My knowledge of Wonder Woman (and by extension, comic books) is severely limited. This is partly due to my overall lack of interest in them both now as well as during my childhood. Although I would occasionally dress up as Spiderman, Zorro and a few times as a cowboy, I did not find having superpowers or being invincible particularly appealing. My childhood ideals ranged from Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Scandinavian philosophers and filmmakers like Kierkegaard and Bergman to French directors like François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer all of whom were making waves in cinema, literature, and philosophy. There was neither room nor interest for the likes of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. I am neither proud nor ashamed of my lack of knowledge regarding comics and superheroes but just state it as a case and matter of fact.
Since then, and more so in recent times, I have tried to fill some of my gaps – while others are still sticking out like a sore, if not broken thumb – and yet, Wonder Woman has been the most enigmatic and mysterious character to me. Especially considering that she is held up and lifted as an emblem of the current strand of modern feminism, I wanted to know more about her by getting to know a bit more about her background.
As a result, a night before this year’s celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to watch Angela Robinson’s movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women available on Netflix. I chose to watch it for two reasons: one, it was made (written and directed) by a woman, and secondly, as I was curious about the background and origin story of Wonder Woman, it fit my purposes like a glove since it could potentially conceal my “wounded thumb.” All I knew about this character was limited to Patty Jenkins’ movie version, which, to be honest and hype withstanding, I found rather underwhelming both in terms of story as well as filmmaking.
In contrast, Robinson’s film was impressive, especially considering that this young aspiring filmmaker has not made previous feature films before. The acting was also quite good, and there were evident moments and pieces of dialogue that made it clear that the film was not only made by a woman but that it was meant to prop up and support the feminist movement and ideology. Case in point, it starts off with a strong female character, Elizabeth Marston, who initially appears to be more knowledgeable and capable than her husband, the eponymous professor actively teaching at Harvard.
She should be the one to receive a doctorate, but the university refuses to hand them out to talented and deserving women and are even less likely to hire females and give them a permanent teaching post at the time. Elizabeth also seems to be the one in charge of the relationship, wearing the proverbial pants in the marriage. As they are looking for an assistant to help them with research of the newly invented lie detector, the professor’s evidently lust-tinged eyes fall on a gorgeous blond student of his.
His wife is not so thrilled at the beginning and perceptively and intuitively calls him out on this. He defends himself, but only feebly so. Then she agrees and relents, and this gives us the impression that they are in an unorthodox open marriage, meaning each member has the freedom and possibility of dating others outside of the relationship. Yet in a subsequent scene and after she has just declared to her husband that she does not care, she bluntly, blatantly and cruelly confronts the young female student Olive telling her not to even think of having sex with her husband. This disconcerts the sensitive student, and she runs out crying.
This was a first instant where words did not correspond with actions, and the gap and hypocrisy go deeper in another scene. During an unintentionally awry discussion regarding Freud’s term of penis envy, Elizabeth takes this literally and claims that women have no desire of having such a member for themselves. Professor Marston needs to step in to correct his wife that Freud’s statement was not meant as a literal thing but rather as a symbolic quest for power and dominance.
The fact that Elizabeth as a trained psychologist would confuse this and see Freud’s idea merely as women wanting to have and physically acquire the male organ borders on a surprising and unexpected level of ignorance given her position and standing. This put a significant dent into and creates doubts about her supposed and self-proclaimed claim of brilliance and of being ready to receive a doctorate. Other incidents and situations in later scenes of the movie would only serve to support and confirm this suspicion.
Although it may look otherwise, at least at first sight, it is really the man, the professor who is in control of the situation and the relationship. He has received help from his wife to fine-tune the lie detector, and the women, or at least one of them, may have inspired him to come up with the character of Wonder Woman, but most noteworthy, he is the only person out of the three to have accomplished something in his life.
Olive basically resigns herself to becoming a live-in domestic partner / homemaker who would engage in regular threesomes and sexual acts of bondage, while his wife, despite having so much potential, ends up as a stenographer to support this unorthodox family. Professor Marston may have lost his position at Harvard due to his extracurricular activities in his private life, but in the film, it is he who comes up with the Wonder Woman idea. In fact, not only is it another man, the creator of Superman, who helps him realize this dream, but his own wife discourages him from the get-go. When he tells her of his initiative of making a feminine comic superhero, she scoffs at him and dismisses his idea, and given perfect hindsight, we can all realize how wrong she is.
