“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” Gives Us Comics History, Kink and a Queer Poly Marriage

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women may not be a precisely accurate biopic, but it’s exactly the biopic Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston would have dreamed of seeing about his queer, kinky, polyamorous life. Writer/director/longtime lesbian favorite Angela Robinson has done a really subversive thing with the most talked-about period film of the fall: She’s brought an ardent screenplay, a soaring score, and unapologetically gauzy sunlight to bear on the story of the man, his wife, and their lover who created the most iconic female superhero of all time in the hopes that she would prepare the world for matriarchal rule — and a healthy side of bondage.

Wonder Woman’s Golden Age propensity for tying up her Amazonian gal pals, spanking her companions, and monologuing at length about the foolish violence in the man’s world wasn’t some kind of allegory or 1940s quirk. When Marston presented his idea for “Suprema the Wonder Woman” to All-American comics during World War II he did so as an alternative to the “blood-curdling masculinity” he saw in Batman, Superman, and Captain America. He believed women were the superior gender, that submitting to their emotional intelligence and peace-loving paradigms was the only hope for humanity, and that part of that submission included consensual kink. It was part of his larger DISC (dominance, inducement, submission, compliance) Theory, which he’d been working on for over a decade when Wonder Woman was picked up and became a bestseller.

William Marston was married to and deeply in love with Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a stunningly accomplished woman by any standard, and especially those of the 1940s. When her father decided to stopped paying for her advanced degrees, she simply put herself through law school without him. While the Marstons were researching the systolic blood pressure test and female eroticism at Harvard in the late 20s, they met and began a relationship with a research assistant named Olive Byrne.

But that’s just the facts of the thing; Robinson gives them life.

History is unclear on who fell for whom first, but Robinson presents it as a love triangle: Elizabeth was really into William who was really into Olive who was really into Elizabeth. Which is actually the most exciting revelation of the entire movie: Olive knows she’s queer and is way more wooed by Elizabeth’s whole feminist deal — Olive’s aunt was birth control pioneer and suffragette Margaret Sanger, so these feminist ideals were important to her — than she is by William’s charm and accomplishments. Elizabeth is suspicious of Olive, but after observing her in a sorority spanking ritual, her distrust blossoms into curiosity. A quick fanfiction-worthy trip to the lie detector reveals that everyone’s initial reservations have given way to lust and so they begin their foray into the wide world of threesomes and ropes and paddles. It’s sexy and it’s sweet and it’s consensual and just so very normal.

In fact, the villain of Professor Marston & The Wonder Women isn’t anything as exciting as The God of War. It’s Connie Britton as real-life Child Study Association of America’s Josette Frank, one of the most vocal critics of Wonder Woman, and a lobbyist whose work was instrumental in bringing about the puritanical Comics Code Authority’s regulations that took over the comic book industry in 1954. Robinson isn’t interested in a good vs. evil story, though. The pushback against Wonder Woman and against Marston’s unconventional relationships form the framing device for the film, but at its heart it’s a love story.

Marston’s true love is Wonder Woman, because she’s formed from the composite of Elizabeth and Olive. Diana’s feminist ideals are their feminist ideals. Diana’s zeal for stopping war is their zeal for stopping war. Diana’s interactions on Paradise Island are their interactions with each other. The conversations and the affection and, yes, the consenting to be tied up by each other at least once every ten frames. The closer the three of them become, the more Wonder Woman takes shape in his mind. One underground lingerie salesman even outfits Olive in a suit that looks almost exactly like Wonder Woman’s costume. That’s pure fiction, but in real life Olive’s thick bracelets were the inspiration behind Wonder Woman’s metal wrist guards.

The most surprising thing about Professor Marston & The Wonder Women is how deliberately earnest it is. It’s a brave artistic choice by Robinson to infuse a queer polyamorous relationship with the same cinematic normalcy we’ve come to expect from straight love story-centered biopics, and it’s also fitting. William Moulton Marston was a man of keen passions. He never backed down from his love for the women in his life and the creation they inspired, never stopped defending Wonder Woman against the critics who saw his messages about feminism and bondage for exactly what they were, never heeded the pleas of his editors to just keep Diana away from Themyscira where the ropes and chains just kept coming out.

He wanted young women to see themselves in Diana, to see that they were able to snap the chains the patriarchy had used to bind them. And he wanted young men to see it too, to know that women were powerful and wise and ready to move past their toxic, regressive shenanigans. Marston’s dream still hasn’t been realized, but his beloved Wonder Woman smashed box office records to the tune of $821 million this year. And Elizabeth and Olive lived happily ever after, together, decades after he passed away.


For further reading on Marston and the history of Wonder Woman, I’d highly recommend Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound and Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 710 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. I started watching the trailer (“A person is happiest when they submit to a loving authority…”) and my Dom partner looked over with a raised eyebrow. Can’t wait to show my other partner when she gets home. 😀

  2. I had a chance to see this movie in a screening this week organized by Toronto’s LGBT film festival, Inside Out, and it was an awesome experience. Being in a mostly queer audience added to how great the movie was. I came in trusting Angela Robinson, which is unusual for me, and it paid off!

  3. Lepore’s book says Marston told Elizabeth to accept his *surprise!* girlfriend or get out. Far from a romantic beginning. It’s pretty gross. It turns out ok for everyone, but let’s not romanticize or cover up horrible origins. This just validates predatory unicorn hunter tendencies

    • The only source for that version of events is an oral history interview with a family member – oral history interviews, even with the main people themselves, are notoriously unreliable, academically speaking. Personally speaking, I don’t know about anyone else, but if you asked my family right now about my relationships they would not have an accurate picture of my love life.

      Lepore herself knows she’s dealing with unreliable sources because she prefaces that section with “According to one version of the family story.”

      Angela Robinson also read primary sources and did her own research and the interpretation she came to is a valid one based on the limits of what’s known and that she’s doing an artistic project.

  4. I was also surprised to see it was playing in multiple locations in my city. I decided to contribute to its opening-weekend gross. I loved it. I thought the three leads had great chemistry and I loved that it was indeed treated earnestly – it’s fully acknowledged that the rest of the world thinks they’re freaks, but the movie takes it seriously. And I have exactly zero experience with bondage myself but I really appreciated that consent and care for the person getting tied up were explicitly addressed multiple times.

    The best part of the movie was that chemistry and seriousness. The best part of after the movie was the conversation I overheard in the restroom, between the older (like 60s-70s?) women who were the only other people in the theater. Basically a bunch of virtue-and-respectability signaling about how horrified they had been and they “couldn’t tell if it was a twosome or a threesome” (um, ladies, it’s very bloody obvious) and shock and horror and oh my pearls and it reminded them of, what was that other awful movie, oh yes, Eyes Wide Shut, cue more horror and pearl-clutching…which would have all been a very depressing example of exactly the attitudes this movie was criticizing, except that it occurred to me they all could have walked out of the movie loooooong before it was over…and they could have walked out of Eyes Wide Shut too…

    So go see the movie, y’all.

  5. My wife and I live in a “small town” and were shocked to see the movie playing in our local theater. We both thought it was fantastic. Several times my eyes welled up with tears. I honestly didn’t expect to be so moved by this film.

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