Kinky roots: The strange true story of the real women behind ‘Wonder Woman’

‘Wonder Woman’ creator William Marston was into kink and BDSM and poly before the terms were invented and shared his live with two women

 

Unless you’ve avoided contemporary cinema since the turn of the millennium, you’ll be well-acquainted with the superhero origin story, wherein cybernetics, extra-terrestrial birth, divine intervention, experimental procedures, or a bite from a radioactive spider transforms an ordinary human into a tights-wearing vigilante.

A new film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, goes one better by laying bare the genesis of the genesis of the DC superhero. And that story turns out to be far more fascinating than some guff about clay and Aphrodite.

Film-maker Angela Robinson had just finished shooting her 2004 cult comedy D.E.B.S when Jordana Brewster, one of that film’s stars, presented the director with a copy of Les Daniels’s Wonder Woman: The Complete History.

As a youngster, Robinson was a huge fan of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Daniels’s book introduced the Amazonian’s fascinating creator.

William Marston was a psychologist and a polyamorist, who had children both by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and by his live-in lover and former graduate student, Olive Byrne. All seven lived, reputedly happily, together in a feminist-identified household for many years.

Margaret Sanger, the pioneering women’s rights activist who coined the term “birth control”, was Olive’s aunt. Her mother was Ethel Byrne, who opened the first birth control clinic in the US.

Angela Ronimson on the set of Professor Marston and the   Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

“It was the most incredible story,” says Robinson. “The book talked about Marston’s creation of the lie-detector test, his theories about human behaviour, the bondage, how he lived with Olive and Elizabeth; I became immediately obsessed with finding out everything I could about these people.”

For years, Robinson spent her nights and weekends researching Marston, pouring over his letters at the Smithsonian, and studying his DiSC theory, which centres on four different behavioural traits: dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance.

“When I started out, there wasn’t a whole lot of material out there,” recalls Robinson. “I took a deep dive into Marston’s writings, especially this book called The Emotions of Normal People, which is amazing. The first line of it, which opens the film, is “Are you normal?” I spent a lot of time studying the historical context for his theories within the early psychology scene that he was part of.”

Following on from Patty Jenkins’s $821.7 million grossing blockbuster, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the second of three Wonder Woman-themed movies in 2017. It’ll soon face competition from Justice League, the DC Extended Universe’s belated response to The Avengers, which arrives in multiplexes on November 16th.

“It’s a coincidence,” says Robinson, who has spent more than a decade working on her film. “We made the film a year ago. It took four years to write and another four years to get made. Sony’s Stage 6 gave me the financing to make the film, but we didn’t even know if we’d have distribution. So this has been a really long road for me. Everybody is amazed by the timing, but the movie has come together and fallen apart many times. I do feel like there is a convergence around Wonder Woman happening right now. But even a few months ago the conventional wisdom wasn’t that Wonder Woman would be a hit.”

Sexual predilections

Mutterings about the sexual predilections of the Wonder Woman creator and how this helped form the bondage-friendly superheroine predate the current vogue for the bangled Amazon.

In 2014, Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman explored the unconventional domestic arrangements of Marston and his family. Lepore writes of the sex cults and “love units” that Marston, Byrne and Holloway participated in.

She also notes that Marston had a polyamorous relationship with another woman, Marjorie W Huntley, who helped with the lettering on the comics and who remained an on-and-off member of the family, even after Marston’s death.

Robinson’s film postulates a lesbian relationship between Elizabeth Marston (played by Rebecca Hall) and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), one that supersedes the initial group sex games played with William Marston (Luke Evans).

Christie Marston, the granddaughter of William Marston, has questioned the depiction of her ancestors’ relationship in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Last month, using the hashtag #LassoTheTruth, Marston tweeted: “btw the true story is much more interesting”.

Contemporaneous eye-witnesses are more ambiguous. Writing in Psychology Today, Travis Langley recalls interviewing William and Elizabeth’s late son Pete, who said that “that the adults had their part of the house, the kids had theirs, and the kids did not know what went on over there”.

William Marston. Source: DC Comics
William Marston. Source: DC Comics

Lepore’s book suggests a darker get-together. Marston, she writes, issued his wife with an ultimatum: she could either accept Byrne into their marriage, or he would leave. Her response? “Holloway was devastated. She walked out the door and walked, without stopping, for six hours.”

