The Feminism of Don't Worry Darling: Style over Substance?
Don’t Worry Darling is a stylish, colourful, trendy film, but was there much beneath the surface? Is the feminist meaning of this sexy psychological thriller buried beneath its aesthetic glamour, or are the criticisms leveled towards it and it’s female director uncalled for and maybe even misogynistic? Caroline Thirlwell gives her opinion of this much talked about film by introspectively reviewing the execution of its feminist story and looking into the overall response it has received:
Artwork by Sophie Pywell (IG: @s.louise.pywell).
Over the past few months, I have heard more about the drama surrounding Don’t Worry Darling and the film’s director, Olivia Wilde, than I have about the premise of the film itself. Of course, I had to go and see it as soon as it came out, proving that any press is good press. Overall, I enjoyed the film, feeling immersed in the colourful and sexy yet sinister world before me, constantly wondering what the real meaning of it all would be.
Despite, or maybe because of this, I also came away feeling unsatisfied. I don’t think I am alone in this opinion; the scandal clad film has certainly attracted an array of reactions, with many people defending what may be interpreted as a powerful representation of women’s struggle against the patriarchy in the form of a psychological thriller, and others critiquing the film as a depiction of white feminism unwilling to fully represent women of colour.
The question is, is Don’t Worry Darling a triumph for feminist cinema, or a poorly executed, lazy attempt at sticking two fingers up to the patriarchy which has proven to be nothing more than a bid for commercial success? At this point in the article, it would be wise to warn you that there are spoilers ahead.
This dystopian fantasy follows Jack (Harry Styles) and Alice (Florence Pugh), a young married couple living in a seemingly idyllic 1950s American suburban neighbourhood called Victory. Each day the residents of the town follow the same polished pattern, as if they are one, their lives corresponding in perfect synchronicity. Though the technicolour world appears to be a polished utopia - I have to admit I wouldn’t object to living there - a darker theme is evident from the beginning. Each day the husbands go to work on a top-secret project run by the experimental company community in which they live, and the wives stay at home, cooking, cleaning, shopping and socialising. Everyone has a part to play. In a sense, these gender roles are exactly what you would expect from a movie set in a different age, but it is, nonetheless, unsettling.
The theme of conformity and order reminiscent of the daily routine in The Truman Show also contributes to the disconcerting atmosphere throughout the film. Indeed, like Truman, Alice accepts the reality of the world with which she is presented. In reality, Victory is a simulation created by Frank (Chris Pine), the creator of the Victory project. In the real-world Frank is the leader of a misogynist cult which allows its members to enter the simulation bringing with them a wife of their choice, allowing them to throw off the chains of the flawed society in which they live and escape their depressing lives. These men gain their escape by imprisoning their ‘wives’ in this simulation against their will.
This Black-Mirror-esque twist is hinted at throughout the film, but its execution seems unsatisfactory. With two hours leading up to this mind-blowing reveal, most screen time seems to be wasted on ultimately irrelevant red herrings which do not serve to advance the plot. Rather than being blown, my mind was filled with meaningless air which eventually deflated like a pathetic balloon. Multiple loose ends have been discussed in a recent Vulture article which articulates the unanswered questions I could not stop turning over in my mind after leaving the cinema: who caused the glitches in the simulation? What was the point in the plane crash? The failure to deliver a satisfying twist not only makes the plot fall flat, but also diminishes the feminist message of the film, but where did Olivia Wilde go wrong?
One of the most significant characters in the film is Margaret (Kiki Layne) who starts to notice something is amiss in Victory and lashes out. The dismissal of her behaviour echoes a bygone age when the distress, pain or anxiety of women was simply diagnosed as hysteria. Margaret becomes a social outcast after venturing into the desert surrounding Victory with her son, a brief scene we only see as another character relays the story. We are told she returned alone accusing “them” of taking her son to punish her. Despite Margaret’s seemingly vital role in the storyline - her breakdown sparking Alice’s disillusionment - her importance seems to be glossed over, Kiki only appearing in a limited number of scenes. Kiki commented on this herself in a recent Instagram post featuring Ari’el Stachel (her onscreen husband Ted) whom she is now reportedly dating off-screen.
The post read “they cut us from most of the movie but we’re thriving in real life.” Layne and Stachel were also absent from much of the pre-release press engagements including the film’s debut at the Venice Film Festival. This has sparked criticism from fans accusing Wilde of racism and exclusivity, as Layne was the only black woman in the film and her integral role seems to have been diminished in favour of seemingly less significant roles such as that of Wilde herself who played Alice’s close friend Bunny.
