Category: Positive Portrayals

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Ok everyone, as promised, I did finally get to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a 2017 film, and I am going to review it for you. This also implies a bit of a review of Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2015). No spoiler tag here as it’s real life and there’s nothing particularly spoiler-y in the film. So just stop reading here if you don’t want to know more.

As I’ve talked about on this blog before, the creator of the comic book character Wonder Woman was named William Moulton Marston and had one legal wife (Elizabeth Holloway), one other woman who lived with them all the time (Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger), and a third woman who lived with them sometimes (Marjorie Wilkes Huntley). Holloway and Byrne each had two children with Marston. They all lived together. Elizabeth and Olive lived together for decades after Marston’s death.

Here is the very abridged version of how, according to Lepore, the three adults of the main family unit came to live together, which for a while seemed to be the dominant quotation from Lepore, floating about.

Marston had given Holloway a choice. Either Olive Byrne could live with them, or he would leave her. [….] Holloway was devastated. She walked out the door and walked, without stopping, for six hours, thinking.6 [….] Elizabeth Halloway Marston, a New Woman living in a New Age, made a deal with her husband. Marston could have his mistress. Holloway could have her career. And young Olive Byrne, trained in the science of psychology, would raise the children.24 (p. 118-123).

A quick glance around the internet shows that this quotation isn’t so dominant right now, which I’m glad of because I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the story. See those superscript numbers? Those are footnotes, and they explain that the source for this information is Margaret Sanger Marston Lampe – granddaughter of Margaret Sanger and wife of one of Marston’s kids who went sleuthing and uncovered the family secret decades after these supposed events took place. I’m not saying for sure she’s wrong, but I am saying that if it sounds a bit like an origin myth, there’s a reason for that.

There are things I like and things I don’t like about Lepore’s book. It’s certainly the most complete story we have. It tells of the family’s involvement in a cult of female sexual power, which is fascinating but not too fantastical (such groups were not unheard of in this time or even earlier in US history, and indeed had some connections with polyamory). It unpacks the feminism and gender roles of the time, and the division of labor within the household. It chronicles the patchy employment path Marston had, and the ways in which Holloway and Byrne earned much of the money for the household. I also like the attention paid to Huntley as a member of the family, who is often not mentioned in most reports. It’s complex, and I appreciate that.

On the other hand, Lepore doesn’t consistently respect her sources. While she takes this interview with Lampe at face value, she also blatantly balks at Holloway’s version of the events as to why Harvard didn’t grant her a Ph.D. (“Holloway was either lying or misremembering”, p. 59). The tone of her book is ambiguous. Sometimes she favors the unconventional family arrangement and other times not so much. In general, she paints a portrait of it that is perhaps harsher than it needs to be. And yet, I appreciate that she doesn’t cut Marston any slack as he seems to have had a habit of hitting on his students and that’s an abuse of power, so I’m reluctant to see him as all good.

The film by Angela Robinson, on the other hand, might tell a bit too rosy of a story. Specifically, Robinson picks up on the love implied to be between Holloway and Byrne (they kept living together, and some sources suggest they were in fact sexually and romantically involved while others deny it), and the film is really more of a movie about their relationship which Marston mostly happens to be in (except a really contrived part where he has to bring them together because they love each other and he wants to make sure they have each other even if they don’t have him). There’s a lot to like about this approach and interpretation. The women might still have been more open about their relationship with a man than their relationship with each other, and this story might be erased and need more attention. But it downplays Marston’s potential exploitation (again, that Lepore might have in contrast overplayed), and it downplays the division of labor mentioned above. Sure, Holloway is seen working and Byrne meets her at the door and takes her coat in a Normal Rockwell-esque scene. Holloway’s “deal” (one wife at work, one wife at home) is cut, which I’m glad of because of the reasons mentioned above why I find it problematic, but sad of because it glosses over an important economic reality. Not only did Holloway work outside the home, but Byrne wrote a Family Circle column from within it (in which she interviewed Marston as though they didn’t live together). I don’t think we see any of this detail in the film.

On the other hand, the film has a nice scene early on with Holloway ranting about Harvard’s lack of respect for her, and debating on the merits of Radcliffe versus Harvard. This nuanced conversation which is otherwise irrelevant suggests to me that I’m not the only one who was annoyed by Lepore’s treatment of this topic!

There are several notable absences. Huntley isn’t in the film, which is a bummer but I understand it makes it a very complex story. The cult of female sexual power isn’t in the film either (although there is a bondage club, briefly, but it’s not at all the same thing). There could be more Wonder Woman, honestly.

