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

October 23, 2017

Marston movie wins more poly plaudits, sinks at box office; director and angry granddaughter face off in print

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women continues to get good notices, especially from the polyamory world, even as attendance sinks after a poor opening week. Perhaps one problem was that four other biopics opened the same week, based on characters from Thurgood Marshall to Winnie the Pooh. This week Marston is showing in 959 theaters compared to 1,229 when it opened. Go see it while you can. You really don't want to miss this.

Vice discusses how thoughtfully and respectfully the movie treats a poly relationship compared to every other cinema treatment before now:

'Professor Marston' Is a Trailblazer for Polyamory in Film (Oct. 19):

By Jill Gutowitz

...It's not often the poly community sees themselves represented fairly on screen, but Professor Marston's message is clear: Polyamory is both sustainable and respectable.

..."I didn't necessarily come at it as, 'I want to tell a poly story,'" [director Angela] Robinson told me. "I wanted to tell a very organic love story between three people." Robinson said she's been surprised and warmed by the film's warm reception from polyamorous and queer critics, and agrees that she hasn't seen any other films that portray polyamory quite like Professor Marston does.

"I have never seen polyamory centered or treated with respect in a movie before ever in my life," Gaby Dunn told me. Dunn, a bisexual YouTuber and author (I Hate Everyone But You), has advocated for polyamory much of her adult life. "It was beautiful to see that yes, you can love more than one person, and have a family, and be happy."

It's more often that characters will use polyamory as a cheap plot device or for comic relief, with filmmakers asking the audience to laugh at a polyamorous character's misgivings rather than connect with them emotionally. Take the idea of a "hall pass," like in the 2011 film Hall Pass, or the 2017 film Permission, in which an open marriage is used as a device for the primary partners to come back to each other. Or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) or Swinging With the Finkels (2011) which explore swinging. Films like these treat polyamory with the gravitas that television's Arrested Development gives to Lindsay and Tobias Fünke, who open their marriage and constantly sabotage each other (or themselves) in their search for casual sex....

Non-committal sex with multiple partners pops up throughout film history, especially in comedies, like Friends With Benefits (2011) and No Strings Attached (2011). The 2015 dramedy Sleeping With Other People follows a womanizer who meets his match in a serial cheater, but they ultimately find monogamy in each other. Communal living situations have been touched on, like in David Wain's Wanderlust (2012). However, the people of the commune are seen as freakish by the conventional protagonists, and the male character is shamed for his wandering mind and libido. And unlike A Home at the End of the World (2004), Professor Marston's poly relationship doesn't break due to jealousy.

...The few times when polyamory has been portrayed positively in film, it hasn't been placed front-and-center in quite the way it is in Professor Marston. Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) features a polyamorous triad that's balanced, respectful, and doesn't crumble due to monogamous covetousness — but it's not a driving plot. Conversely, Oliver Stone's Savages (2012) positions a polyamorous triad as the central focus, but the film was criticized by bloggers in the community for its nebulous, thoughtless view of multiple partner-relationships.

The most notable difference between Professor Marston & The Wonder Women and its predecessors is the role of the female gaze. While films like Savages and Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel voyeuristic and at times lewd, sex scenes in Professor Marston overflow with intimacy, sensuality and respect. This was intentional; Robinson told VICE that she focused on shooting the characters' faces and desires, rather than their body parts....

● Leigh Monson at BirthMoviesDeath.com adds Design for Living and 5 to 7 to the list of movie comparisons: Professor Marston And The Polyamorous Perspective (Oct. 12).

The Wonder Woman creator's biopic is an enormous milestone in representation. ... Non-monogamous relationships [have been] almost exclusively the purview of lying cheaters — which is not polyamory, that's just cheating — and bizarre weirdos meant to be an object of derision or comic relief. (The sexually aggressive swingers from Rough Night come to mind.)

● Sophie Cundall makes similar movie comparisons, adding to the list À Trois on y Va (released in English as All About Them): The Power of Three (Oct. 21).

● Joreth Innkeeper, in her series of Poly-ish Movie Reviews, sees a particular reflection in the movie of real poly life: Episode 29 – Professor Marston & The Wonder Women (Oct. 17):

The modern poly movement is largely considered to be a feminist movement. Most of its more vocal "leaders" are women and nonbinary people, with only a handful of cismale names attached to the shaping of our communities and our philosophies. ... When women find a community that embraces our sexuality and our relationship freedom, we choose multiple partnerships of our own. ... [When men] attempt to form harems through the poly community, they often find it backfiring on them, as the women discover themselves and their power through the love of other people and the supportive network that polyamory provides....

I felt this fact of the polyamory experience was paralleled in the movie itself. The movie title only names the man and implies the women, but throughout the movie, it is the women who drive the relationship. I feel that this is the experience of many women in the poly community — overlooked and dismissed by society as being accessories to the men's fantasy, but in reality being the driving force in their own relationships. Bill Marston, as the person with the most social power, gives the women the space to decide their fate, and make decisions they do. ...

