The Unicorn Scale: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

3/30/2018

How do you do, fellow Unicorns? The name’s Scale. Unicorn Scale. Welcome back to this delightful digital detour of dat internet.  And hey there, newcomers, we welcome you, too! Ready to get all bi and analytical? All righty then. Let’s dive right in.

Today we’ll cover the recent release, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a surprisingly relevant and lively period drama about the origin of that fabulous feminist icon, Wonder Woman. Released only a few months after the smash hit Wonder Woman, PMWW explores the lives of Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and research assistant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), who not only pioneered the lie detector, but whose lives inspired the origin story and tropes of the classic superhero.

All right – frequent visitors know this is where I drop warnings of spoilers and a quickie link to what the Unicorn Scale is all about. Who am I to disappoint them? Here’s the warning – WARNING, SPOILERS AHOY. And here’s the rating explanation here. Get it? Got it? Goody. And away we go.

WHAT I LIKED:

When I discovered the film’s subjects not only invented the lie detector but, as a BDSMing poly throuple, came up with most of the powers we know about Wonder Woman, I wasn’t really shocked. I was delighted to hear Diana of Themyscira came from such badass people. But knowing their story would become a movie, I was concerned the story would focus on the male fantasy of seeing two women bang.

I was so delightfully wrong. This is really the women’s story. There are plenty of steamy threesome scenes, but they’re not for gratuity’s sake. This film bothers to actually show the genuine risks these bi women are taking in engaging with each other – the attractions, the heartache, the social downfall and fears that came from same-sex attraction in that period in America. This is an exceptional rarity in modern film – to see all of these conflicts come into play is something so many bi people will feel with their whole heart. And so its win at the end feels all the more deserved.

I can’t speak from personal experience, but damn it’s good to see an example of a poly relationship on screen that’s generally pretty healthy (once they get past most of their hang-ups.) Most of the time this relationship model comes up as either a come-on to some protagonist as a party, a comedic set-up, or part of some male-gaze threesome where the women (and their personalities) are expendable. I hope that it is gratifying for poly people to see this in the cinematic landscape – for me it felt inclusive and gratifying to see this kind of positive exposure.

So, yeah. I loved the hell out of this movie.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

More of the same. Say “bisexual” (c’mon, you’re psychologists in the twenties, Marston, you know the word.) Hardly any people of color present (yes, we’re talking New England collegiate settings, but still.)  But I was so invested in these characters on their separate, fully-realized journeys that these concerns fell a bit more on the back burner.

There’s a point where Professor Marston notes he thinks his two lovers together make the perfect woman because of their strengths and faults. That made me groan. Elizabeth and Olive don’t “complete each other,” Professor. They’re wholly realized women who happen to complement each other. Also – please pull away from this Madonna-whore dichotomy of thinking with women, sir. They both contain multitudes and, as a man seeking an unconventional relationship, he should have recognized that and not bought into that mindset if he wanted to induce them into a triad set up.

I will say, though, as a screenwriter I have a quibble: enough with the interrogation-as-story-framework. At first this structure worked well for a lot of biopics (starting off with an interview as a doorway to past scenes, then coming back to the questioning scene as the film progresses). But in this particular case, the cutting-up steals away from some of the “we’ll be seen” tension of the Marstons-Byrne relationships. If the interrogation had been almost a climax where everything was on the line, it would have lent more conflict to the overall structure.

THE RATING:

See it. It’s fun, the dynamics are enticing, and the chemistry between the leads is palpable. Plus it’s just a damn good story. Maybe they don’t use the word “bisexual,” but it felt like they got everything else right.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.