Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, directed by Angela Robinson, came out in October 2017, and has been hailed as a groundbreaking, trailblazing film that positively portrays polyamory. “For Professor Marston’s Bill, Elizabeth and Olive, polyamory isn’t a one-off tryst; the three start a life and family together,” writes Jill Gutowitz of Vice, “Their relationship is balanced, equal and brimming with mutual respect. Each character is starkly different, they each experience lust and desire, and their relationship is by no means just Bill’s idea. Elizabeth and Olive share a romantic love of their own.”
Polyamorous critics gushed even more. Leigh Monson, a self-identified poly movie reviewer, said, “I cried tears of joy at this movie.” Minx of Polyamory Weekly said on her podcast, “This is a fucking awesome movie for poly people. It is the most beautiful portrayal of polyamory that I have ever seen.” Gaby Dunn, a bixsexual YouTuber and author (I Hate Everyone But You) who has advocated for polyamory much of her adult life, declared, “I have never seen polyamory centered or treated with respect in a movie before ever in my life. It was beautiful to see that yes, you can love more than one person, and have a family, and be happy.”
Professor Marston is a trailblazing movie in that it depicts polyamory in an empathetic and feminist way. Previous movies have depicted polyamory as cheating, sex-oriented, deviant, or a comedic distraction. No other movie has featured a committed, long term polyamorous relationship that is truly about love and the struggle to practice it at a time when it was deeply taboo. The fact that it’s based on a true story is even more remarkable. The movie is also masterfully done with nuanced and sympathetic characters. However, to say that it depicts a healthy polyamorous relationship based on mutual love and respect is a bit misleading. My partner and I both found it pretty disturbing at times, and the fact that it was so empathetic and love driven made what we deemed abusive behavior between the main characters even more upsetting.
I also want to preface this review by saying that this is not a review of the relationship between the actual creator of Wonder Woman and his partners. From what I understand, the director took much artistic license in portraying a relationship even the members of the Marston family understood very little of. The three historical figures were very private about their private lives. This is a review of the story that the director chose to tell.
The relationship between the trouple starts out on unequal footing. Bill Marston is psychology professor at Harvard who works with his wife to study human sexuality. They toy with the idea of having a third, and joke about what a cliche it would be for Bill to have an affair with one of his students. When they first see Olive, a student in one of their classes, they discuss her as a sexual object. “I would like to study her,” he says, as if she were a specimen under the microscope. “I’m your wife, not your jailer,” says Elizabeth, not exactly encouragingly. They view Olive as an innocent, sweet girl that they can recruit for sexual experimentation. In poly circles this is called unicorn hunting, a much reviled practice that typically exploits a young bisexual female in order to satisfy the sexual curiosity of a typically older couple. “The stereotype at least is that unicorn hunting couples are looking to treat a partner as an object in their relationship,” said Alex, an interviewee for The Business Insider, “They want someone — maybe anyone, reducible to their gender, sexuality, and availability — that fits into their lives and fits their relationship without thinking about the needs and human perspectives of the person they’re looking for.” This fits Bill and Elizabeth’s attitude to Olive pretty well. They want someone who will fit into their lives; they don’t consider how their relationship will impact her.
Olive becomes a research assistant to Bill and Elizabeth Marston, and the couple immediately begin to use their dominant position to coerce and seduce her. First, before Olive has even started her employment, Elizabeth confronts her and says, “Don’t fuck my husband.” The poor girl has a genuine interest in the couple’s research, and she is immediately accused of being a homewrecker. Not a good way to begin! Next, they take part in a bizarre scene where Olive is forced to spank a sorority sister while the Marstons watch. Afterwards they pressure her to describe her emotions during the incident. It’s obvious that Olive is very uncomfortable with this, and when Olive flees the room crying, they dismiss her as not being tough enough for science. Olive is so distraught that she considers quitting her job, but she goes back to them, apparently drawn by the couple’s magnetism, or her own masochistic enjoyment at being submissive. Still treating her like an experiment, they hook her up to a lie detector and basically force her to confess that she’s in love with both of them. When Olive flees again, Elizabeth goes after her and they kiss. At this point Elizabeth invites Bill to join them.