● Here's an unusual negative review of the movie, in the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times: 'Victoria & Abdul' beats the heck out of 'Prof. Marston' (Oct. 18):

By Bruce C. Steele

...While "Victoria" combines nuggets of amazing historical truth and filmmaker creativity to create touching, funny encounters between people whom moviegoers quickly care about, "Marston" seems unable to figure out even what factoids might intrigue viewers.

It's even less able to give its fine cast any consistent, evolving people to play. The central threesome talk in cliches and make repeated snap decisions that seem to come from nowhere, only to contradict themselves minutes later.

"Marston" is structured according to the professor's DISC theory, dividing human behavior into Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. But Marston is chiefly reminiscent of Greg Kinnear's crackpot motivational speaker from "Little Miss Sunshine" — all gimmick and no substance — so using his half-baked theory to guide the screenplay is forced and foolish. ...


Meanwhile, William and Elizabeth Marston's granddaughter Christie Marston continues to object to the movie portraying Elizabeth and Olive as a romantic couple, rather that just sisterly housemates sharing a husband. I've pointed out some of the reasons to think that this blander version is a real stretch; so has Wonder Women book author Noah Berlatsky.

Least convincing is Christie's memory that in their elderly years, Elizabeth and Olive didn't present as anything more than sisterly best friends living together. By then they would have spent decades acting that role, which would have been necessary in an era when homosexual relations were not only scandalous but a crime punishable by years in prison.

In fact, Elizabeth and Olive were extremely private about the nature of the household; they even kept the parentage of Olive's children secret from all the children long after they were grown. Biographer Jill Lepore reports that "[Olive] Byrne’s sons didn’t find out that Marston was their father until 1963 — when Holloway finally admitted it — and only after she extracted a promise that no one would raise the subject ever again." Elizabeth was 60 by that time.1

Elizabeth's son Pete (Christie Marston's father) told Lepore in 2014, "The whys and wherefores of the family arrangements were never discussed with the kids — ever."2

A few days ago the Hollywood Reporter gave Christie Marston and director Angela Robinson guest columns to state their viewpoints, published at the same time. This is Christie's most coherent presentation I've seen. The women's relationship aside, she clearly has the facts with her when she disputes the liberties Robinson took with details of how the Wonder Woman character was created. She also says that she's involved with another proposed treatment of the story that's currently being shopped around by a woman unnamed.

What 'Professor Marston' Misses About Wonder Woman's Origins (Guest Column)

...It was a rude surprise to see the film promoted as "the true story." The filmmakers had no contact with the family or people who knew them. When questioned about that, writer/director Angela Robinson said in an interview with Vulture, “It was a conscious choice because I really just wanted to have my own interpretation of the story.”

...The film depicts Elizabeth and Dots [Olive] as lovers, with William as a third party in their beds. It loosely, with no attention to fact, shows the Wonder Woman comic book being created based upon the threesome’s relationship.

There are two major areas which are wrongly presented; the relationship and Wonder Woman’s origin. While the imaginary of sexual relationships can be overlooked, the "alternative facts" presented about Wonder Woman’s origin are simply unacceptable. ...

...The relationship

Robinson's basis for turning my grandmother and Dots into lovers may be that they continued to live together after William's death. The reality of the matter was that there really were not a lot of options at that immediate point in time. There were kids to feed and bills to pay. Gram worked while Dots directed the four kids. After the kids were out of the house, the two women chose to share a household. They were best friends, so close as to be sisters.

For those assuming that a grandchild could or would not know anything about their grandmother’s sex life, I should explain that my knowledge of my grandmother is not as a child, but as an adult. Mine is not the viewpoint of a small child with a sweet old lady grandmother. We had a very close relationship. Gram’s three or four week visits several times a year gave us plenty of time to discuss all the woes of mankind. Silly societal taboos on sex and sexual preferences was a topic we covered thoroughly. Gram was very open minded, and conversed clearly and freely. Gram was a firm believer that people should do whatever they damned well pleased; the only stipulation being maturity and consent. Gram and Dots not only lacked that connectivity which couples have, but would have had no reason to hide.

As to arguments that the relationship as imagined by Robinson's film could possibly be true: I do agree that nobody can ever say what somebody else lived. I can never swear that she and Olive never connected sexually, but I can say with 99.99 percent certainty that they did not. It’s sad, really; it would have been a nice boon for them if they could have been lovers as well.

Something that I came to realize over the past few days in the wake of the new film is just how much interest people have in the Marston family. People have been asking me about the family for years, but it had never really hit me until now. There were so many fans disappointed to learn that the film was not true; they had planned on seeing it to find out more about the family and how Wonder Woman came to exist.

To all of the many who told me that I needed to get the true story out, I will say this: There is a project being pitched which I will endorse if it comes to fruition. It comes from many, many years of very extensive research by a woman of integrity. ...

Read the whole column (Oct. 20).

