Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

September 16, 2017

Were the "Wonder Women" in the Marston triad sexual partners? Yes, despite Men's Health mag.

A careless writer/editor at Men's Health magazine is dismissing the idea that Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, the women in the long-term triad that birthed Wonder Woman, were bisexual partners — as dramatized in the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women coming out next month. Deputy editor EJ Dickson didn't read enough from the source she cites.

Here are the relevant parts of Dickson's article (Sept. 14), starting with the title:

No, Wonder Woman Is Not Based on a Threesome

By EJ Dickson

...It is true that the creator of Wonder Woman was in a secret polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman — a situation that, while not unheard of, would be considered shocking even by today’s standards. ... But there is a distinction between polyamory and group sex, and despite the trailer’s soft-focus shots of Sapphic love and BDSM paddles, there’s no evidence in [Harvard historian Jill] Lepore’s book [The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a source for the movie] to suggest that Elizabeth [Holloway] Marston and Olive Byrne had a sexual relationship of any kind.

...So while the threesome angle might make for a good story or a steamy trailer, it’s not exactly accurate to say that Wonder Woman was inspired by a bunch of sexy early 20th century feminists going down on each other.

Jill Lepore
In fact, Lepore quotes the actual Elizabeth Holloway, who was usually reticent about her household, acknowledging later in life that among the trio there was "lovemaking for all".

There's more in Lepore's book, as Noah Berlatsky summarized in an article in the Atlantic, The Free Love Experiment That Created Wonder Woman (online Oct. 17, 2014):

Lepore reports... that the Marstons had a polyamorous relationship with another woman, Marjorie W. Huntley, before they met Byrne, and that she remained an on-and-off member of the family long after Byrne arrived, helping out with the inking and lettering of the Wonder Woman comics in the 1940s, and occasionally staying with Holloway and Byrne after Marston's death. Further, Huntley, Byrne, Holloway, and Marston all participated in what Lepore describes as a "sex cult" in 1925-26 at the home of Marston's aunt Carolyn. [Typewritten minutes of the group's meetings were kept and still exist.] Participants celebrated female sexual power, dominance, submission and love by forming “Love Units” consisting of multiple partners, including Love Girls who "do not … practice … concealment of the love organs."...

Lepore's book focused on Wonder Women's role in bridging the supposed gap in feminism between the suffragette era and the 1960s. In 2015, Berlatsky criticized Lepore's own seeming prudery in keeping the sexual content too discreet. Writing in The Guardian:

Super sexy Wonder Woman shows that violence isn't the only way to battle evil

...As more women have become fans of superheroes in recent years, this sexualization [of comics characters] has come in for criticism. Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, repeats some of the objections in a recent review of the new all-female Avengers title A-Force. ... “They all look like porn stars,” she complains.

...Wonder Woman’s creator, though, had a different take. As Lepore notes, Marston, his wife Elizabeth, and their polyamorous lover Olive Byrne, wrote a letter together in which they explained: “This family believes [pornographic magazines] furnish splendid material with which to teach children that the most lovely and sacred thing in the world is a real woman’s body.” Marston believed that looking at women’s bodies was a healthy, pleasurable and even sacred activity – and not just for men. ... Marston referred to lesbian love as “perfect” — in his scholarly books he argued that women who slept with other women were superior lovers and mothers. ... [Wonder Woman's] lasso itself, Marston explained, was a “symbol of female charm, allure, oomph, attraction” and of the influence that “every woman has … over people of both sexes”.

[Yet] Lepore sees eroticized images as ridiculous, unpleasant and opposed to women’s interests. ... Allure is not power, Lepore insists, but “the absence of power”. When superheroines are sexy, she says, “their bodies are not their own. They are without force.” But that default assumes that the only kind of force that matters is violence, and that sex or love are automatically less valid, less interesting and less ennobling than hitting people. Superhero stories often present that as truth – but, as you’d think Lepore would know, Wonder Woman had a different vision.

As did her creators. The whole article (May 14, 2015).

Maybe that Men's Health writer has male-centering issues. Consider the assumption behind this:

...We do know, however, that Holloway and Byrne had their own adjoining bedrooms so Marston could travel back and forth between both without attracting their children’s notice — a scenario that most dudes would probably love, but seems somewhat implausible from an architectural layout perspective.

It never occurred to her that the door between the women's bedrooms allowed them to go back and forth too? No, because sex is really all about the guy, right?


It is, however, fair to say that Marston’s sexual proclivities were fascinating ... if not exactly applicable to everyday life. (You try convincing your wife to let you have sex with another woman in the name of feminism.)

Polyfamilies are waving hellooo?

And in any case, polyamory is not all about the sex.


