Polyamory and Wonder Women

Many thanks to Anna Smith for including me in this fab Guardian article about the awesome new movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

Check out the article if you want to read more about polyamory, how it’s been depicted in cinema, and why this most recent representation is one of the best. Here’s my original interview with Anna so you can read more of my own thoughts…

How would you define polyamory, briefly?

Literally translated it means ‘many loves’ and it’s the idea that it’s possible – and often positive – to have more than one partner-style relationship at the same time. There are lots of different forms of polyamory, so it’s worth seeing that as a broad umbrella term for lots of different kinds of open, or consensual, non-monogamy.

What did you think of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women?

I loved it. I thought it was a wonderful combination of being moving, thought-provoking, and really funny in places. I cried quite a lot all the way through it, so I’d suggest people take a hanky! It was also wonderful to see such a positive depiction of polyamory, and to know it is based on a real life story. Certainly the things the characters went through will be very familiar to polyamorous viewers.

How rare is it to see positive depictions of polyamory in the media? 

It’s very rare sadly. In fact if you think about it, very often the media do the exact opposite of putting polyamory across as a viable option. A person being in love with two people at once is a staple of much drama from romcoms and soap operas to advice columns and tabloid news headlines. Almost always the outcome is that they are forced to choose one person and to let go of the other. This reinforces the idea that the only normal, natural, or good way to have relationships is lifelong monogamy, which is a real shame because actually there are many different ways of doing relationships.

How do you feel polyamory is usually depicted in films?

In the media non-monogamy of any kind is generally depicted pretty poorly if it is portrayed at all – as something dangerous, weird, or doomed to failure. The most common depiction is of secret monogamy, or infidelity, which people are punished for – in films like Fatal Attraction or Unfaithful. Sometimes open relationships are represented but they end in tragedy or difficulty, like in The Ice Storm or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There are a few more positive depictions of open non-monogamy in films like ShortbusKinsey, Summer Lovers, or – kindof – Her. Big Love and You, Me, Her are TV Shows that have explored these themes more positively – although in relation to fairly limited forms of polyamory.

How have attitudes changed over the decades (if at all)?

Definitely they are changing slowly. When I started studying this area fifteen years ago or so virtually all the reporting around polyamory was sensationalist and negative, saying it could never work, or it was ‘taking all the fun out of affairs’, or was bad for kids of polyamorous parents, for example. Now we have a wealth of research on just how common polyamory is (about 5% of people in the US are openly non-monogamous, for example), about the diversity of ways of doing relationships that are available, and about how positive polyamorous families can be for children. The media has latched on to some of this, like Elizabeth Sheff’s column in Psychology Today, Esther Perel’s popular TED talks and books, or Dan Savage’s advice about monogamous, non-monogamous, and monogamish relationships. I find, nowadays, that my self-help writing about diverse relationship styles is reported much more positively than it used to be, for example open non-monogamy is often presented as a more consensual option than secret infidelity.

Do you think film has the influence to change perceptions of polyamory?

I hope so. Watching Professor Marston and the Wonder Women I found myself thinking, ‘how could anybody watching this fail to understand that loving two people at once is completely possible and can be extremely positive for all concerned?’ The thing about fiction is that it encourages empathy with the characters, and so hopefully can reach people’s hearts, while more evidence-based arguments can reach their minds. However I also found the film very sad because many of the battles they fought are still being fought today. The internalised shame that one of the characters feels is very familiar to therapists like me who work with polyamorous people. The accusations that they were damaging their kids is also still sadly common. And, of course, there is still no legal recognition of polyamorous relationships – indeed during the same-sex marriage campaigns both sides argued against extending marriage rights to more than two people. We’ve still got a long way to go.

Any other thoughts?

It’s important to say that depicting polyamory is not about saying it’s superior to monogamy, just that there are many different relationship styles, and that different things work for different people. It would be great if we could embrace relationship diversity instead of trying to force people into a one-size-fits-all model.


Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).