I haven’t had the opportunity to see any advanced screenings of Professor Marston & the Wonder Women yet and, as such, I only have the majority of positive advance reviews to go on. Nevertheless, the release of that first trailer of Angela Robinson’s biographical drama film is timely. The main reason for this is due the acclaim that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman film has been receiving since its own release. But for me, its timely nature is more personal, and it has always been exactly that.
I was introduced to Wonder Woman in much the same way many children have been these past couple of generations: through her adventures in comics and animated cartoons. I even still have her action figure somewhere. It is probably no surprise that she was my first female crush: beyond an understanding of subtext, or the subtleties of an adult world. She was – and is – beautiful, kind, strong, wise, intelligent, a good friend, a symbol of justice, and love. She became, when I really think back on it, a paragon of what I would look for in my own relationships. I thought her powers were fascinating too, but as a child I didn’t think anything more on it. I liked Wonder Woman, but ironically enough I related a lot more to Superman: an outsider pretending to be human, trying to fit in, and believing I had hidden strength. The fact that he is essentially an immigrant from a place and people that had seen much death probably also figured into my relation to him given my own Jewish ancestry.
Neil Gaiman posits, in Sandman: A Game of You that little boys’ fantasies are centred around having secret identities and having secret power while little girls think about having secret families: mothers and fathers that are actually royalty or of divine origin. It is a relatively gross simplification of gender stereotypes, albeit an elegant image, and even then it doesn’t really apply to Wonder Woman herself. She knows where she comes from, and what her society is like. She does assume a secret identity, of the thinly veiled Diana Prince, homologous to the almost transparent bespectacled Clark Kent, but in many other depictions of her she is open about exactly who she is, and defines herself on her own actions in addition to where she comes from.
But I never thought, if I ever thought of him at all, that years after my infatuation with Wonder Woman and comics heroes themselves, that I would seek an affinity with the life of William Moulton Marston. I have talked about Marston and his own life to some degree in Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth and Child of Love, and I have read a great deal of different things about him many years after first being acquainted with his creation: long after I had a picture of Superman and myself as “Superman’s Best Friend” and Wonder Woman’s figurine nearby in my old childhood bedroom.
Marston is a psychologist and the developer of what would ultimately become the controversial lie-detector test. He also seemed to have be fascinated with ritualistic bondage and submission in conjunction to a particular conception of feminism. These are elements that would have been far beyond my ken as a child, though as an adult I can see how they can relate: even if I do not completely relate to them myself. From what I have seen, there is a degree of idealization involved in Marston’s philosophy of “woman” or the feminine as a benevolent and healthy form of domination symbolizing peace, and the betterment of human society. It is this ideology that greatly influenced the creation of Suprema, or the character that would become Wonder Woman and the Paradise Island from where she originates.
It’s also well known, especially now, that William Moulton Marston had two women in his life – or perhaps, it might be more accurate to say that the three of them had each other in their lives. This is what Angela Robinson’s biopic seems to be focusing on specifically: the entwined personal lives of Marston, Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway, and Olive Byrne. In fact Holloway and Byrne seem, in themselves, to be the models that ultimately led to the creation of Wonder Woman’s aesthetics, intelligence, and mentality. In a way, between Marston, Holloway’s own creative input, Byrne’s aid with Marston’s original psychological research, along with Harry G. Peter’s artistry, Wonder Woman is the result of this polyamorous relationship or at least the personal influences in Marston’s life.
The first trailer to Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, however, is interesting in its focus. The popular culture writer Noah Berlatsky in his article Not The Secret History of Wonder Woman critiques the scholar Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, stating that her research and biographical narrative – while focusing on Marston and his family’s work and link between the First and Second Waves of Feminism – ignores “the history of the closet” and “the marginalization of queer people and alternative sexualities, whether lesbian or polyamorous.” Berlatsky does make some interesting propositions, presumably looking at the relationship between Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne who lived with each other and took care of their children even after Marston’s death, and the idea that polyamory is considered “queer” with regards to Queer theory or is possible an “alternate sexuality.” Certainly, the latter is an argument that has been used with regards to polyamory, that it can be a sexuality in addition to being a philosophy or lifestyle.