Robinson's statement:

'Professor Marston' Director on Finding the True Story of Wonder Woman's Creator (Guest Column)

I spent eight years bringing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women to the screen. The film is about the man who created Wonder Woman and the two women in his life that inspired one of the most iconic, incredible superheroes of our time. When I first learned of the story, it looked like it was a story of a man who had a wife and a mistress. Then I came across this one core sentence… Olive and Elizabeth lived together for 38 years after Marston died. That was the moment I realized I was writing a love story. Three people came together and formed a family. Marston drew inspiration out of his beautiful, complicated life.

My film is based on a true story. I conducted firsthand research for the film. I’ve read everything there is to read on the subject including all of William Moulton Marston’s writings. There are some known facts about Marston and his family. But like any work based on history, I took creative license to best tell the story from my own personal understanding and point of view.

I very much understand if the Marston family, friends or fans have issues with the liberties I took to craft this film. That is fair game. But I am alarmed that some of the intense focus of criticism is around my portrayal of Olive and Elizabeth as bisexual and their relationship with William Moulton Marston as polyamorous. I did not arrive at that conclusion in a vacuum. It is not “wishful thinking.” There is ample evidence to support this interpretation and many Wonder Woman scholars agree with me. As Noah Bertlatsky, writes in his article on my film: “Why have people been so reticent about acknowledging that Elizabeth and Olive were lovers, when Elizabeth and Olive were obviously lovers? In her 1990’s The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick argues that the refusal to admit that figures in the past were gay is part of the way the dominant culture represses and denies homosexuality.” At this very moment, issues of silence and shame are at the forefront of our cultural discussion, and it’s important to look at how silencing happens despite how good-intentioned the motives are behind the silencing. The character of Wonder Woman has been whitewashed at many points throughout her history, and from my vantage, there has been a systematic “whitewashing” of the Marstons’ queerness.

I made several attempts to contact Marston’s granddaughter, Christie Marston, both directly and through intermediaries, to screen the film and discuss it before it was released in theaters. She did not respond to my efforts to connect and to my knowledge has not seen the film. I have a lot of compassion for the family because it must be alienating to see people you love depicted on screen, but I proudly stand by my interpretation. ...

Read the whole column (Oct. 20).

Hopefully, with all the new interest in Wonder Woman and the remarkable family who birthed her, more materials may emerge that will settle the question of the women's actual relationship once and for all.

Update Nov. 1: More of William Marston's personal papers are becoming available. Harvard's Schlesinger Library has announced that it is sorting and preparing two collection of his papers recently donated by Olive's two sons. The library says it will make them available within the next few months. The library also says that additional papers are being donated by other members of his family (Harvard Gazette, Sept. 7, 2017).


1. Lepore gives another example of Elizabeth's compulsive closeting, even decades later, in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" (Oct. 27, 2014). The subject here is Olive's signature wide bracelets, which became Wonder Woman's bullet deflectors. Says Lepore,

[William Marston] gave them to Olive Byrne in 1928.... And in the Family Circle magazine story from the 1940s, he says [to Olive], "You know, Wonder Woman's bracelets are based on yours." And so it's not like a disputed thing. But the funny thing is, even that, the family kind of erases — or Elizabeth Holloway erases, because decades later when she's asked about Wonder Woman's bracelets — this woman from Berkeley who's writing a PhD dissertation in the 1970s about Wonder Woman writes to Marston-Holloway and says, "Where did Wonder Woman get her bracelets?" — Holloway says "Oh, a student of Dr. Marston's used to wear them." Like, she's been living with Olive Byrne for decades at that point! They're really committed to keeping the family story a secret.

2. Lepore also notes,

In 1926, Olive Byrne, then twenty-two, moved in with Marston and Holloway; they lived as a threesome, “with love making for all,” as Holloway later said. Olive Byrne is the mother of two of Marston’s four children; the children had three parents. “Both Mommies and poor old Dad” is how Marston put it.

Incidentally, Lepore ends an article in The Smithsonian (October 2014) with this:

“Anniversary, which we forgot entirely,” Olive Byrne wrote in her secret diary in 1936. (The diary remains in family hands.) ... Byrne died in 1990, at the age of 86. She and Holloway had been living together in an apartment in Tampa. While Byrne was in the hospital, dying, Holloway fell and broke her hip; she was admitted to the same hospital. They were in separate rooms. They’d lived together for 64 years. When Holloway, in her hospital bed, was told that Byrne had died, she sang a poem by Tennyson: “Sunset and the evening star, / And one clear call for me! / And may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea.”


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Anonymous Jen said...

My grandparents didn't seem sexual to me, either, but I'm sure they once were.

October 23, 2017 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anita Wagner Illig said...

I, too, love this movie! And it certainly portrays what it was like to try to live a poly life during a time that was much more difficult to do so than it was when I emerged into the poly world five decades later. I was able to arrange my life so I risked very little, but many others had to stay in the closet, and, of course, some feel they still must do so today.

October 24, 2017 10:07 AM  

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