Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Photo: L-R Rebecca Hall, Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women


The secret history of Wonder Woman

Forget everything you *think* you know about Wonder Woman, says Kate Muir. A new film about the superhero’s creator reveals a surprising backstory

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By Kate Muir on

Will the wonders of Wonder Woman never cease? After this year’s movie starring Gal Gadot beat all the male superhero films into submission at the box office, a new bio-pic reveals the kinky inspiration for Wonder Woman’s dominant character. It turns out that the comic-book corseted Amazon, who whipped enemies with the golden lasso of truth, was invented in 1941 by a Harvard psychology professor drawing on his polyamorous S&M relationship with two female academics.

Wonder Women’s changing popularity uncannily mirrors the peaks and troughs of the women’s movement. The Wonder Woman comic arrived during World War II, as women discovered new Rosie-the-Riveter roles at work, and she rose again with the second wave of feminism as Gloria Steinem took her on as a mascot for Ms magazine in 1972. Now, as Hollywood takes a long, hard look at itself in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, a blockbuster Wonder Woman 2 waits in the wings.

The new film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (out Friday) tells the entertainingly bonkers and surprisingly feminist real-life story of Professor William Marston (Wonder Woman’s creator), his wife (fellow psychologist Elizabeth), and their research student (Olive Byrne). In the 1920s, the three fell mutually in love and into bed together, to the horror of the university, which immediately dismissed them.

At Harvard, while working on theories of dominance and submission in relationships, William and Elizabeth invented the lie-detector machine, a precursor to the Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. In the film, Luke Evans plays William, Rebecca Hall is stingingly sharp and profane as his wife, and Bella Heathcote is the 22-year-old student, and the three enjoy some early cosplay, with a trip to a burlesque outfitters in New York, where William requests “er, something Greek?” for Olive, a spangled outfit which becomes the basis of Wonder Woman’s iconic costume.

With Olive pregnant, Elizabeth became a secretary and William started sketching out the Wonder Woman myth: an all-powerful character based on a combination of the two smart, savvy women who made up his ménage à trois. Olive – eventually a housewife looking after their four children - was the niece of the feminist Margaret Sanger, who set up America’s first birth control clinic in 1916.

But William made it up to Elizabeth and Olivia for their domesticity and drudgery in life by giving them superpowers in fiction. He wanted to chronicle “a great movement now under way – the growth in the power of women.” The underdog story parallels that of the creators of Superman, Batman and Captain America, who were Jewish refugees struggling to get mainstream jobs. (A brilliant fictionalisation of the men’s story has been written by Michael Chabon in Kavalier and Clay.)

In this moment of hubris for men in Hollywood, it’s refreshing to see another side to the superhero story as a new wave of feminism unfolds

Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman were the three most popular early comic book characters, but while Batman and Superman became movies and cultural memes, Wonder Woman languished after the authorities censored the cartoon for “corrupting children”. A bishop complained that “Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed.” The dominatrix was toned down in later comics, her superpowers were temporarily removed, and by the time Lynda Carter popped up as Wonder Woman/Diana Price in the seventies’ television series, the ethos was more vanilla.

But in the late sixties, feminist Gloria Steinem – a longtime fan  – decided to lobby D.C. Comics to restore Wonder Woman’s superpowers, her bullet-repelling bracelets and her Paradise Island origins story. D.C. relented, and as an added extra, Wonder Women got a black Amazon sister called Nubia. In 1972, Steinem put Wonder Woman on the first-ever cover of the radical campaigning Ms magazine. The resurrection of Diana Price to full goddess status paralleled the resurgence of feminism’s second wave.

Ms Magazine 1972 Wonder Woman cover


Wonder Woman’s 2017 incarnation, directed by Patty Jenkins, is more kickass and less winsome than before. The appetite for girl power turns out to be massive: the film is at number two at the British and American box office this year, pipped only by Beauty and the Beast.

Behind these two women-led films came the usual slew of male superhero sequels and reboots, a result which proved at last to Hollywood that women mean business, and are good business. Jenkins was offered a sequel, and held out for a “male” salary, an estimated $7 to $9m – not quite in the league of Christopher Nolan who was awarded a rumoured $20m for the less successful Dunkirk.

Professor Marston was written and directed by an African-American woman, too – Angela Robinson, who cut her teeth on television’s The L Word. “We started to see a growing Wonder Woman moment three or four years ago, with this re-embracing of Marston’s ideas in, and that led to a Wonder Woman movie <finally> coming out,” Robinson says. “After 75 years, she finally got a film.”

Robinson’s own movie has landed with excellent timing. In this moment of hubris for men in Hollywood, it’s refreshing to see another side to the superhero story as a new wave of feminism unfolds.

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Photo: L-R Rebecca Hall, Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
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