However, perhaps it is better to consider that polyamory or non-monogamy is queer in itself: specifically in the sense that it doesn’t fit into a hetero-normative, or particularly a mono-normative view of mainstream society. A non-monogamous relationship structure or dynamic itself, arguably, doesn’t have a place in a social order that prides itself on monogamy as something “normal” and otherwise not deviant. This would have been especially true for Marston, Holloway, and Byrne in 1940s America in its mainstream cultural, political, academic, and economic spheres.
They couldn’t be public about their relationship for a variety of reasons. In addition to Marston’s academic and creative work, Elizabeth Holloway herself was one of the few practising female attorneys and psychologists of her time period: struggling to graduate and be recognized in both of her respective fields. The relationship they had with Olive Byrne would have been considered scandalous by many conservative elements, and any attempt to officially marry her – aside from the fact that obviously “gay marriage” didn’t exist then – would be considered “bigamy” and illegal. The closest American element that would have been understood would have been polygamy and even that, a hearkening back to the Biblical idea of a man married to multiple wives, was officially denounced by the main Church of Latter Day Saints after 1890.
There were consequences to being non-monogamous from the turn of the century period of 1916, when Marston married Holloway, to 1925 when he first met Byrne and after all the way to 1941. It is possible that this suspicion, along with some of Marston’s own radical views and professional gambles, jeopardized his reputation and kept him from gainful employment: making it Elizabeth Holloway’s responsibility to actually financially provide for their family for the most part. Olive Byrne, who was originally Marston’s psychological assistant and graduate student, made the decision to become a housewife in order to take care of their mutual children. Byrne herself had to pose as the widowed sister of Holloway and both Marston and Holloway needed to legally adopt her children – hers and Marston’s biological children – into the family. You can also imagine that they had to be careful what to tell their children about their parentage if anyone were to ask, or if they just told others what was going on. Realistically speaking, in addition to more financial hardship and social ostracization, the family could have had their children taken away from them.
I hope that, based on the trailer released so far, much of the family struggles are focused on by Angela Robinson. It seems as though her cinematic narrative perspective will be on Marston, his “Wonder Women” and their own struggles with navigating the “closet” while attempting to survive, and eventually reach the point where the inspiration for Princess Diana comes to fruition. Robinson herself is a screenwriter, producer, television and film director, and self-identified lesbian who focuses her a large part of her media work on LGBTQ+ issues and characters.
However, it is also good to bear in mind that a biographical drama film is “based on a true story.” What that means is that while some basic facts might provide the foundation of the narrative, of the story being told, there might be liberties taken: particularly with regards to character development and interpretation. For instance, there is a part in the trailer where Rebecca Hall, as Elizabeth Holloway asks Luke Evans in his role as William Moulton Marston if it is possible to love two people at the same time. This example, however, is a little more complicated as we aren’t necessarily privy to all the facts of the couple’s private life at this point in time. Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman indicates that Marston and Holloway, along with some others may have been experimenting or delving into aspects of non-monogamy: at least in a ritualistic manner. But this isn’t necessarily clear and even if it is true, there is admittedly a difference in contexts between engaging in a group activity, and creating a romantic relationship between more than one person and especially in a domestic and public situation.
One thing I’d been curious about, especially with regards to The Secret History of Wonder Woman, is if anyone else – scholar, artist, or director – had access to any of the restricted or private papers of Marston, Holloway, and Byrne as Jill Lepore had gained. I’m fascinated to eventually see the research or something detailing the making of this upcoming biopic: where we can see what Angela Robinson had studied, or what influence she uses to construct the story of this film. Certainly, her use of Marston’s own letters kept at the Smithsonian Museum according to Jada Yuan’s Vulture piece: specifically which ones she utilized, and in what context, would be interesting to explore.
Even now, I’m intrigued by the narrative perspective revealed in the trailer itself based on everything that we can glean from it, and the research out there. I’ve mentioned the “closet” metaphor already, but there are also other aspects such as comic book burning of Wonder Woman – which I imagine would make long-time comics geeks cry for more than one reason given how they are old and vintage copies of the first Wonder Woman series – and even an assault of a person that may or may not be Marston himself by an angry mob as Holloway and Byrne watch in complete horror. There is even a moralistic dissection of the bondage elements in Wonder Woman reminiscent of something that Fredric Wertham would attest to at a Senate Hearing in the 1950s or in his Seduction of the Innocent. I am almost surprised that there weren’t accusations of “un-American” homosexuality or “lesbianism” mentioned in the trailer, though there is still time to see it in other trailers or in the film itself when it comes out.
