Image of Olive Byrne as played by Bella Heathcote

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women | An Unconventional Life

Director/Writer: Angela Robinson

Stars: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt

A WONDERFUL BEGINNING

To fully understand the unique and remarkable story of the creators of the most famous woman superhero, you would have to read The Secret History of Wonder Woman by the incomparable Jill Lepore ( Harvard’s David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History), but this film is a fantastic start. My first introduction to writer/director Angela Robinson was the 2004 film D.E.B.S. back when I was a wee baby-lesbian. Her new offering couldn’t have come at a better time. The release coincided with a resurgence in appreciation for the icon that is Wonder Woman.

The relentlessly charming Gal Gadot made a splash in the Batman v. Superman film, took top spot as the best superhero movie of all time in the Patty Jenkins summer blockbuster Wonder Woman, and apparently was everyone’s favorite in the new Justice League film. I’m a long-time-mega-geek-comic-nerd fan of Wonder Woman and a feminist so none of the offerings thus far have been 100% to my liking but sometimes nerds just wanna have fun and ignore third-act snafus (Patty was perfect but the writers were all men and it showed in the end).

Professor Marston And The Wonder Women had a brief stint at the box office and I almost missed it. Luckily, the beautifully art-deco renovated Davis Theater in Ravenswood was still offering it.  I’m so glad I got to see it in that gorgeous little boutique theater because after seeing the Jenkins’ film, reading Lepore’s research, and watching Gadot on SNL, I was running low on wonder-juice ™.

“…infused the blank spaces that history left with plausible, passionate, and reverent detail.”

The Facts

Robinson managed to write a screenplay and shoot a film that paid homage to the source material and infused the blank spaces that history left with plausible, passionate, and reverent detail. The facts are that William Moulton Marston was married to Sadie “Elizabeth” Holloway Marston and they lived with and raised children with Olive Byrne.

  • Bill Marston fathered two children with Elizabeth and two children with Olive.
  • Olive was the niece of Margaret Sanger (early women’s rights activist, general badass, opened first birth control clinic in the U.S.).
Suffragist-Margaret-Sanger
Left-Margaret Sanger protesting censorship | Right-Suffrage Cartoon by Lou Rogers (Corbis/The University of Michigan)
  • William Moulton Marston’s children read comics and that inspired him to read comics to see what all the fuss was about.
  • Being a psychologist and inventor (he invented the predecessor to the modern polygraph with Elizabeth) he saw the opportunity to positively influence young minds via comics.
  • He aimed to cure the “blood-curdling masculinity” and excessive violence that plagued early comics.
  •  Olive wore bangles that influenced the gauntlets that Wonder Woman would wear to this day.
  • Elizabeth Marston was a real-life superheroine that financially supported the entire family most of the time. Marston wanted  to pitch a new superhero to Max Gaines–one that would defeat foes with love and Elizabeth said, “Fine, but make her a woman.”
Bill Marston giving a lie detector test and Olive Byrne taking notes
via Smithsonian Magazine (Smithsonian Libraries)

The Secrets and Lies

But facts are not plentiful when it comes to just how the relationship between the three people played out in day-to-day life, and that is probably because they did everything they could to keep it secret from outsiders and even their own children. It is highly understandable given that a throuple in 2017 would raise eyebrows, especially if they were endeavoring to raise children together and be treated like humans and not nymphomaniac monsters by polite society.

Olive was a student of Bill Marston’s when they met. He was infatuated with her and told his wife (or gave her an ultimatum that either Olive join their home or he leave it). Elizabeth Marston (as told by her granddaughter Christie) was said to have taken a ‘long walk” to think over Bill’s request (or ultimatum).  She must have said yes either way. It can be interpreted that Bill had a relationship with Elizabeth and a relationship with Olive and the two women lived as sister-wives of a sort. It can be interpreted that the situation was more like a marriage between Bill and Elizabeth in which Elizabeth tolerated living with Bill’s mistress, Olive. But there are clues in the writings of all three people that hint at what truly might have been a more fluid and synergistic relationship. As director Angela Robinson put it, “I imagined the relationship like a tripod…like you needed all three of them equally [to make it work]…” This seems to be more true to the dynamic, even given that when Bill Marston died, Elizabeth and Olive lived together for 38 more years. 

Olive-Byrne-Richard_Elizabeth-Sadie-Holloway-Marston-1985
Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne in 1985

Professor Marston And The Wonder Women is replete with lush imagery required to make a period piece shine but has the added graphic elements of a good graphic novel. Throughout the film there are flashes of actual frames from old Wonder Woman comics that more or less clue the viewer into just how much the comics were very much influenced by Bill Marston’s experiences with feminism of the time, his ‘wives’, his DISC theory, and his kinks. The film can very much be applauded for it’s non-exploitative or judgemental treatment of bondage or the unconventional relationship in general. The story is unique, romantic, and sex positive. It glorifies consent (which is what the world needs now, to be honest)  Just like the concept of Wonder Woman, at the heart of this film—what it’s all about is, LOVE.

Is this what you really want comic still

Terry Moore Poster for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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