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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

In a pivotal scene in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) dons a burlesque outfit in a shop run by Charles Guyette (JJ Field), a man known to history as the godfather of American fetish art. Writer and director Angela Robinson’s film is the story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) and his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and Olive, and this scene is key to the genesis of the famed heroine. Along with the skimpy outfit, Olive wears a tiara and large bracelets, and she holds a golden rope. While the costume itself is dark, there’s gold along the chest and red and blue lights reflect off the shiny black material; the backlighting creates a recognizably iconic silhouette. William looks on with awe and lust as Elizabeth ties up Olive in the sturdy rope, and the film then immediately cuts to him at home writing “Suprema the Wonder Woman” in a notebook.

It is a sensual, compelling scene, and an important moment for all three leads. It is also entirely fictional.

On its own terms, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a very good film indeed. It begins in the mid-1920s when married psychologists William and Elizabeth encounter Olive, a student of theirs at Radcliffe College, and follows the evolution of their relationship from intrigue to lust to love. After initial trepidation, the three form a family, with each woman having two children via William. Inspired by these remarkable women, William creates Wonder Woman in 1941, and the film ends in the mid-1940s, shortly before his death. It’s an unconventional love story, and Robinson treats both the polyamorous and BDSM aspects of the relationship with respect and care. The film is sexy without being exploitative, romantic yet frank, and often boldly raw as it delves into the emotional complications of the Marstons’ life together.

The core strength of the picture is its winning cast. While there’s much to admire here, including the excellent costumes, sets, and design of this period piece, everything hangs on the three leads. Evans, Hall, and Heathcote each embody layered, complex characters. Evans’ William is charming but unfulfilled on multiple levels, Hall’s Elizabeth is brash but frustrated with the limitations of the era, and Heathcote’s Olive is initially straitlaced but curious and ultimately surprisingly bold. The chemistry between all three is palpable from their first scene together, and it drives the film. Despite the many obstacles in their way, their undeniable connection makes it clear that they belong together.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a captivating piece, but it’s also a biographical sketch that claims to be “the true story of the women behind the man behind the Woman,” and this is where matters get complicated. It’s a good story well told, but is it the Marstons’ story? All biopics play fast and loose with history, changing details for the sake of simplicity or additional conflict. Creative liberties are to be expected. But at the same time, one also expects a certain level of knowledge and insight into the subjects, their lives, and the world in which they lived.

In terms of this larger setting, the film makes several changes to the history of comic books and the Wonder Woman series. Some are fairly minor, like the erasure of Wonder Woman editor Sheldon Mayer. In real life, Mayer was a major player on the Wonder Woman team, and he was the one who cut “Suprema” to make the character simply Wonder Woman. In the film, this task falls to All-American Comics publisher Max Gaines (Oliver Platt). Gaines is a sort of composite who serves as the sole connection between All-American and William, and while it’s unfortunate that Mayer and his many contributions to Wonder Woman were ignored or credited to someone else, this streamlining does make some sense in terms of simplifying the story.

There are larger changes, too. Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a member of All-American’s content advisory board, is elevated to a powerful position from which she has the authority to cancel Wonder Woman, and her interrogation of William in 1945 serves as a framing device for the film. All of this is done while children burn comic books to protest their troubling contents and the threat of a Senate subcommittee looms. In reality, the burnings and Senate issues did happen, but they occurred after William’s death in 1947 and had little to do with Wonder Woman. Moreover, Wonder Woman was never in danger of being cancelled. While William and Frank traded some letters about the book’s bondage imagery via Gaines in the early 1940s, Wonder Woman sold so well that Gaines let William keep doing whatever he wanted and Frank remained on the publisher’s advisory board but had her name taken off Wonder Woman. The film’s entire conflict is exaggerated and manufactured, overblown for dramatic effect. And understandably so, really. The swapping of strongly worded letters without ramifications for anyone would hardly make for compelling viewing.

The personal history of the Marstons is also changed in several ways to enhance the narrative. Firstly, all three of them have developed movie star good looks, as is the wont of Hollywood biopics. While William was portly and grey-haired by the time he created Wonder Woman in real life, Luke Evans remains strappingly handsome all through the film. The women fail to age much either, even though the story spans nearly twenty years.

Turning to the events depicted, chronology is often changed or fictional. For example, the film introduces the lie detector as a useless hunk of junk until Elizabeth notices something about Olive’s responses that leads her to systolic blood pressure, which makes the machine finally work. In reality, the lie detector was fully functional a decade before Olive showed up. Later on in the film, Olive gets pregnant soon after her first encounter with the Marstons, and the birth of her baby spurs the three of them to live together as one family. In reality, Olive didn’t get pregnant until several years after the family came together, and Elizabeth had a baby first. Near the end of the film, the family separates after neighbors find out about their polyamorous lifestyle. In reality, this separation never happened, though the bullying of the children depicted in the movie is somewhat accurate. All of these changes, along with many more, enhance the drama of the story. They also add conventional story beats to the often mundane, narratively uneven pace of real life. While it all combines to to a considerable level of historical inaccuracy, such is the nature of a biopic.

This brings us back to the amorous, BDSM-fueled encounter between Elizabeth and Olive in the back of Charles Guyette’s burlesque shop. All of the changes discussed thus far are significant but largely expected. The film is a story, not a documentary, and aspects of it were bound to be embellished. This scene is something different. It is wholly speculative, and every aspect of it is questionable. In terms of setting, we don’t actually know if the Marstons ever met Guyette or visited such an establishment. In terms of the rope play, we don’t know if Elizabeth or Olive were into bondage at all. In terms of the relationship itself, we don’t even know if the women were romantically or sexually involved.