The three become romantically involved, but the couple privilege continues. When the Marstons are fired from Harvard, Elizabeth insists that they have to break up with Olive because their relationship is “nice in fantasy but not reality.” Bill basically agrees with her and they literally turn their back on Olive and walk away, except Olive cries out that she’s pregnant. We can imagine that had she not been pregnant, they would have left her in the dust while congratulating themselves on how they escaped a close call. But since they are such ethical non-monogamists (sarcasm), they take up house together and move into a new neighborhood.
To not raise any eyebrows, they make up a story about how Olive is a widow whom Bill and Elizabeth took in. Granted, this is almost a hundred years ago, but it is revealed at the end of the movie that the real nature of their relationship was never made public to their friends and family, not even to their own children, even after having lived together for decades. Today, this would be unacceptable to most committed polyamorous partners who want to be acknowledged as legitimate partners. However, Olive did not seem bothered by her closeted status. While they live together, Bill and Elizabeth do paid work and Olive cleans, cooks, and takes care of their four children. Even if this arrangement had been consensual, by putting Olive in a state of economic dependence, she basically had to do whatever they wanted or risk losing everything.
The most shocking abuse of couple privilege comes towards the end of the movie when the family is accidentally outed by neighbors and Elizabeth’s son is beaten up at school. “You have to go,” Elizabeth says baldly to Olive, “the safety of our children is at stake.” Bill does nothing to stop her. So Olive, after spending a decade with these two, raising their four children together, is kicked to the curb as soon as the couple’s respectability becomes endangered. They punished her for society’s bigotry, and in order to not put themselves at risk, treat her with the same contempt that society would heap on Olive.
Once they got rid of her, the two of them would still have the safety net of their marriage, but what about Olive, and her children (who are also Bill’s children)? What kind of problems are they going to have now that she’s become the other woman, with no home, no family, and no means to make a living? Is this how you treat a partner you’ve loved for more than a decade? The fact that they would even consider such an action cast doubt whether they ever regarded Olive as an equal partner.
The movie tries to recover from this egregious mistake in a tear jerking scene where Elizabeth and Bill beg on their knees for Olive to come back. Olive, at this point, has been living on her own for months, and she agrees to come back if they get her a new stove and give her a break from housework on the weekends. And then, my friends, they lived happily ever after.
My partner and I left the movie in shock. We agreed that Bill and Elizabeth’s actions towards the end of the movie exemplify the worst of polyamorous relationships: extreme couple privilege, disregard for their partner’s well-being, taking advantage of Olive’s weaker social and economic position without giving her respect and commitment. Like many partners in open relationships, Olive was ultimately dispensable, someone who could be sacrificed to protect the couple’s interests at any moment. There is no way that this polyamorous relationship would have worked if Olive had been a less submissive partner who stood up more for her rights. By portraying Olive as happily going along with everything, the movie creates the dangerous impression that everything Bill and Elizabeth did was ok and this is how a second partner in a polyamorous relationship should behave.
This movie was also disturbing to me because my partner and I had undergone a similar experience that year. We had been together for almost two years and were living together when his wife decided to revoke her consent for our relationship. I was subsequently kicked out of the house (and out of the country by Canadian border agents), and she threatened to divorce him if he didn’t leave me. My partner came to the realization that her actions were cruel and unethical, and he eventually apologized to me for not defending me against her attacks. I’m still not fully recovered from the trauma of it all. The experience has, if not put me off polyamory completely, made me deeply wary of the harm that couples can cause to others when they attempt polyamory without giving up couple privilege.
I recommend this movie for its artistry, its moving depiction of an organic relationship, and its groundbreaking depicting of polyamory. However, the praise that has been heaped on it by mainstream and poly audiences actually makes me feel less understood as a poly person. Granted, polyamorous people often struggle mightily and egregious mistakes are often made, but what this couple did to Olive at the end would be unconscionable to ethical polyamorous people today. Most polyamorous relationships also do not involve sexual attraction between metamours, or a metamour who does all the housework for you. Most polyamorous relationship involve much more difficult negotiations regarding sharing a partner with someone who you are not in love with. The fact that Elizabeth did have a relationship with Olive, and she still treated her with such disregard, is the opposite of a healthy, loving, polyamorous relationship. The lack of outrage over Bill and Elizabeth’s actions in the media is a silent indicator that even within the poly community we have a poor understanding of what a healthy polyamorous relationship should look like.