Jane and Kimberly uncover the secret to Wonder Woman’s superpowers in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. She’s a real woman!
Synopsis: If behind every great man is a great woman, then Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston had the good fortune of having two — his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne. In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, the two women also inspired him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time — the beloved comic book character Wonder Woman. Yet, she isn’t the Wonder Woman who became sanitized and beloved in our contemporary culture; she is the Wonder Woman with origins grounded in her female sexuality, even the thrills of bondage and dominance. Not a beginning that most people know about; just like the love triangle that inspired her invention.
If you didn’t know that this was a true story, you wouldn’t believe it.
But I think the filmmakers did a marvelous job of telling a difficult, counter-cultural story with its primary motivator being love…
Yes, at making a very unconventional lifestyle present as fun and entertaining without offending anyone too much in regards to some of the taboos revealed.
It was so good that when I went to watch it a second time for our conversation, and thought, I am only going to browse through to refresh my memory, I ended up watching the entire thing again. It touched me on a high level because of the authenticity of these three people going through their lives truly driven by their desires, their hunger, their longings – and that they are all so different. The film captures the transformation they’re going through while they are going through it. It all starts out so academic and ends up so personal.
We are introduced to Professor Marston first, this dashing young intellect who creates his own unique curriculum to teach college girls about psychology. The curriculum is about empowerment, which was a radical thing to introduce to young women in 1928. Way before feminism, he was encouraging empowerment principles. It’s no wonder he was a magnet for two very different strong and powerful women. First, his wife Elizabeth who was a bitingly sharp intellectual firebrand and then, his student Olive, the softer, lovelier and more nurturing of the two — who is more attracted to his wife than him. You could tell from the get-go that these weren’t ordinary people going through the motions of polite college life in those days; these were curious, ravishingly hungry for life people. Under the guise of testing out Professor Marston’s new invention, the lie detector, (much like kids these days will find ways to get the deep secrets out of each other by playing Truth or Dare), the triad is compelled to admit they all have non-platonic feelings for each other.
Marston’s emphasis on getting to the core of feelings in a psych course was pretty radical. Teaching psychology from feelings out is not something in real life that I experienced. In my courses, even in clinical courses, the instruction did not come from the feeling side of being human. The courses were primarily behavioral and cognitive or perception. I didn’t get into emotions until I started practicing and then feelings were, of course, unavoidable. It’s once a psych student starts seeing clients that learning about emotions of human being-ness starts. Odd, right?
Especially when we see that the significance of personal emotions is a huge part of this film, and ironically, the exact seed that leads to Wonder Woman. Here’s this man, juggling two women, and two women juggling this man and each other, all of them cohabitating together in a what we would now call very progressive. As they become more intimate and begin to learn the ins and outs of one another, Marston begins to explore costumes for his comic book drawings and Olive reveals her desire for being roped up. Elizabeth, who shies away at first, is triggered by her own adamant feelings that being roped up is somehow demeaning or shameful but finally comes around to learn something new about human desire—we are all different, we all like different things, and she too accepts the exploration. This “strange” predilection of Olive and the love between the two women inspires Marston to process it out on paper, eventually working a new kind of heroine into the superhero lexicon.
Marston began by developing drawings of a strong woman with a golden lasso who can capture and bind enemies. There’s a mid-story in here where he’s fired from the college, Olive gets pregnant and Elizabeth supports them all being a secretary. But then he gets the bright idea of creating a comic with a Wonder Woman to go with Superman and the golden rope plays a central part. His boldness in introducing a woman tying up her opponents was, at the time, completely innovative.
What I also liked so much about the film was that these were not people on the “fringe” living an alternative lifestyle off the grid. These were very engaged, productive, academic professionals choosing to eschew the norm. I believe it was people like this who helped pave the way for the openness we are seeing today regarding alternative relationships and the like. But at the time, they were so brave to choose and commit to a polyamory lifestyle. Especially the women. It doesn’t surprise me that they would inspire Marston to develop such an iconic character as the two of them were so iconic themselves.
