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“Professor Marston” Challenges our Views on Wonder Woman and Feminism

Diana of Themyscira is not an angel and was never conceived as such. A powerful woman not constrained by society, breaking the bonds of a male dominated world, and doing a little dominating of her own.

“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”

The fan-community of anything or any person, fictitious or real, is often a contentious circle of infighting. Experts and novices battle each other over the smallest of details in an effort to prove themselves the supreme holder of sacred knowledge – or at least most likely to succeed at their favorite watering hole’s trivia night. And nothing inspires rancor quite like a Hollywood production of a beloved character, historic figure, or event. While scrutiny of any fact-based film is a tradition, it’s become quite aggressive over the last decade or so as easy access to information has made for a better informed (or a more mislead) public.

Here are some examples. In 2015, critics of Selma contended, among other things, that the film wrongly portrayed President Johnson as an obstructionist on civil rights. In that same year, critics of American Sniper claimed the film downplayed US Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s racism and glorification of violence. There were similar controversies surrounding films like The Imitation Game, Hacksaw Ridge, Zero Dark Thirty, A Beautiful Mind, and even Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Poetic License or Fabrications?

At issue, of course, it whether Hollywood is taking the traditional poetic license for any given film – the freedom to depart from or exaggerate the facts of a matter to create a more dramatic effect – or flagrantly inventing facts to further someone’s agenda or worldview. In most cases, it’s hard to tell because eye-witnesses have usually passed on. What we’re then left with are grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, record custodians, etc., to set the facts straight, provided they can even agree on the facts and don’t have an agenda themselves. And dialogue? Forget about it. Most of us can’t remember the exact conversations we had with our spouses over breakfast this morning, let alone the words spoken years ago. So why would we expect movie producers NOT to fill in the gaps with what they feel likely was said and done based on the overall narrative of the events? This is not lying, it’s a clear dividing line between “a true story” and “based on actual events.”

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

As I write this, a battle is raging on geekdom over the historical accuracy of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women even as it garners mostly positive reviews. The word ‘truth’ is being bandied about as if it’s a weapon, with more than a few employing Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth as a potent rhetorical device. The film portrays supposed events leading to the creation of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman by William Martson and the immediate aftermath of it. At odds are a representative of the Marston estate, granddaughter Christie Marston, who contends the film is fiction, even though it’s movie director Angela Robinson’s take on the events of the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Now, Jill Lepore is far from a hack. She’s the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributor to the Smithsonian Institute. A prize-winning professor, she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American history. Her book was meticulously researched, and while Robinson is being knocked for not contacting Mrs. Marston (she actually says Robinson didn’t contact her directly,) Lepore did, along with Audrey Marston, Olive Ann Marston Lamott, and Margaret Sanger Marston Lempe. Her book also benefited from unpublished letters, diaries, memoirs, and recollections of Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, provided by Byrne Marston and Pete Marston. Considering the experience and pedigree of Lepore and the volumes of information provided by the Marston family, I’m inclined to believe Lepore’s book is as close to the truth as we’ll ever know and that Robinson’s film plays as close to it as most movies based on biographical works.

In other words, I believe Lepore, and by extension, Robinson, over Christie Marton. But Christie is still correct when she calls it ‘fiction,’ because we’ll never know the exact details. We weren’t there. SHE wasn’t there. She bases her argument on conversations had with her grandmother who, let’s be honest, probably wouldn’t tell her about the alleged controversial aspects of her life. Since no biography is reliably accurate, we should always assume there is a healthy dose of fiction in them, even if we have no way of telling what’s real and what isn’t.