Of course, it’s a film and it can’t do everything. However, I would have rather had a film about these things than some of the drama we did get in the film, which I saw as contrived simply to follow the narrative rules of a romance. A lot of attention is paid to an early boyfriend of Olive’s. He has some good one-liners, but it’s not as interesting as everyone meeting at Marston’s aunt’s house to talk about how women should rule the world and have lots of  sex. The neighbors find out and the family kind of splits for a while, which I’m pretty sure didn’t happen and isn’t as interesting as simply presenting the layers of lies told about the family even within the family (to Olive’s children who thought their father, named William K. Richard, was dead — at least according to Lepore). Obviously they reconcile and we end on a nice note about Wonder Woman, but some deeper exploration of gender politics and the Comics Code would have been more welcome in my opinion.

And yet, I would still recommend watching this film. It’s a sweet poly love story and period piece. Maybe Lepore’s version is too sour and Robinson’s is too sweet, and the truth is surely somewhere in between. And I’m still uncomfortable for the fact that this is all family secrets that some family members didn’t want this talked about, but here I am talking about it anyway.

A few things about William Moulton Marston

Hi everyone,

My media consumption in general has been rather low lately, and even the things I’ve intended to write about I haven’t had time. But you didn’t come here for my apologies or excuses, you came here for some reflections about William Moulton Marsden, author of the first Wonder Woman comics.

Jill Lepore wrote a book about Marston recently, called The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I keep promising to write a full post about it, but this post is not that post. In brief, however, Lepore tells the history of Marston’s romances with his wife Sadie Elizabeth Holloway Marston as well as with Olive Byrne and Marjorie Huntley. The former two women lived with Marston and raised children with him; they later lived together for years after Marston’s death. The latter woman lived with the family intermittently.

Well I have two things to say about it today. One is that if you do not already know, Angela Robinson is directing a film about this family, called Professor Marston & the Wonder Women. It has just recently arrived in my town, and I cannot wait to watch it! As far as I can tell, the movie does not talk about Huntley at all, which is a disappointment to me. At any rate, if you’re interested in this blog, you’d probably be interested in this film.

The other thing I want to say today is just to quickly point out the CBS-now-CW television series Supergirl features Lynda Carter, who famously played Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV show, playing the US president. Cool on many levels! They character’s name, however, seems like a clear homage to the creator(s). President Olivia Marsdin evokes both Olive Burne and William Moulton Marston. I got a real kick out of this, but I’ve surprisingly not seen much acknowledgement of it around the fandom blogosphere (in comments yes, but in the main text, it seems to be overlooked). A very interesting nod!

Riverdale – “To Riverdale and Back Again”

Quick hit and quick question: is polyamorist a word? This is technically a spoiler for Riverdale (Chapter 11), although an extremely minor one, so I’ll put it behind the cut. Riverdale DID expicitly reference polyamory in its premier season, but amazingly NOT with respect to classic OT3-ship Archie-Betty-Veronica.

Continue reading “Riverdale – “To Riverdale and Back Again””

Tom Smith – “Bermuda Triangle”

I’ve written about a Tom Smith song before, but today I was reminded of a much older song that also deals with a more-than-two shipping, of a combination of historical and fictional figures. In the 1997 song, “Bermuda Triangle,” the narrator settles down with Amelia Earhart. He describes  meeting her where he has crashed in the Bermuda Triangle and the grand party going on there:

Who’s that walkin’ on down the line?
It’s Amelia Earhart, she’s lookin’ fine,
She said, “Hey there, big boy, wanna go flyin’?”
I said, “Oh, mama, get me to the church on time!”

Bottle of wine, wheel of cheese,
Amelia on my lap and my hands on her knees.
She said, “Hey, now, my boyfriends’ll be back soon,
The Swamp Thing and the Creature from the Black Lagoon….”

However, this description is not to warn the narrator off. As he later describes:

And I’ve been found in the Bermuda Triangle,
Ain’t nothing ever been so right,
I’m playing poker tomorrow with Ambrose Bierce and Che Guevara,
And Amelia’s by every night.

While shipping Amelia Earhart with the Swamp Thing and the Creature from the Black Lagoon is of course fiction, a fan-ship OT3 of sorts, the plot has some basis in reality, as our friend polyinthemedia.blogspot explains over at Polyamory in the News. Correspondence from Amelia Earhart to her eventually-husband George Putnam show her negotiation for what we might call an open marriage, one in which through honesty the pair can avoid any “difficulties […] should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.”

Lovely all around.

Rick and Morty – “Anatomy Park”

Hi friends, sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been too busy, you know, being poly. As they say: love is infinite, but the number of hours in the day is not. Anyway, back at it with… Rick and Morty.


The “B” plot of the 2013 Rick and Morty episode “Anatomy Park” focuses on the Smith family Christmas, and father Jerry’s attempt to impose a technology-free zone as his parents come to visit. Poly-licious spoilers below the cut.