Elsewhere, more reviews of the movie are coming in:

● From New York magazine / Vulture.com ("Devouring culture"): Finally, a Movie About the Kinky Threesome That Inspired Wonder Woman (Sept. 13, 2017)

By Jada Yuan

If you’re a comics superfan, or have read Jill Lepore’s 2014 The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Fresh Air episode here), you already knew this. You’re also probably in the minority, judging from the tittering gasps that kept erupting around the theater during the world premiere of Professor Marston & the Wonder Women ... at the Toronto International Film Festival. I can’t wait to see what happens when the millions of fans of the Gal Gadot–Patty Jenkins blockbuster accidentally (or very intentionally) stumble upon this one. It’s quite the female-on-female-on-male bodice ripper.

And what incredible timing, too. Director Angela Robinson (The L Word, True Blood) actually started working on the script eight years ago, and it took a village of extremely smart queer women (Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures is the U.S. distributor, and Jill Soloway is listed as an executive producer) to bring it to life at the perfect moment to capitalize on the momentum of this summer’s $816 million megahit. But apparently, it’s all coincidental: Robinson — a lifelong Wonder Woman fan who’d stumbled upon the story of the Marston family by accident and then dug through primary sources like Marston’s letters at the Smithsonian Museum to tell it — had almost given up on her project when the one-two of Jenkins’s film being announced and Lepore’s book coming out suddenly sent interest through the roof. Still, it’s insane that pop culture went over 70 years without a big-screen depiction of the Amazonian super-warrior, only to have two movies dedicated to her, both from female directors, coming out within four months of one another. (Marston hits theaters on October 13.)

...And, wow, is the casting perfect. Evans, Hall, and Heathcote drip with chemistry, no matter who’s paired up with whom.

Their secret, though, doesn’t stay that for long. This is the 1920s, and the consequences are severe: loss of relationships, loss of jobs, loss of prospects. And it is here that Robinson begins making the links between the throuple’s life and what Wonder Woman would become. ... William, it seems, made Wonder Woman an Amazon as a way of living out his fantasy that the brilliant women of his life could be anything they wanted to be, free from the limitations of Man’s World — a lesson he hoped to pass on to young girls. Likewise, Wonder Woman’s frequent exclamation, “Suffering Sappho!” refers to the Greek poet from the isle of Lesbos who is widely used as a symbol of female homosexuality. “Passionate devotion between women is natural,” he tells one of his lecture classes.

But Marston, the movie, is simply a love letter to the amazing people who inhabit it. ...

● A rave from We Live Entertainment: An Arousing and Emotional Origin Story (Sept. 10)

By Scott Menzel

...Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is that rare biopic that reels you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. ...

I don’t often label a film as arousing or sexy, but Professor Marston and The Wonder Women certainly is. I love the fact that film never needed to be explicit in order to be sexy. It relies more heavily on the facial reactions and body language rather than the actual act. It is so funny to me that most Hollywood studios go out of their way to make erotic dramas like 50 Shades of Grey, and yet a film like this one is 100 times more effective in doing so.

...Evans, Hall, and Heathcoat deliver electrifying performances and some of the best performances of the year. The chemistry between these three actors is some of the best that I’ve seen in quite a long time. You believe every single emotional moment and your heart breaks whenever one of them is in pain.

As someone who believes strongly in monogamous relationships, I found myself completely engrossed in the film’s exploration of a polyamorous lifestyle. I feel like in most films whenever these types of relationships are explored they are always a phase that couples go through, or something someone tries once and ends badly. In this film, which is based on fact, they all love one another and it’s more than just sexual attraction. Sure, it has something to do with it, but there are plenty of moments where the trio are just having conversations and they even manage to raise children together.

There is a genuine love between William, Elizabeth, and Olive which is present in the film from the first 20 minutes until the very end. ... One of my top picks for the must-see film of the year.

Rating: 9.5 stars out of 10.

● The Daily Beast reviewer has an opposite view: Orgies, Psychology, and S&M: The X-Rated Origins of Wonder Woman (Sept. 15)

By Richard Porton

...Even for a biopic, a notoriously undistinguished genre, Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival) is largely dismissible. The dialogue — the script was also written by Robinson — is often either laughably campy or earnest, the music surges heavy-handedly in intensely dramatic scenes, and the actors, particularly the bland Luke Evans in the title role, seem palpably uncomfortable throughout most of the film.

Yet despite Professor Marston’s clunky construction and cinematic clichés, it’s a supremely well-intentioned film that at least attempts to discuss the social and political context of pop culture.

...Unfortunately, the group grope between Olive, Elizabeth, and Marston that approximates an “orgy” is a demure soft-core misfire. The ménage á trois’ discovery of sadomasochism is even more risible. The shenanigans resemble a PG-rated version of The Story of O.

...Rebecca Hall’s confident performance as the exuberant, but brittle, Elizabeth Marston is the movie’s one crowning glory. Otherwise, despite an intriguing premise, this is not a particularly wondrous biopic.

