“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” and Polyamory

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women opens with a few teenagers spending the day collecting Wonder Woman comics and piling them into a red wagon. In the evening, these comics are brought to a bonfire because of the comics’ feminist and BDSM portrayals. William Marston (Luke Evans), the creator of Wonder Woman, watches the spectacle. The burning is quite a party.

The film isn’t about Wonder Woman per se; it’s about the life of Wonder Woman’s creator William Marston and the polyamorous relationship that he was in for much of his life. The movie’s deft portrayal of the intimacy between Olive (Bella Heathcote), William, and Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) alone makes it a must-see. On top of that, the movie explores how Wonder Woman arises from this polyamorous relationship and the trio’s foray into BDSM culture.

The movie isn’t completely true to historical fact. For one thing, there was no romantic or sexual relationship between Olive and Elizabeth (or, at least, there is no evidence that there was a romantic relationship between them). But it is not hard to see why the movie would add this entanglement. Olive and Elizabeth’s relationship is on display in some of the film’s most touching and intimate scenes. Though William is upfront with his interest in Olive, Olive first loves Elizabeth. Olive’s love for Elizabeth leads her to also love William.

Elizabeth’s inability to accept this love provides much of the film’s conflict. The three of them work carefully to hide the nature of their relationship from neighbors and their kids (Olive lies and says her husband and her kids’ father died and the Marstons took her in). But it is Elizabeth that reflects the culture’s norms most clearly. As a result, she suffers the most. She is eager to walk away from Olive after the Radcliffe fiasco during which the Marstons are fired from their positions at Radcliffe College, and Olive is expelled for their relationship. She is hesitant to engage in bondage with Olive and William. When a nosy neighbor walks in on the three of them in the midst of bondage, the kids get bullied at school. As a result, Elizabeth kicks Olive and her kids out. This reaction is all the more surprising because Elizabeth is aptly and lovingly described by William as “brilliant, ferocious, and a grade-A bitch.” But the shame of deviating from the norm affects her deeply.

The film’s exploration of this polyamorous relationship demonstrates that love, especially this love, is not easily defined. This film is so fascinating because it portrays a relationship and a kind of love rarely represented in television or film and does so in a compelling fashion. These are three people with an intimate attraction and understanding of one another; they do not take the concept of a polyamorous relationship in the 1940s culture lightly. But the film goes on to show the disconnect between strong women and the cultures in which they live. Societies that encourage women to be strong, intelligent, and powerful must have men who are not threatened by that power. That’s in part what Wonder Woman champions.

During the discussion, one moviegoer shared this incisive thought about the film: “I don’t think it’s about who you can love. It’s about who you can show you love.” This reality is why we’re only hearing of this story now. William, Elizabeth, and Olive hid their love from society so well we can only talk about it two decades after the last of them died. They knew there was no chance their love would be recognized as anything other than perversion and instead sought private fulfillment over societal compliance.

Feature image credit: The Lowdown Under.

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