Sexual, emotional and practical relationships have been navigated for years in so many various forms and mostly, like theirs, behind closed doors. Today, choosing a counter-culture lifestyle has become more acceptable but it’s still not easy. Back then, sexual appetites might have been the fodder for researchers like Kinsey. But what is astounding here is that Marston’s fodder was own personal life. What was even more astounding is that his fodder was morphed into a highly popular cultural character. In a way, the creation of Wonder Woman served also as a kind of gray mirror for the time—he was basically showing people, ‘hey, you are fascinated by this, but you don’t entirely realize why’. One of the startling realizations from the Marston movie is the existence of an underground cultural sexuality busting with energy that would burst forth later in the sixties. What is also interesting is that when the censorship board took out the bondage and sadomasochistic allusions from the WW comic books, it kind of meant the death of the popularity of Wonder Woman! That is until Gloria Steinem came along in the seventies and put Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. Magazine.
And of course, today we see alternative lifestyles like polyamory and others more out in the open, albeit scrubbed and sanitized by a subtle PC mentality, in popular culture. Everyone’s exposed to these options and they’ve become more of a choice.
Which is extraordinary when you think about what you and I keep looking for -— the emergence of new stories of women’s realities that can lead to new perspectives in our popular culture. It’s happening, of course, but we’re looking for what begins to emerge after women are regularly sharing their actual experience rather than reflecting established cultural ideas. I guess there’s a bit of chicken and egg phenomenon here…tell the stories and lives change; change lives and stories get told.
Yes, and what a journey Wonder Woman has had, at first becoming a mirror for an invisible part of society. Then, today we have the ultra-shiny, ultra-clean, ultra-nurturing Wonder Woman in Gail Gadot, whose only wish is to love humanity and save it from itself. Far cry from the Woman with a whip who acted out the opposite—a vigilante aggression against society’s bad guys. Oh, how things change. She’s almost turned into the world’s mother now.
Which is also interesting. She’s changed from a male-created sexual fantasy to a nurturing, healing, and rectifying archetype. Could it be that the culture is now harboring a dire need for a universal mother? I’m not so sure this isn’t yet another version of a patriarchal conscription of woman’s own sense of self.
Could very well be, as the more masculine imperatives haven’t seemed to bring us to any place of real peace and stability.
Which brings up one more thing for me that I realized was missing when I watched the film a second time. We talk a lot about how the portrayals of women in movies and TV lack a fuller, more complex and authentic experience of being female. Meaning, many films only show certain dominant cultural messages about being female that are focused around a central attribute like independence, professionalism, motherhood and so forth without an integration of feelings into their identity. This film made a good attempt at expressing the gamut of emotions and intricacies of the threesome relationship and showing us how they managed to build a life together like a real family. Yet, motherhood was strangely left untouched as an unimportant element of their emotional evolution. Olive is the caretaker of the children who both she and Elizabeth have borne for the family and yet in a scene where the women are confronted with what they “do” to keep the family afloat, Elizabeth attacks Olive saying, “He creates comics, I am a secretary and what do you do, nothing.” Motherhood is left out of Olive’s contributive identification even though it was her getting pregnant that brought them all together in the beginning and aroused the family emotions that kept them together. There was a real opportunity here to combine healthy mothering within a woman’s character who also chooses an unconventional life. That is an aspect of Wonder Woman that I would’ve liked to have seen! A woman who defies being pigeonholed and stereotyped but avidly embraces motherhood. There is an undeniable complexity to womanhood when maternal instincts are actively claimed alongside sexual hunger to complete female identity.
Yep, female characters who carve out a satisfying life while living unconventionally need validation from real life along with an honoring of primal feminine aspects. I’d like to stop splitting the Whore and the Madonna in this culture. They both live within all of us women. Wonder Woman was trying to show us that before those damn censors squelched her.
Bingo. And that’s the Double Mirror slant. We would like to see more stories slash the stigma of sexual desire from female identity, unafraid to let the whole woman in…or out.