● The LGBT pop culture site NewNowNext.com published one of the many interviews that writer-director Angela Robinson is giving: The True Story Of Queer, Poly Creator Of Wonder Woman (Sept. 15)

Director Angela Robinson with Bella Heathcote and Luke Evans (Getty)

By Trish Bendix

...“I kind of feel like there’s this Wonder Woman renaissance,” Robinson said. “I feel like there’s been a resurgence of interest in Marston and Wonder Woman and that is all kind of feeding each other. ... Actually, I feel like the reason she is [now] such a success is that she has really fresh ideas, and people are really hungry for those ideas. And I thought it was important to kind of honor these people who inspired her and to kind of look at how it all began, because it was very deliberate on their part to inject these ideas into Wonder Woman.”

...Elizabeth and Olive were as romantically and sexually involved with one another as they were with Marston, and they both bore his children, which led to most of their secrecy, as to protect their three sons and one daughter. But the individual strengths of the women in his life, as well as their shared affection for bondage (something also quite taboo, as well as illegal) led to Wonder Woman, the character, as traits from Elizabeth and Olive both informed the character that appeared in the earliest popular (but highly controversial) comic books.

...Perhaps because Robinson is herself a part of the LGBT community, and has both written and directed numerous queer-focused projects that have included sexually explicit material (from The L Word to True Blood to Hung), even the most erotic of moments in Dr. Marston & The Wonder Women are portrayed romantically rather than voyeuristically. Their shared interests in BDSM and group sex are displayed under the guise of a love story rather than a lust-filled menage a trois.

“I didn’t want to otherize their experience at all,” Robinson said. “I just wanted to show how this could organically happen, and I wanted the audience to feel what you feel like when you fall in love…. I wanted to really bring the audience inside what I imagine the experience would be so that you’re really rooting for them.”

And because there were no terms for identities or orientations or sexual specificities at the time, they also don’t appear in the film.

...Marston passed away in 1947, but Elizabeth and Olive remained together until Olive died in 1985. Elizabeth lived until age 100, dying in 1993. Although their children and grandchildren are still alive, Robinson said she made a “conscious choice” not to consult any of them for the film, looking for “the freedom to explore a lot of the controversial themes that you see throughout the story without any pre-convinced notions about it from anybody.”

“I did a ton of research,” she said. ” but I wanted to kind of come to my own interoperation of what I thought the story was without — I wanted the freedom to explore without feeling I was being swayed by others.”

...“I feel like the time is right to kind of honor their story, but without shying away from what their story is, and trying to ignore those aspects that I don’t think should be ignored.”

● The movie's Facebook page.

All my posts about news of the movie (including this one; scroll down).

● Again: If you're in a polygroup yourself, consider planning a response for when this movie hits theaters October 13th.




Blogger Viktor Leberecht said...

Great reporting, Alan.

It seems though that there are contradicting statements.

One of my readers made me aware of a Facebook post by Christie Marston, a grandchild of Marston, who is very active in promoting the legacy of Wonder Woman. She wrote about Lepores book calling it "blatantly fictional".
It would seem the evidence is not clear here:


I have reached out to her by Facebook and Email but have not gotten an answer yet.

Kind regards, Viktor

September 17, 2017 5:07 AM  
Blogger Viktor Leberecht said...

Marston though does say on other Facebook posts she does not have a problem with the women having a sexual relationship. It is, according to her, just not true

September 17, 2017 5:19 AM  
Anonymous Joey said...

Thank you for very enlightening post. I saw the movie last night and, after posting a review of it in several facebook Wonder Woman groups, have found myself in several lengthy discussions on the supposed innaccuracy of the film. Front and center in opposition to the movie is Christie Marston. I findit odd that her reasons for not being happy have evolved. Back in September, on one of her facebook posts, she stated her "objection is it's being sold as a Marston bio. The writer not only did not know any of the people; she never even asked anybody who did know them. How on earth can something from a writer's imagination be pimped as a true story?!? I find that not only rude, but annoying."

Today, her issue is a really minor alteration in how the Wonder Woman character was presented to the comics publisher and (dramatic music) it portrays Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne as lovers. On the latter issue, her denial that the two were sexually involved is so vehement it almost it seems personal, like she is offended at the prospect of it.

As for her original reason for opposing the film, it's pretty well known the movie drew much of it's source material from Jill Lepore's book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a work that I'm pretty sure Marston didn't have objections too many objection to. As you're probably aware, 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. She's a prize-winning professor who teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American history. Her book was meticulously researched with source material obtained from 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.

The fact is, Christie Marston only knew Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne when they were both elderly but still lifelong roommates. She says they were close and if they were romantically involved at anytime, they would have told her. Now, we can choose to accept Christie Marston's word that their relationship was only sisterly, or we can use our common sense and life experience to recognize lifelong partners when we see or hear of them. I'll leave that up to you, the reader.

But keep in mind, Christie Marston, a granddaughter, never knew William Marston and was only close to Elizabeth and Olive near the end of their lives. Pete Marston, the son of William and Elizabeth, has a somewhat different take. “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.

Long story short, I tend to believe Lepore, and by extension, the film's director Angela Robinson whose only real sin seems to be not being able to give a good interview and handle scrutiny.

My only lingering question is why Christie Marston is raising such a stink? I have my theories, but that's for another time.

October 16, 2017 7:56 PM  

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