Liv and Luce, the hosts of the podcast Culture Vulture discussed this backlash in a recent episode, saying that whatever the reason for cutting Layne’s scenes, her comments on Instagram seemed to “break the fourth wall” as it appeared strange for an actress to comment on the editing of a film. The podcasters argued that actors and actresses are not filmmakers, they are not responsible for the storytelling so should not pass comment on the editing decisions made by the filmmakers. This also begs the question, would an actress be so forward in questioning a male director’s choices? Or does Olivia Wilde’s status as a new female director, only having directed her first film Booksmart as recently as 2019, make her more susceptible to open criticism from celebrities and fans?
Although Layne enjoyed little screen time, the importance lies not in her own feelings about being cut, but in the lack of representation for women of colour in the film. Personally, I would say that Margaret’s entire storyline was brushed over and under-explained and Layne therefore deserved much more screen time than she got, not for her sake but for the sake of the audience. Bunny’s importance rested only on the fact that she was aware of the simulation, a twist which in itself ended up being rushed. Her line near the end of the film insinuating that she chose to be in the simulation so that she could see her children again, suggesting they had passed away in real life, felt, like much of the film, like an afterthought.
Gemma Chan’s role as Frank’s wife Shelley was also drastically under-explained. For a film that professes to be about women, the women in question seem to be completely neglected. Passing the Bechtel test is a very low bar, and for a feminist film Don’t Worry Darling only just seems to skip over it. Of course, I have no complaints about Florence Pugh enjoying the screen time that she did, because honestly her performance made the film. But all of these women find themselves in the simulation, and their stories are hardly touched upon. As Frank’s wife, so much needed to be said about Shelley. Who was she to him in the real world? Did she know all along that Victory was a simulation? If not, when did she find out? And why on earth did she suddenly stab her husband to death?! I thought she was in on it all along until that stupidly shocking scene. As the ultimate hero who defeats the antagonist, why do we have no idea who Shelley is?
In December 2021 in an interview with Vogue, Wilde revealed that she wanted Don’t Worry Darling to be “really sexy, in a grown-up way”, like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. She revealed that it was extremely important to her therefore that female pleasure would be portrayed, she wanted the audience to “realise how rarely they see female hunger, and specifically this type of female pleasure.” Olivia well and truly achieves this aim, but is this pleasure diminished when we remember the twist? In a Screen Rant article, Madeline Lapreziosa notes that “when deprived of all context, Don't Worry Darling's sex scenes between Florence Pugh's Alice and Harry Styles’ Jack may appear a step in the right direction for portrayals of sex in film. However, the psychological thriller's final twist ruins Wilde's good intentions.” How can this be a sexy and healthy portrayal of female pleasure when Alice has been trapped in the simulation by Jack? This positive portrayal of female pleasure quickly turns into an un-consensual act once the true nature of their existence is revealed.
But perhaps this was all part of Wilde’s plan. Culture Vulture’s Liv and Luce put forward an interesting interpretation: what seems to be a mistake by Wilde may be an intentional detail which reflects the entire concept of the film. Jack has trapped Alice in this simulation to give her pleasure and make her happy because it is what he views to be an ideal life. This pleasure, like the sexual pleasure with which Wilde has marketed the film, has been provided at the hands of a man. The idyllic life the men have provided for their wives becomes less pleasurable once we realise that these women have been put there against their will. It is not the pleasure they chose, and therefore takes away their autonomy.
Alice’s life in which she was a doctor may have been hard work and seemingly miserable - as portrayed by the dark gloomy lighting of the real world compared to the chromatic cinematography in the scenes in Victory – but in her own words, “it was my life”. In this sense, Wilde seems to have achieved her aim which she stated in her interview with Vogue of “asking the question of, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to do what’s right? If you really think about it, are you willing to blow up the system that serves you?” The entire film is about what men want women to want, not what they choose. Wilde knew what she was doing, why wouldn’t she? She is the director.
I don’t think Don’t Worry Darling deserves the nit-picky criticism it has received. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking film. I can think of a lot of ways it could be improved, especially in terms of delivering a stronger feminist edge that I am certain is buried somewhere in the stylised, technicolour wonderland, but not every film that comes out can be a poignant masterpiece, although this one had the potential to be.