the story behind Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s most shocking shot.
Slight spoilers ahead for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.
Deep into the second act, William, Elizabeth, and Olive have made a lovely life for themselves and their children. Together they raise them in a happy suburban bliss, using a cover story that Olive is a widowed mother of two. And thus nosy neighbors are kept from being curious. That is until one day the three consenting adults wait for their kids to go off to school, and then choose to revel in each other’s bodies with a bit of bondage.
This sex scene like those before it is warmly lit, intimately shot and immersive. “It’s very much a love story in terms of how to shoot it, and the score, and everything,” Robinson said. “I wanted the audience to feel what it feels like to fall in love, especially in the first half [of the film]. It’s from their perspective, but they’re very isolated [from the world]. You’re inside their relationship, and you feel the kind of beauty, giddiness, and sexiness.”
“The sex scene, you’re watching from their point of view,” Robinson noted. “They’re really erotic, fun and liberating. You’re with them.”
But in this scene, the film’s sex positive approach is abruptly ripped away along with its warm tones, swooning close-ups, and the Marstons’ perspective. In a stark moment, a nosy neighbor walks in unannounced, and sees a nude William bound to his costumed wife, while a burlesque-styled Olive is pulling the ropes tight. The dreamy filters are gone. In pours the harsh light of day. In the horrified point-of-view of their intruding neighbor, this romp no longer appears romantic, but odd and possibly perverse.
“In that one moment, we’re in the neighbor’s POV,” Robinson explained. “We’re specifically shooting her POV walking through the house, walking with a steadicam. It is jarring to the audience, because it’s in a wider lens. All of a sudden, what was really super sexy just moments before looks a little ridiculous. It’s bright, and they’re exposed, and it was to shock the audience.”
We’re ripped out of the intoxicating haven of this love story and exposed to how society viewed/views their love. Rather than shying away from the controversy over the Marstons’ love life, Robinson embraced it as part of their story. “You’re with them in their love story,” she said. “But there’s a conflict going on in the film, which is challenging Marston, and Marston’s ideas. I feel like it’s really rigorous. It’s all the arguments I get in with myself, like weighing feminism with bondage. Is that contradictory, or can that work? Is Wonder Woman empowering, or ridiculous? Is Marston a feminist? Or, is he just getting his rocks off? It’s explored with asking reasonably questions that we’re still debating today.”
This scene also pulls from a very personal moment in the queer filmmaker’s own life.
“In that particular moment, there is something emotional I wanted to capture,” Robinson shared. “I remember this experience about when I was in college. Me and my girlfriend had gone to some local gay bar. We were dancing all night, having such a great time. We were walking home, then a truck goes by with some guys in it, and they threw beer bottles at us. It was just the shock of when you’re in your own little world, feeling free and in love, then in a split second, the whole thing can come tumbling down. You’re shocked. It’s like cold water. It’s like being dumped in cold water, where you’re just shocked back. You’re like, ‘Oh yeah, the world does see my as other. I have to be deal with it.'”
Robinson, who has worked on The L-Word and True Blood, noted that she wanted Professor Marston and The Wonder Women to move past the shame narrative that’s often a part of queer romances. “In the movie, I made the choice that the conflict was not what they felt for each other. That was always really pure.” So she reframes their story as not a seedy one of a jilted wife, horny cheat and infamous other woman, but one where each of the triad was in a loving, consensual and–yes–sexual relationship with the other two. Elizabeth and Olive are not rivals or sister-wives, but lovers. Their antagonists were note each other, but a society that can’t handle their private lives. Robinson said, “I’m ready for the next part of the conversation.”
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is now in theaters.
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