We don’t know because we can’t know. The Marstons were very private people, and details about their life together are few. Their descendants are on the record stating that Elizabeth and Olive were like sisters, there was no sexual relationship between them, and there were no bondage activities in their home. Now, the women may not have been inclined to share such information with their children and grandchildren, but there is no definitive information to counter the family’s claims either.

There are reasons to speculate. William wrote at length about “female love relationships” in his psychological work, heartily endorsing sexual activity between women. And, as the film points out, Elizabeth and Olive lived together for almost forty years after he died. That is the most that we’ve got. With the bondage, a close reading of Wonder Woman and William’s other work does suggest a fetishistic preoccupation with such imagery on his part, but again, that’s all we know. There’s no evidence that he engaged in such activities himself, or that either woman was at all interested in it.

What we do know is that, while married to Elizabeth, William began a relationship with Olive and she eventually joined their home. Sources differ on how this came together; some suggest that Olive was happily welcomed by Elizabeth, others say that there was friction over the matter. Regardless, Marston had two children with each woman. While this tells us that he had a romantic and sexual relationship with each woman, we remain fully in the dark about Elizabeth and Olive’s connection beyond sharing William.

Robinson ignores this established information in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and centers the development of their triad on Elizabeth and Olive. While William is attracted to Olive from the start, the women are the key players here. Olive falls in love with Elizabeth first, and kisses her early on. Elizabeth doesn’t return her affection originally, then when she finally does, it’s the two of them who initiate the trio’s first sexual encounter. William just shows up after to join in. The women begin the bondage play in a similar manner: William is intrigued with it to start, but it’s Olive who chooses to don the tight burlesque event and Elizabeth who ties her up. While William ends up with all his fantasies fulfilled, it’s only because Elizabeth and Olive are drawn to each other and let him in on it.

The mysteries of the Marstons’ home life invite speculation. With so few established facts, reading between the lines is inevitable. Robinson goes a step further, not only presuming that the two women had a romantic relationship but also ignoring the few known facts about how the family came together to center them as the trio’s driving force. It’s a storytelling choice that is unsubstantiated and at odds with history, and calls into question the film’s claim to be the “true story” of the family. These decisions go beyond speculation into outright fiction.

Robinson continues to disregard history with the family’s main claim to fame, the creation of Wonder Woman. For the first two thirds of the film, one of the film’s greatest strengths is the way it presents Elizabeth and Olive as remarkable, intelligent women. William even outright admits that Elizabeth is smarter than he is at one point. But when it comes to Wonder Woman, Robinson removes the women’s involvement entirely.

After William, inspired by the burlesque bondage, describes his idea for “Suprema the Wonder Woman,” the women scoff. He then makes an appointment with Gaines, sells the idea, and ushers the family into a new era of prosperity as the character takes off. William does all of the work, and Elizabeth and Olive are shown only as inspirations for Wonder Woman. In reality, both women were pivotal to her creation.

While William did meet with Gaines to present his comic book idea, this meeting came about because of an article written by Olive for Family Circle. Olive regularly wrote up interviews with William for the magazine, and one in which he praised the potential of the comic book industry caught Gaines’ eye. He reached out to William, who ended up pitching him a new heroine, and this was because of Elizabeth. Originally, William was thinking about a male hero who would showcase the benefits of submitting to the loving authority of woman, but Elizabeth declared, “Come on, let’s have a Superwoman! There’s too many men out there.” Without Elizabeth or Olive, Wonder Woman would never have existed.

Moreover, both women had spent the past decade keeping William afloat. The film shows how the family’s unconventional lifestyle led to him being blacklisted in academia, but it glosses over his many failures throughout the 1930s. Before Wonder Woman, William had mounted countless endeavors, including psychological texts, a novel and advice books, Hollywood consulting, using the lie detector in advertising, and more. None succeeded. Elizabeth kept the family fed and clothed with her steady job, and Olive contributed by writing articles and running the household. After years of both women running the household while William flitted from idea to idea, he finally landed a steady gig with Wonder Woman.

On several fronts, Wonder Woman was the product of the entire triumvirate, not just William, and to reduce Elizabeth and Olive’s role to nothing more than inspiration is a disservice to both women. It also takes us further from the “true story” yet again, and ultimately Professor Marston and the Wonder Women fails as an accurate account of the Marstons and the creation of Wonder Woman. It’s a well-made film with charismatic leads, and there’s much to recommend it, including a thoughtful depiction of polyamory and queer romance. But while the broad strokes of the story loosely resemble the truth, the litany of speculation, invention, dismissal of established details, and changes big and small add up to far more fiction than fact.


One Response to Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

  1. Dustin Riccio says:

    I always find it fascinating when writing that endeavors to explain how Wonder Woman was “really” created in order to give credit to Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Marston has no interest in mentioning H. G. Peter. Here’s a fun fact: without Peter, Wonder Woman would not exist. His contribution was certainly a lot more noteworthy than Olive Byrne’s or Elizabeth Marston’s. I’m not saying that those two women deserve no credit (they certainly deserve some), but any attempt to make a full accounting of who should get credit for creating Wonder Woman has to mention Peter. I get that this is a review of the film, but if you’re going to set the record straight about how Wonder Woman was created why not mention Peter as well?

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