What really gets my attention, however, is Holloway telling Marston that he is “going to be hurt” by his feelings for Byrne, and how Marston replies, when asked what his character has a secret identity, that “she has to hide herself from Man’s World.” There is an image of someone playing with a transparent figurine of a plane that is meant to be Wonder Woman’s invisible plane – something hiding itself by its very nature in plain sight – and then another exchange where when asked what would happen if Wonder Woman’s secret identity were revealed, Moulton states, “Then everything would be lost.”
Even Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote, notes to Marston in what seems to be one of their first meetings that he seems to yearn for an “unconventional life.” It is fascinating when I think back to Neil Gaiman’s words about boys and girls and their identities with regards to stories. Wonder Woman herself has had many different interpretations over the years depending who wrote her and what time period she is created in, but I think here is where it really gets interesting. Ancient Western philosophy, which is appropriate given how Wonder Woman supposedly has mythological Greek origins, has this notion of “woman” or the feminine as an idea: sophia meaning wisdom and philos the love of it. Sophia can also be a Gnostic goddess of wisdom, but really it is the idea of “woman” as a symbol for something else.
For me, I think the focus of the trailer really comes down to the end where the woman Marston talks with flat-out ponders “I wonder if you are the one with the secret identity.” Wonder Woman and her stories, at least her early stories can be construed as Marston attempting to express his own ideology: of submission to a loving authority, and spreading that message to a world of patriarchy embroiled in nationalism and World War. Marston has even gone on record stating that it was his intent to create Wonder Woman to promote these ideas. Yet at the same time, Wonder Woman is supposedly created from the two women in his life with regards to their looks and feminist ideals, and much attention in the trailer is made about the fact that he uses the pen name “Charles Moulton.”
However, the trailer at least seems to indicate that the real secret identity of Wonder Woman isn’t so much Diana Prince in this context, but rather William Moulton Marston and the ideal life that he so desperately wants to make into a reality. The story seems very focused on him attempting to create something new but also maintaining a life in 1940s America while struggling with his own socially unacceptable desires. There are some indications that Elizabeth Halloway is also attempting to do something similar and that the dynamic with her and Olive Byrne begins with Marston, but it doesn’t end there: even as Holloway seems to be asking Byrne if she is sure about her choice in the matter.
I don’t know if I am doing this observation justice. Certainly, there is a lot more research out there, and more than can be done just with this snippet alone. But this potentially queer reading of Wonder Woman and the lives of its creator and inspirations, at least in a non-mono normative sense does put these characters in another perhaps more intersectional light. Marston and his family can’t officially exist in Man’s World: in the patriarchal society of their time. Even their structure is relatively problematic as Marston is expected to be the “breadwinner” and head of the family, and he has internalized these aspects while perhaps seeking to relinquish them at times in a bondage context of gender interplay. And Holloway and Byrne also seek their own freedom from the system, but they still needed Marston as that male figure to give them at least the appearance they need to help their family survive in a material and financial sense.
Wonder Woman represents a world that at least Marston wanted to exist. And it is telling that her one true weakness, hers and that of her Amazon sisters, was letting themselves be bound willingly by men. There is definitely a patriarchal resonance there: the idea that once you willingly give up your freedom and ideals to an unworthy master, such as a conservative or brutal society, you will lose yourself forever. You will either become an indoctrinated slave, or you will be destroyed at the leisure of others. However, by embracing the feminine or the divine goddess archetypes, you could subvert the power of man – of patriarchy – and with a kind and wise master release yourself. But only the imprisoned person can find the strength of will to do so.
It is a lot to unpack, and I am not a psychoanalyst. As I may have indicated, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film for a long time. But even I wasn’t prepared for what the trailer revealed. There is this animated webseries called How It Should Have Ended where there is a recurring Superhero Cafe segment between Superman and Batman. Their interpretation of Batman is this silly man who is always asking any woman that comes nearby if they want to know his “secret identity.” It reminds me of my first impression of meeting a man who was polyamorous years ago, with two loud partners of his on either arm, crashing another event of which I was a part. There are people, particularly but not always men, who flaunt this side of them in an unwanted and often intrusive manner.
I didn’t like what I saw. I’d known about polyamory before, having studied a few New Age and neopagan movements: not unlike the explorations and different societies that were forming at the turn of the century and in particular the 1920s in Marston’s time I would imagine. But even then, I wonder how different it would have been if the people I saw had been in a more public setting.
