Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Professor Marston and Wonder Woman and Ted and Alice

Who knew? Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) reveals how William Moulton Marston, a professor of psychology who claimed he’d invented the lie detector, created the comic book heroine to advance his belief that women should rule the world. His fascination with strong, smart women played out in remarkable fashion in his personal life. In 1915, he married Elizabeth Holloway, who had earned advanced degrees in psychology and law. Several years later, he invited into their ménage a young Tufts University student, Olive Byrne, who started as a research assistant but quickly morphed into a romantic partner. Each of the women ultimately produced two children, and they all lived together as one big, apparently happy, family. This polyamorous relationship lasted until Marston’s death in 1947, and far beyond it, with  Elizabeth and Olive harmoniously sharing quarters for the rest of their lives. (Olive died in 1985 at the age of 81. Elizabeth passed away in 1993, at the ripe old age of 100.)

 Despite the brash unconventionality of their living arrangement, the three remained strictly mum about their private sexual connection. According to Lepore, it was Olive who insisted on keeping her sons’ paternity a secret. Though she came from a line of bold feminists (birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger was her aunt), Olive seemed determined to appear conventional, inventing a dead husband who had engendered her two boys, and publicly describing herself as a housekeeper who lived on the premises. From Lepore’s account of her, I picture a tall, shy, rather awkward woman who’d been deeply scarred by her mother’s abandonment of her while passionately pursuing her crusade for women’s suffrage. (In her absence, Olive was raised by nuns.)

All of which I knew when I sat down to watch a well-reviewed 2017 film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. In the wake of the success of the costume epic directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as the ultimate woman warrior, it seemed wholly appropriate that writer/director Angela Robinson would want to fill in the public on the story behind the story of the Amazon princess from Paradise Island. Here’s my problem: I get the impression that Robinson tried bending the existing facts in order to come up with a tale that’s even more provocative (OK, kinkier) than Lepore’s intensive research would suggest.

In Robinson’s cinematic telling, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is a tall, thin powerhouse and Olive (Bella Heathcote) is a gorgeously curvy blonde co-ed who surprises both Marstons by declaring her love for the wife, not the husband. Yes, she comes around to appreciating the hunky charms of the good professor, but it’s Elizabeth after whom she particularly lusts. (Hall’s portrayal is so spectacularly dynamic that I can see Olive’s point.) If the film is to be believed, it’s Olive who personally adopts Wonder Woman’s crown and bustier, making her the physical model for  Marston’s comic book creation. And her cheerful readiness to be bound and trussed (first at Elizabeth’s hands) explains, for Robinson, the frequent moments of bondage that Lepore and other comic-book commentators can’t fail to notice. Marston, it must be said, was a big believer in what he called “loving submission.” Both book and film reveal him as a man of unusual beliefs and appetites. But armed with the facts that Lepore has unearthed from interviews and archives, I could not find myself submitting in full to a film that invents facts for its own purposes. It’s picturesque to think of Wonder Woman as a blend of Elizabeth’s brains and Olive’s physicality, but the real truth seems—alas—to lie elsewhere.

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