PROFESSOR MARSTON And The Polyamorous Perspective

The Wonder Woman creator's biopic is an enormous milestone in representation.

National Coming Out Day was yesterday, but what the hell, we're all friends here. Hi! My name is Leigh. I'm polyamorous.

I don't do monogamous relationships. I've tried. It's weird. I once lost a high school girlfriend because I wanted to explore dating guys for a while. She wasn't into it. My anchor partner—the romantic partner I live with and spend the majority of my time with—and I have an understanding that we are neither romantically nor sexually exclusive, though we have rules in place to ensure our sexual safety. At this time, I don't have any other romantic partners, though I am actively dating; my anchor partner has two other partners, my metamours. Those partners have other partners as well. We affectionately refer to this collection of people as our polycule, though I like to use the term "human centipede." (Yeah, my partner and metamours don't think I'm funny either.)

As you can probably imagine, we don’t really get to see our types of relationships portrayed in popular media. The standard Hollywood narrative is very much in line with the Avril Lavigne song: "He was a boy. She was a girl. Could it be any more obvious?" We've made strides in recent years in monosexual gay and lesbian representation with films like Carol and Moonlight, but bisexuality is almost always an implied or not explicitly conveyed dimension to a character, and non-monogamous relationships are 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.)

There have certainly been films that have explored the limits of romantic exclusivity. As far back as 1933 in Ernst Lubitsch's adaptation of the play Design for Living, select films have hinted at the idea of one person having an attraction to multiple people and not needing to choose between them. Of course, particularly with the pre-Hayes Code Design for Living which depicts two men courting a woman who doesn't wish to choose between them and ultimately doesn't have to, these notions aren't often explicitly commented upon or explored; they're subject to interpretation and winking nods, subtleties that require one to have an understanding of the dynamics at play that can only be born from a philosophical and ethical examination of the role monogamy does or doesn't play in one's life.

The film that has come closest, at least that I know of, to acknowledging the reality of non-monogamy in recent years is the 2014 Anton Yelchin vehicle 5 to 7, in which his character dates a married woman who is allowed to have extramarital affairs from the hours of 5 pm to 7 pm. Of course, as with monogamous relationships, a clear understanding of boundaries and interpersonal comfort is necessary for a polyamorous relationship to work, and while 5 to 7 does convey its female lead (played by Bérénice Marlohe) as having the capacity for multiple romantic entanglements, the unrealistically restrictive nature of her two hour time window to date is not a positive understanding of what it means to be ethically non-monogamous. It's also heavily implied that her sexually adventurous attitude is a by-product of her French background, and the extramarital relationship ultimately falls apart because those artificial restrictions pose too great a challenge for the leads to navigate. In other words, polyamory is treated as an experimental fluke rather than a legitimate manner by which to approach romance and sex.

Enter Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Knowing something of Professor William Moulton Marston, his polyamorous relationships with Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Bryne, and how that triad influenced Professor Marston's creation of Wonder Woman, I was nervous and excited as the lights came down in the theater. This is a film that had the potential to go wrong in so many ways, whether it tried to trivialize the Marstons' and Bryne's relationships as an eccentric quirk or, in making those relationships the central focus of the narrative, ogled as an outsider at the freaks engaged in their 50 Shades sex shenanigans.

Folks, I cried. I cried tears of joy at this movie.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman gives the lives of the Marstons' and Byrne the glossy biopic treatment with no cynicism, no condescension, and heaps and heaps of empathy. From the start an attraction between William and Elizabeth toward their new research assistant is palpable, and it is returned in kind. As the triad come to understand their feelings for one another, there are completely understandable growing pains as they come to grips with the notion of non-exclusive romantic feelings and, in the women's case, a homosexual attraction that acts in concert with a heterosexual one. The sexual culmination of these emotions is treated by the film with triumphant orchestral swells, emphasizing the triad's self-actualization as a non-monogamous collective as a moment worth celebrating.

And the film keeps on celebrating, even as events force the triad's love into the shadows. The Marstons lose their research positions, but this doesn't prevent them from continuing to include Olive in their lives. They come together as a family, raising children that all three of them consider to be their own even as they lie to the outside world that Olive is a widow that has taken up residency with the Marstons. They don't do so out of shame—at least not for the most part—but out of necessity as the neighborhood's eventual discovery of their relationships proves their fears accurate and they once again become outcasts and pariahs. However, much like films that have tackled the bigotry against homosexual and interracial relationships, Professor Marston doesn't play both sides of the issue: the love between these three people is legitimate, despite social pressures that insist that they adhere to one prescribed model.

These are pressures I've felt in my life. I didn't even have a name for how I felt about relationships until I got to college, and my polyamorous identity is just as important to me as the sexuality and gender identity that I came to grow and accept in myself during that same time period. Were it not for the grace of internet communication, great friends, and a whole hell of a lot of luck and circumstance, I might not have the same grasp on who I am or realized that monogamy just isn't for me. But now, to see that same sort of self-realization take place in a widely released theatrical film feels like a miracle. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the kind of film that I wish I'd been able to see at age sixteen, something I could have pointed to and said "Holy shit, that's me!" The trials and tribulations of William, Elizabeth, and Olive came during the first half of the twentieth century, when information wasn't as freely available and sexuality was to be spoken of in hushed tones if at all. Yet even with the technological advancements and sexual progressivism that has emerged in the century since, the existence of ethically non-monogamous people is largely invisible and commonly derided as bizarre and other. That's why Professor Marston is so important. It tells monogamous folks that we exist and that we aren't threatening their monogamous relationships by our very existence. It reaffirms to me, the people I love, and the people they love that our love is legitimate, that we matter.

What is more beautiful than that?