I Just Finished – Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

So last night I saw this film, and on these very (virtual) pages said that it was the best Wonder Woman film of 2017. It was, because it communicated what the character was all about, which Patty Jenkins’s blockbuster starring Gal Gadot did not.

Wonder Woman was about love, pacifism and hope. She was about the triumph of compassion over war, over evil, over hate. I say she was about those things because she often is not about them anymore. In her new, iconic incarnation, she’s about women being able to be just as strong, just as aggressive, just as violent as men. That is not what her creator intended.

William Moulton Marston, who wrote under the name Charles Moulton, is the “Professor Marston” of Angela Robinson’s film. As played by Luke Evans, he’s a slightly stuffy psychology professor with an outspoken wife (Rebecca Hall) who’s his partner in research. They hire a teaching assistant (Bella Heathcote) from amongst their grad students, as professors do, and they both wind up falling literally in love with her. Bill, Elizabeth and Olive move in together, have children (two by each mother) and, eventually, face the narrow-mindedness of 1940s America when their neighbors discover their secret relationship—they had told everyone that Olive was a widow taken in by compassionate friends.

Along the way, Bill discovers the BDSM lifestyle. Elizabeth is repulsed, Olive is intrigued. For Bill, it’s the fulfillment of his DISC (Dominance-Inducement-Submission-Compliance) theory of human emotions. He believes that happiness can only be attained by submission to loving authority, and that authority is best personified by a woman.

Interlaced into the story of the unusual love is Marston’s interview with Josette Frank, a child advocate who advised DC Comics, in which he explains to her his most famous creation, the comic character Wonder Woman. He created her with input from Elizabeth, based on the appearance of Olive in a “burlesque costume” bought at a BDSM shop. Frank challenges the sexual subtext of his work, which features bondage and spanking, as well as homoerotic moments galore between female characters.

In the end, love triumphs and the unlikely marriage survives even the death of Marston.

As happens when real life is fictionalized, things are left out. I imagine a lot of the dialogue was created only in Angela Robinson’s head, as the Holloway-Marston-Byrne family was so secretive that two of the sons were not aware of their true parentage until more than a decade after Marston’s death in 1948. I doubt anyone will ever know exactly what they said and did. Some complicating factors are left out, such as Marston’s having yet a third woman with whom he was romantically entangled, who also lived with the family at times. Also his flat-out blackmail of Elizabeth, telling her he’d walk out if she didn’t accept Olive, is not present. And it Marston did not create Wonder Woman out of whole cloth and pitch her to his partners. In fact, it was Elizabeth who proposed a peaceful comic book superhero, and who suggested that hero be a woman.

Perhaps most significant is that Marston’s role as the true patriarch of his family is not shown. He believed in female equality and even female superiority, it’s true. He valued women, however, for being submissive and loving, as he believed men were not. He was not feminist, in the modern sense, in his relations with Elizabeth, Olive and the unmentioned Marjorie.

So while a lot of LGBT media is lauding this film and calling it “The Queerest Film of 2017,” (and it may well be) I don’t think William Moulton Marston is the feminist icon of a man that they might be looking for. Nor is his belief in the moral superiority of women any foundation on which to frame public policy. He, Elizabeth and Olive were fascinating, vibrant, delightful people, but they weren’t paragons of virtue.

Robinson has Martson telling publisher M.C. Gaines of DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) that Wonder Woman would be “propaganda,” slyly altering the thinking of the youth of America to believe in female equality. I’m not sure if he said that, but I do think there’s a more representative quote attributed to him that sums up his not-quite-feminist attitudes:

Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.

There are some inaccuracies in final subtitles I’d like to point out. Like most bio-pics, this one ends with “what happened next” text over the ending scene. This text tells the audience that, after Marston died, Wonder Woman’s BDSM elements were eliminated from the comic, and that she was also de-powered and lost her costume until Ms. Magazine featured her on the cover of its first issue in 1972. That’s a bit of an over-simplification, and leaves the uninformed believing that we did not have a costumed, powered Wonder Woman for over 20 years. It ain’t so.

Upon Marston’s death, his assistant, Joye Hummel, who had been essentially co-writing the strip, quit. Elizabeth’s bid to take over writing the character she co-created was ignored. The assignment went to war-comic writer Bob Kanigher, who continued with the book until 1968. The BDSM elements were, indeed, eliminated at that point. But it was not until Kanigher left the title 20 years later that Wonder Woman lost her powers and became a plainclothes adventurer. And that was done because the trend was toward heroines like Emma Peel on The Avengers. In fact, most of DC’s characters were becoming more gritty and street-smart, less fantastic, at that point in time.

See this film. It’s enchanting, funny, and compassionate. It also raises real questions about gender roles, polyamory and alternative sexuality. But, if you want the more detailed account of what went on in the wild lives of Marston, Elizabeth and Olive, read Jill Lepore’s amazing Secret History of Wonder Woman.

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