Gaslight, Gatekeep & Minimal Girlboss: Why “Don’t Worry Darling” Fails To Portray Modern Feminism
This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s fall editorial intern Lauren Sanchez. Find her on Instagram at @lauren.sanchezz. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you haven’t heard of the buzz that’s been surrounding Olivia Wilde’s sophomore film, “Don’t Worry Darling,” you definitely haven’t been catching up on your pop culture news! For those who are avid Florence Pugh fanatics and/or Harry Styles worshippers (like myself), the talk of this movie has been around since 2020, and oh boy, the drama that has happened both on and off camera is more than enough to make you want to watch the film.
The film features a star-studded cast of Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll and Kiki Layne alongside Pugh and Styles in a psychological thriller set in 1950s suburban America. The Victory Project, a utopian community where Jack (Styles) and Alice (Pugh) live in couldn’t be any more perfect. Cookie-cutter houses, expensive vintage cars, getting drunk off Manhattans and embracing a lifestyle that prioritizes paradise and luxury – who wouldn’t want to be whisked away to Victory and have Harry Styles be your husband?
But of course, there must always be a twist beneath this golden facade of the town. Alice begins to suspect that things in Victory aren’t at all what they seem to be when she starts to experience wild hallucinations, witnesses the suicide of her neighbor and starts questioning the creator of Victory, Frank (Pine), and Jack about the actual purpose of the Victory Project.
I’ve seen the movie twice since it’s been released in theaters a little less than a week ago, and I’ve honestly left with more questions each time I’ve seen it, and I am certainly not the only one who has felt that way after watching “Don’t Worry Darling.”
— emily (@emilymckenna24) September 23, 2022
However, the one thing that I am still left confused about after watching this movie is how “female empowering” this movie actually is. In press conferences and in a January 2022 Vogue interview, Wilde talks about how audiences rarely see “female hunger, and specifically this type of female pleasure” and described the film as “The Feminine Mystique on acid” and going against the system that has done you wrong. And, I’m not sure if I necessarily agree with her on this.
Even though Wilde did a great job creating the overall story, capturing the aesthetics of the film and casting well-known stars that everyone loves and knows, she does not do justice to the feminist and female empowering message she claims to portray on camera. So without further ado, let’s get into my review of Don’t Worry Darling and why it isn’t a vehicle for the feminist narrative. Fair warning, there will be MAJOR spoilers ahead.
Now from the description that I gave before of the plot, that was barely scratching the surface of what actually happens.
In The Victory Project, there are around 50 couples in this community all committed to the purpose of what the Victory Project serves. They believe in routine, structure and above all else, order and loyalty to the project. But the purpose remains a mystery to all the wives, and the husbands refuse to explain the work they do for the project – the only thing they ask of their wives is to support them through it by staying home, cooking, cleaning and not venture outside of town.
Already, there are red flags with this town being so conservative in their gender norms for women and reducing them to their husband’s other half rather than them as their own person. But maybe, there’s a reason for this way of lifestyle that the audience doesn’t know about yet!
All the wives remain complicit in what their husbands ask them to do and do not question any of the motives of the project, except for Margaret (Layne) and Alice. When Margaret makes an outburst at a party hosted by the leaders of the Victory Project and tells everyone that they are being lied to – everyone is quick to dismiss her, except for Alice.
Alice’s increased hallucinations cause her to blur the lines between multiple realities and lead her to venture out to the restricted Victory headquarters to see for herself what the men in the community are hiding. But it’s not till she watches Margaret dramatically commit suicide, that Alice no longer feels protected by the Victory Project and begins to express her concerns to Jack and her best friend, Bunny (Olivia Wilde’s character).
Rather than comfort or listen to Alice’s concerns, they IMMEDIATELY gaslight the living hell out of her. Especially Jack who calls her delusional, warps the story of Margaret by saying she fell and accuses Alice of wanting to have him fired from the project. Without hesitation, everyone questions her sanity and her loyalty to the project and tells her to keep her mouth shut.
The gaslighting laid throughout the entire film definitely adds to the story of Alice questioning every little thing that is happening in Victory – I 100% understand Wilde’s directorial decision to make that a huge part of the plot. But when Alice is constantly shut down by not only her husband but by the other women, why call the film empowering to women when all the women are reduced to staying in line and keeping their mouths shut to protect their husbands above all else? And it isn’t until the very last 10 minutes of a two-hour film that the women get a chance of feeling any slight of empowerment.