Now, before I move on to my review of the actual film, I’d like to say a couple of things about living alternate lifestyles and why some chose to not to believe there was anything sexual in the threesome of William, Elizabeth, and Olive, even though evidence suggests there was. Family legacy and reputation is important and should be protected. BDSM and Polyamory are still frowned upon by the bulk of society, even in the age of 50 Shades of Grey. If I found out my grandparents were into all that, I’d likely think they were badasses. Not everyone would. There is a certain amount of shame in being outed as many members of the BDSM and LGBTQ communities can surely attest to (and as was dramatically shown in the film not once, but twice). Some chose to shield themselves and their families from such things. Others, like Pete Marston, who was actually there, is coy about it. “The adults had their part of the house, the kids had theirs,” he says, but “who cares?” In politics, that’s called not a denial. Pete Marston, however, doesn’t believe his father ever tied up Elizabeth or Olive.

The film opens with communities burning comic books that would be priceless today, and events are mostly relayed in flashbacks as Marston is grilled by Josette Frank, a child’s book expert who railed against Wonder Woman comics. Now, some have pointed out that such an interview never actually took place. Perhaps not. But the two did clash over the content of Wonder Woman comics.  As the story unfolds, Professor Marston and his wife, Elizabeth, are laboring over two issues in their lives: Harvard won’t grant her a PhD because she’s a woman, and how to make their lie detector actually detect lies. When they bring a young, shy assistant on board, she proves to be the catalyst for finally getting the contraption to work. She’s also revealed to be a “descendant of two of history’s most radical feminists,” intriguing the older couple who eventually influence her thinking on a variety of scientific and sexual theories (or did she influence theirs?) As events unfold, the threesome’s emotions slowly become intertwined, leading to a full-blown polyamorous relationship. Early on, the same familiar question is asked as it is in any arrangement of this type. Can you love more than one person? The answer is yes, at least here, and what results is a mostly equal partnership between the three professionally, socially, and between the sheets. This is quite amazing for their time – the 1930s – where anything beyond the monogamous hetero missionary position might get you tarred and feathered. But even more scandalous was the prospect of a woman being equal to a man in any way. Unfortunately, they get outed (the first time) and lose their jobs. And Olive, the young apprentice, is pregnant.

From there, the three relocate to a quiet community and William and Elizabeth work beneath their pay grades to support their arrangement with Olive and his child. During this phase, Marston begins formulating ideas for Wonder Woman based on his DISC theory developed while he was a Harvard professor (a psuedo-scientific theory that centers on four different behavioral traits: dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance,) and the two women in his life that he sees as the yin and yang of femininity. Various aspects of bondage is explored (and integrated into Wonder Woman) and, during one of their play sessions, a pearl-clutching neighbor walks in on them. Now ostracized in their community, Olive leaves in shame. Long story short, after much soul searching and the news of Marston’s impending death, he orchestrates a reunion, a deal sealed while on his knees. The rest, as they say, is history.

A word of warning: This film is not for children. It’s not really even for comic book movie fans. It explores themes of female sexuality, empowerment, bondage, and polyamory. Even Marston’s explanation of his DISC theory might offend the more conservative among us. One scene in particular had viewers squirming a bit: the sorority spanking party. My feeling is it wasn’t the actual act of Olive spanking her sorority pledge, but rather she seemed to enjoy doing it more with every swat, all the while knowing William and Elizabeth were secretly watching. The film is ripe for attacks by those who think feminism and female empowerment is subversive or a threat. It’s already drawing the ire of some Wonder Woman fans for vague reasons that I haven’t quite been able to ascertain. Do the alternate sexual elements conflict with their more wholesome feelings about the character’s 1970s TV incarnation? Are they hung up on, frankly, the overblown reports that the film isn’t 100% accurate and, therefore, can’t be true at all?

What has always attracted me to this character are the very things some are taking issue with. Diana of Themyscira is not an angel and was never conceived as such. The fact her creators endowed her with traits that were quite subversive for their time and still very provocative today make Wonder Woman standout from her contemporaries. Wonder Woman was her own woman, and I’m glad women like Jill Lepore and Angela Robinson are reclaiming the character for who she is and what she always should have represented: A powerful woman not constrained by the limited choices society has given her, breaking the bonds of a male dominated world, and doing a little dominating of her own.

About the author

Joey Davis

Joey is a former rock star, former DJ and would-be novelist who once read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlocked the secrets of the universe.

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