As a film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women — in theaters now — offers up one of the most realistic depictions of bisexuality, polyamory, BDSM, kink and female sexuality that has ever hit the big screen. It has since come under scrutiny for exaggerating and fabricating elements of the real-life story on which it’s based. But a question remains: Do the liberties taken by writer and filmmaker Angela Robinson affect the film’s impact and importance?
The story centers around Professor William Marston (Luke Evans) and his polyamorous relationship with wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their student, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Inspired by the two loves of his life, Marston creates the most iconic female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman.
The movie was advertised as “based on a true story,” yet multiple historians as well as the granddaughter of William and Elizabeth Marston, Christie Marston, have claimed the love triangle depicted is completely fabricated. While it’s known that both Olive and Elizabeth were intimate with Dr. Marston, and the two women continued to live together for nearly 40 years after the professor passed, it’s unclear whether the two women were actually sexually intimate with one another.
In a guest column with The Hollywood Reporter, granddaughter Christie Marston claims she would have known whether her grandmother had been sexually intimate with Olive.
Christie wrote, “For those assuming that a grandchild could or would not know anything about their grandmother’s sex life, I should explain that my knowledge of my grandmother is not as a child but as an adult. … We had a very close relationship. … Silly societal taboos on sex and sexual preferences was a topic we covered thoroughly. Gram [Elizabeth] was very open-minded, and conversed clearly and freely. Gram was a firm believer that people should do whatever they damned well pleased; the only stipulation being maturity and consent. Gram and Dots [Olive] not only lacked that connectivity which couples have but would have had no reason to hide.”
She continued, “I can never swear that she and Olive never connected sexually, but I can say with 99.99 percent certainty that they did not.”
In response to critiques of the film not being true-to-life, writer/director Robinson wrote, “My film is based on a true story. I conducted firsthand research for the film. I’ve read everything there is to read on the subject, including all of William Moulton Marston’s writings. There are some known facts about Marston and his family. But like any work based on history, I took creative license to best tell the story from my own personal understanding and point of view.”
I’m not here to speculate on the historical accuracy of the film, and I have no desire to comment on whether Robinson’s creative license extended beyond what’s acceptable as a filmmaker.
I would, however, like to comment as a bisexual man who at one point lived with his boyfriend and that boyfriend’s wife. A bisexual man who wasn’t able to fully embrace his identity until he explored rope, bondage and other various forms of kink. A man whose sexuality and lifestyle is seldom depicted in mainstream media, and when it is, it’s either demonized or misrepresented.
First and foremost, the film is a beacon of visibility. It’s a mainstream film with prominent actors who are engaging in polyamory on-screen. Not only that, the film’s two female leads are bisexual (while Evans is an openly gay man in real life), and all three characters explore kink in a healthy and consensual manner. I don’t think the importance of this can be overlooked, as it’s huge for visibility.
Second, when many recent films or other forms of media represent polyamory among queer individuals, it often depicts the struggles that come from dating multiple people. Take Afterglow, the off-Broadway show depicting a gay married couple falling in love with another, younger gay man. The play was centered around the interpersonal struggles they face among themselves: jealousy, lying, money issues, etc.
Professor Marston excels because unlike in other polyamorous queer depictions, the issues from this on-screen triad don’t come from within the relationship. Yes, there are some problems, as in all relationships, and they work on them. Nevertheless, the main struggles the three protagonists face come from others — members of their academic and neighborhood communities who think their lifestyle is perverted, unethical and damaging to children.
As someone who is polyamorous, the majority of things I struggle with are not my consensual, open, communicative relationships with my partner(s). My ethical non-monogamous relationships have not only been my most fulfilling relationships but also the healthiest relationships I’ve ever been in.
I struggle with the flack I receive from society, gay men included. There are some who don’t find my relationship legitimate. They trivialize my relationship because, for them, commitment and monogamy are synonymous. They don’t understand how one can be committed to someone and love them unconditionally while not being monogamous. And honestly, that’s fine, and everyone is entitled to his own opinion. But many gay men go beyond that, saying what I’m doing is immoral and “wrong.” The irony is that these men begin to sound a lot like the Republicans who work so hard to strip us of rights for our “immoral behavior.”
And it’s the same for my bisexuality. The conflict I experience for my sexual orientation isn’t from within myself. It comes from society telling me I’m confused, greedy, going through a stage and so on and so forth. Because of this, many gay men and actually a majority of straight women refuse to date me. They believe these stereotypes about my sexuality and therefore don’t feel comfortable dating a bi man.
Thus, Professor Marston captures the notion that the majority of struggles I face with regards to my sexuality and polyamorous lifestyle come from external factors, not from my own issues.
At the end of the day, perhaps the film shouldn’t have called itself “based on a true story.” Perhaps it would have been better to say the film was “inspired by actual events,” or maybe it should have been advertised as historical fiction. Maybe Olive and Elizabeth were in fact madly in love with each other, just like Robinson depicted. Truthfully, though, I don’t think that matters.
Let’s not allow what did or didn’t happen undermine what Robinson has accomplished with Professor Marston. While the story may not accurately depict the real-life occurrences of these three individuals, it realistically depicts — and normalizes — the sexuality, lifestyle and struggles of thousands upon thousands of individuals.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is in theaters now.
All photos courtesy Claire Folger / Annapurna Pictures