“There is some dispute over that account,” says Robinson. “There are certain facts in the Marstons’ life that are indisputable, and others that are open to interpretation. The film is my interpretation of all of my research. That means I have to condense time and locations and use composite characters. The Marstons led this big, sprawling life. This is just a snapshot. I started out trying to tell a very organic love story. And how that relationship inspired Wonder Woman and how these two brilliant women have been hidden by history.

“Early on, the thing that struck me the most was that Olive and Elizabeth lived together for 38 years after Marston died. That just blew my mind. They formed a family, with a lot of love, and lived together in this way for a long time.”

Bella Heathcote as Olive Byrne in a scene from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, written and directd by Angela Ronbinson
Bella Heathcote as Olive Byrne in a scene from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, written and directd by Angela Ronbinson

History would certainly seem to support Robinson’s account. As the film notes, Elizabeth and Olive named their children after each other. After Marston died in 1947, the two women lived together for almost four decades, until Olive’s death in 1990.

That’s not to deny the kink. Tim Hanley 2014 biography, Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, explores Marston’s enthusiasm for bondage and his belief in the imminence of a societal shift toward matriarchy.

Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” argued Marston. “There isn’t love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman’s body contains twice as many love-generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male.”

Writing to Wonder Woman illustrator Harry George Peter in 1942, Marston gave remarkably detailed instructions for the superheroine’s bondage at the hands of Mars, the God of War: “Close-up, full-length figure of WW. Do some careful chaining here – Mars’s men are experts! Put a metal collar on WW with a chain running off from the panel, as though she were chained in the line of prisoners. Have her hands clasped together at her breast with double bands on her wrists, her Amazon bracelets and another set. Between these runs a short chain, about the length of a handcuff chain – this is what compels her to clasp her hands together. Then put another, heavier, larger chain between her wrist bands which hangs in a long loop to just above her knees. At her ankles show a pair of arms and hands, coming from out of the panel, clasping about her ankles. This whole panel will lose its point and spoil the story unless these chains are drawn exactly as described here.”

One of the very first sketches of Wonder Woman by H.G. Peter. It was sold at auction in in 2006 for $75,000. Source: H.G. Peter/ComicLink
One of the very first sketches of Wonder Woman by H.G. Peter. It was sold at auction in in 2006 for $75,000. Source: H.G. Peter/ComicLink

“We have all this contemporary language to describe what the Marstons were doing, like kink and BDSM and poly,” says Robinson. “But they didn’t have those terms. Lesbian was barely a thing. These people fell in love and they had to figure out how to be together. They were just doing what they were doing.”

Still, it can be a tricky business attempting to reconcile Marston’s self-professed feminism and the views he once expressed to Maxwell Charles Gaines, the founder of All-American Comics (later known as DC).

“The secret of woman’s allure,” Marston told Gaines, is that “women enjoy submission; being bound.”

Unusual home life

Marston’s unusual home life, too, was not entirely compatible with contemporary ideas about gender parity. Frequently, Elizabeth, who had three degrees, did secretarial work as the sole provider for the family. Olive, meanwhile, looked after the children, while William pursued one zany scheme after another.

“It’s difficult to work out if Marston is a feminist or if he’s exploitative,” says Robinson. “There’s a degree of misogyny embedded into his feminism. And that feeds into the contradictions of Wonder Woman, who has always acted as a kind of lightning rod for discussion.

“When she was named ambassador for the UN, there was enough protest to reverse it, with women objecting to the bondage and the outfit or saying that she isn’t representative. But in this way Wonder Woman represents a lot of the debates that we’re still having today within feminism, about sex positivity and censorship.”

Deep down, Robinson may prefer Lynda Carter to Gal Gadot, but she’s not ashamed to admit she was one of the fans who found themselves weeping during Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman earlier this year.

“I did not expect to cry,” she says. “It was so emotional. But it was a bittersweet feeling. Because why has it taken so long for a Wonder Woman movie when we’ve had multiple Supermans and Batmans? We’ve even had an Ant Man movie! It was only afterwards I realised, talking to women of all ages and backgrounds, that that was the experience for a lot of women. We’ve been waiting for Wonder Woman for a long time.”

  • Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is on release
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