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About a Boy (film)

Today I’m going to take on a film that is ALMOST canonically poly, but I’ll leave it in poly interpretations because it doesn’t quite go so far. I’m also going to delve into some of that promised overly analytical writing by connecting the film to some historical anti-monogamy movements in the US.

The film is question is 2002’s About a Boy,  based on the 1998 book of the same name by Nick Hornby. I haven’t read the book, so we’re just going to focus on the film, which addresses the concept of “the couple” through several different relationships. Spoilers below the cut.

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Girl Meets World – Pilot

Time to start doing the episode by episode mining of Farkle’s poly friendly love for Riley and Maya!

Season 1, Episode 1 – Pilot (2014)

The pilot uses Farkle’s love for Riley and Maya and highlight how different Riley and Maya are. In doing so, it articulates a key principle of many people’s perspectives on polyamory – that the literal “many loves” of polyamory are unique, full of people who are loved for their differences.

“I’ve been in love with Riley since the first grade, but I’m also equally in love with Maya.”

“The great mystery of the universe is how you could love two women the same who couldn’t possibly be more different” – BUT THAT IS EXACTLY THE POINT OF MULTIPLE LOVES as Farkle explains, “Riley is the sun, warm and bright and lights up my whole day. Maya is the night, dark and mysterious… How could I love these two different women? How could I not?”

The next several episodes play on the dynamic a little, but don’t touch on it too much. I will update soon with more.

One of the major themes of these early episodes is that the main characters are not ready for romance, and need to focus on friendship and figure romance out slowly. As I mentioned in my previous post, I worry that the overall story arc will therefore relegate polyamory to an immature, underdeveloped, or mostly platonic state. However, I am cautiously optimistic because Girl Meets World, and Boy Meets World before it, centers on the importance of many kinds of love: romantic, friendly, familial, intergenerational. The Boy Meets World dynamic between Cory, Topanga (Mrs. Cory), and Shawn (Mr. Cory) could (and often is) read as an OT3 but perhaps more importantly can be read straightforwardly as a tale of the power of loving friendships. Girl Meets World is strongly following suite, with the young protagonists as well as the ongoing relationship between Cory, Topanga, and Shawn. For this reason, I am optimistic that even if the larger story arc insists on monogamy, there will be space for some polyfriendly interpretations.

Assuming, of course, Girl Meets World gets renewed enough to HAVE such a story arc. Boy Meets World was pretty unique in following our characters from something like fifth grade to college graduation.

Bandits (2001)

Bandits (2001) follows the story of the “sleepover bandits” Joe and Terry, who find themselves in a love triangle with Kate when she refuses to choose between them. In contrast to our previous “polyandry” reviews, Joe and Terry meet Kate together as she is fleeing her painfully boring life with as housewife to a rich but negligent husband, and each develops a relationship with her.  When they begin to fight and tell her to choose, she takes a stand and explains that she feels no need to choose, and that she wants each man for very different reasons.  After much banditry, the film ends with a successful relationship as the three make their way to Mexico and live happily ever after.  However, this relationship is outside the law, and even the country.  The ending reflects well on polyamory, but only within an outlaw context.  This contrasts with the legal shows’ polygynous themes, which demonstrate a concern for legitimizing the arrangement.  The main characters in Bandits were already outlaws, and feel no need to legitimate their outlaw relationship.

Futurama – “The Beast with a Billion Backs”

Our first film review! What a fun place to start – scifi comedy! Futurama’s 2008 Beast with a Billion Backs shares a lot with Friends’ “The One with the Butt.” In both, the protagonist finds himself in an exciting new relationship with a woman, but later finds out he is not the only man in her relationship. In both, the protagonist is neither the first nor the last man in the woman’s life. In this case, Fry moves in with his girlfriend Colleen and her four other boyfriends.

Spoilers below the cut.

Continue reading “Futurama – “The Beast with a Billion Backs””

Call The Midwife – “Season 2, Episode 3”

File this one under: I will return to discuss it in more detail later.

One of the most recent pieces I have seen: in Call the Midwife, Season 2, Episode 3 (2013), the midwifes attend to the birth of a woman who shares a husband with her twin sister as the two of them have been inseparable since birth. One of those most remarkable things about this episode is how UNREMARKABLE the arrangement is. The main characters remark on it, sure, but it’s just another day. In fact, every day (every episode) in Call the Midwife shares a common theme, that love comes in all shapes and sizes. Polyamory is the Monster of the Week, but ALL the Monsters of the Week are about love so it is in fact more of the Love of the Week. I’ll detail the relationship more later, but suffice to say it is full of love and is presented as very much the sisters’ choice.