But I have two concerns here that the movie does not demonstrate or delve into. One is about the abuse of authority; the second is the dubitative message and legacy given to young and impressionable children via the character and actions of Wonder Woman. As said before, Professor Marston constantly ends up getting his own way, and he might have sneakily managed to follow and exercise his own theory of DISC theory, which stands for dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance.
He effectively uses his theory both on his wife as well as his new-found mistress, and none of them seem to fully realize this as they merely buy into and comply with his schemes and suggestions. He may appear submissive and compliant to their desires, but it is he who induces and dominates the two women that are part of his life. I am not so sure that the filmmaker realizes these tendencies herself.
Be it as it may, in the end both accept and encourage this three-way relationship. Yet the married couple of psychologists should know better and must be aware that they are taking advantage of a young impressionable woman. Their victim Olive is a young student who has had her fair share of trauma. Her mother has left her, and her aunt, a famous and rich feminist, wants to have nothing to do with her and prefers to continue with her own life and career; her aunt does not to tarnish her reputation as a feminist and refuses to help or support her niece in need. As a result, Olive grows up in a convent and is emotionally vulnerable and susceptible. Although she may think she is strong and independent, she is easily swayed and controlled by this experienced, knowledgeable, and manipulative couple she meets at the university.
Not having any parental guidance, she is easy prey. They are much older than she is, and she is their student who looks up to both, more so to the female counterpart whom she falls in love with. Elizabeth is most likely a representation and projection of Olive’s own missing mother. Yet Olive is indignantly refused and rejected by Elizabeth on various occasions, while Elizabeth always ends up giving in both to her own as well as her husband’s desires. At first, Elizabeth denies her own sexual attraction towards Olive and women in general and later she kicks Olive out of their home only to accept her back in after her dying husband pleads with her.
Yet none of this makes their combined blatant abuse of authority acceptable; in fact, their actions toward Olive are reprehensible and unethical. Not so much the act itself, their choice of having an unorthodox family, which I disagree with personally as a matter of taste and opinion, but the fact that they abuse their position of authority to satisfy their own sexual needs and desires with a vulnerable young woman. That should not be glorified, much less in our day and age, but unfortunately the filmmaker chooses to side with them and presents them as rebellious heroes to follow and emulate.
And the same applies to the legacy of Wonder Woman. She was born, it turns out, not as a liberating symbol of female empowerment but out of the lusty eyes of an unscrupulous man. It is during an experimental bondage session that he is most inspired. He dresses his Wonder Woman the same way he has seen and experienced Olive - sexually suggestive with a whip in hand. This dominatrix is seen, held up and glorified as a sign of female empowerment, but is, in fact, a sexual object, a sexually charged fetish of one man’s imagination.
It is furthermore disconcerting that the comic has so many references to sexual acts of bondage. In this twisted imagination, freedom becomes bondage and bondage freedom. The full spread of the Disc theory ranging from domination to submission, inducement to compliance is being applied to all of us, and we do not even realize this.
As an adult, one may engage in these practices - and I am in no position to criticize what people choose to do in their own private lives - but presenting and including these types of ideas and behaviors in a comic that is predominantly targeted for and read by children is morally irresponsible and unacceptable. I am aware that I will be accused of siding with the unfavorably portrayed judge Josette Frank in the movie, but the sad reality is that she is in the right and he is wrong. And this is not only the family man and parent within me speaking, but I believe it is our moral obligation to do our utmost to protect our children and youth, at least during those impressionable age brackets.
Professor Marston may say he is liberating children and young girls, but in the end, he is captivating and capturing them with sexually suggestive images, and by turn, he is enslaving them. It entails the move from being seen and referred to as a sexual object to becoming a sexual object but remaining an object, nonetheless. Wearing a superhero cap or holding a whip in your hand does not give you superpowers and does not contribute to fulfilling your inherent potential. To have women hold up Wonder Woman as a symbol of freedom and liberty and to use it as a form of female empowerment is the ultimate irony that emerges from this movie.