I also didn’t know who or what I was then. There were things that scared me and felt unseemly and wrong even as something, that feeling of making connections – of starving for them – was still there. And I didn’t have a new for them, and they terrified me. But I have referenced Clive Barker before in which much of his horror is centred around the fact that his protagonists fear what they desire. Perhaps in a lot of ways, that fear is the result of social conditioning, and the desire is something that could have been different if it had been faced or talked about in a more accepting situation.
For a long time, I was lucky to know people – fellow geeks – who understood these matters better than I, and I learned from them as I went along. But it isn’t the norm, even now, being polyamorous. I didn’t know about the connection between Wonder Woman, its creators, and polyamory for a long time. Honestly, I don’t even remember when I finally discovered that link. But even though I had people who loved me and tried to guide me, I wished that I had something of a structure that could have introduced me to this from the beginning. In a lot of ways, I wanted to find other people like me.
I already knew that Robinson would be bringing an LGBTQ+ or queer exploration into her interpretation of Marston, Holloway, and Byrne’s lives, but it wasn’t until Marston was confronted in the trailer by Byrne with regards to his desires, and then later about his own “secret identity,” that it really hit home for me. Marston was, presumably, a cisgender heterosexual white man who nevertheless found himself in love with two women at the same time: two women who eventually gained a close bond with one another, and helped him create both a family, and a whole new fictional world. As someone who is poly or non-monogamous in a society that is still the opposite, it is the closest I can come to understanding one crucial aspect about the dichotomy of family and identity with regards to people who are homosexual, bisexual, or transgender: that sometimes you don’t have a mentor or a role model to look up to. Certainly, finding a positive male role model to this regard is a challenge in and of itself to this regard, or having this sense of identity being made into something of a spectacle as opposed to being what it is: something you need to discover.
But sometimes you need to find that role model in yourself. Sometimes you need to discover that hidden power and your real identity. And sometimes, you need to create your own family: the ones that you choose, and the ones that choose you.
The Amazons of Marston’s world, Paradise Island or Themyscira, didn’t choose not to fit into the ancient world from which they came. They were tricked into being bonded to Hercules and other men. But they chose to serve the goddesses, that impulse beyond the society and norm that they knew, and they decided to take their pain and experiences: to rework them and attempt to build something new. They made the choice not to give up, to break out of their shackles through one means or another, and to make their own noble, divine family. Wonder Woman herself is practically a golem made by the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, with the blessing of the gods themselves, to embody their ideals. And through a rare feat of wisdom and compassion, they shared this through Diana with Man’s World: even as sometimes she has to be in that invisible plane, living in plain sight as Diana Prince, to slowly acclimate the world to herself, and what she believes in: to do good.
I know that William Moulton Marston is not a perfect person, and we are not completely alike. Even without some of the reading I’ve done, I would have known that. He and his family may have lived on that invisible plane. He was still affected by Man’s World and I wonder if he knew that he was: even with his best of intentions warring with his own natural selfishness, and his dreams. Marston and his family are not the norm in any society, mainstream or not – no one’s is – but it makes me happy to think that it did exist, in some way, and that Angela Robinson will tell the story of how it tried to survive and bond itself to the idea of a benevolent authority – of a dream of a hero – if nothing else. I think I would like that: for a boy who was once Superman’s Best Friend, for a man who I can relate to because he had a secret identity – even if it was only an open secret, and for the women in my life. In a way, with even just this much and in the wake of the fresh air and relation of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, with the promise of Professor Marston & the Wonder Women I think I’m beginning to almost understand what so many female viewers have been feeling.
I will admit, that some of the promotional material – particularly the otherwise beautifully created comics piece above – and attitudes around the subject of their relationship does feel a little like the spectacle I am hesitant to associate with something that means so much to me, and others: as if their relationship is some kind of salacious novelty one way or another as opposed to something between consenting adults and their family attempting to deal with the world. I do understand there is a line between fact and entertainment with regards to the biopic genre, as well as a need for audience hooks and advertising, but it is my hope that the film will focus more on the human aspect of the relationship and the creation of Wonder Woman.
Even so, in light of some of the reviews and what I’ve seen of this trailer I feel a hint of what it is like to possibly be represented. And, right now, it feels great to loosen my bonds that I let other people make for me. As I go on, I hope to break them just a little more.