Consent & Bodily Autonomy? Don’t Know Them!
One thing I do commend Wilde on is the plot twists presented in “Don’t Worry Darling.” Finding out that Jack is not British but an American pretending to be a Brit? I nearly fell out of my chair and collapsed. But the biggest plot twist of the entire movie is that the Victory Project doesn’t physically exist.
The audience finds out that it’s all a VR simulation created by Frank to give men complete control over their wives. In the real world, Alice turns out to be a successful surgeon while an unemployed Jack becomes infatuated with Frank’s podcast on the internet and can’t deal with the fact that he is not the “breadwinner” of this relationship. That’s where he is introduced to the Victory Project and proceeds to drug Alice in the real world to hold her captive in the simulation. When Alice finds out that their life together in Victory isn’t real and recovers the memories from her old life, Jack insists that it was for their mutual benefit. He argues to her that he helped Alice break away from her 30-hour shifts at the hospital and that he sacrificed so much to give them the life they deserve.
Despite Jack’s sick and twisted intentions of wanting to do all he can to make their lives better, the bottom line is that absolutely no consent is given from Alice. When the audience sees her physically tied up and IVs attached to her arms in the real world, it shows that everything in the stimulation and real life is all about control.
Especially later when we find out from Bunny that the majority of the women in Victory do not know that their lives are fake, it makes note that none of the women have full control over what happens to them in Victory. So why is it a movie marketed by a director who bases the film on the concepts of female empowerment hardly have any scenes that show those ideas on the screen?
The only “empowering women” idea that is shown on screen isn’t till the very last ten minutes, when Alice kills Jack, Shelley (Chan) stabs Frank and some of the women are shown slowly “waking up” from the reality of the simulation – but even then the audience is unsure of whether or not the women are realizing what’s happened to them. And just as Alice is about to escape the simulation, her escape is interrupted by a glimpse of Jack holding her and asking her to stay. Even though Jack is dead and cannot be revived, it still shows that even though Alice is gaining back some of her autonomy, she is still held back by Jack’s control over her.
The only glimpses of women feeling empowered are at the cause of the murders of their husbands. But unlike Alice and Jack, there were no foreshadowing or events that could explain why Shelley stabbed Frank, so was it really meant to represent women taking back the power from men? Or was it just for shock value? Unfortunately, I’m going to have to agree with the latter.
And even going back to the “female pleasure” aspect that Wilde claims to try and show on camera, any sex scenes shown in the film are a part of a simulation that Alice has given no consent towards. So, how do those scenes reevaluate the concept of showing female pleasure on the big screen when they end up being scenes of assault and still cater to the male gaze?
The overarching theme of control, physically and mentally, over women and this power that the men involved in the Victory Project give themselves overshadows any attempt of women to gain autonomy and the film fails to advocate the feminist narrative that it has tried so hard to market to audiences.
Now I’m not going to lie, I did enjoy this movie and I loved the way Florence carried the role of Alice, and I was pleasantly shocked by Harry’s performance as Jack.
While the movie’s incorporation of virtual reality makes it unique, I think the constant shift in what director Olivia Wilde says about the film and what it actually shows and prioritizes makes it difficult for others to consider this movie to be a part of the feminist genre. The number of plot holes and lack of character development for certain characters (for example, Margaret) consume most of the confusion and I understand why acclaimed film critics are harshly criticizing this movie.
The reason why the movie has been getting such bad reviews is not particularly because it was directed by a woman. I genuinely believe it’s for the lack of explanations in the plot, the misguided direction of scenes and ideas and the overall missed opportunity to portray the female empowerment theme.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is all gaslight and little to no girlboss. I wish the movie didn’t promote itself based on female pleasure and sex and focused more on the overarching issue of the patriarchy. The movie wants to make a statement and create a discussion that forces people to dive deep into feminism but ends up making the conversation stagnant and unmotivating to talk about. So just like how the ending of the movie leaves you with a “That’s it?” feeling, that is how Wilde’s attempt to market this as a feminist and women empowering film makes me feel – unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
What did you think about this review of Don’t Worry Darling? Do you agree with the points made about the lack of feminism portrayed, or have we been too harsh? Let us know in the comments below!