Much has been made of the stakes for Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature Don’t Worry Darling, a twist on 1950s suburbia putting the focus on women's ambition and autonomy. But Contributing Writer Lillian Crawford looks back at the history of cinema and finds this shiny idyll rings awfully hollow.
“Life could be a dream
If I could take you to a paradise up above
If you will tell me I'm the only one that you love
Life could be a dream, sweetheart”
Warning: this article contains spoilers for Don’t Worry Darling.
What if suburban dreams weren’t just the stuff that 1950s song like ‘Sh-Boom’ by The Chords were made of? Picture it: a sunny neighbourhood flanked with palm trees, large houses with fully-equipped kitchens and cobalt-blue swimming pools. To quote Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors: “Far from Skid Row / I dream we’ll go / Somewhere that’s green.” It’s a utopian vision seeped deep into Hollywood, from quasi-nostalgic TV dramas like Mad Men to the pop aesthetic of films directed by Tim Burton and David Lynch. It’s a world never allowed to be as stable as we wish it to be, proving the perfect setting for the pristine white picket fences skirting the mint-green gardens to come crumbling down.
This is what men want. An idyll to keep one’s wife out of sight and mind while working and philandering on the town. Don Drapers leaving Betty Drapers behind in their beautiful prisons. The home and its neighbourhood shield women from the double lives pursued by their husbands – or at least that’s the imagined version of post-war American family life the movies sell us. The latest film to construct this artificial paradise is Don’t Worry Darling, written by Katie Silberman and directed by Olivia Wilde, centering on poster-couple Alice and Jack Chambers, played by Florence Pugh and Harry Styles. But just as not everything was apparently as rosy as it seemed on set, the film is a delicate glass ornament as exquisite as it is hollow.
The suburban Americana of Don’t Worry Darling is known as the Victory Project, capable of “changing the world”. The inhabitants move like clockwork. In the focal cul-de-sac where Alice and Jack live, wives pack their husbands lunches in tin boxes and send them off to work in their pastel-finished Cadillacs with a cheery kiss on the lips. To the beat of 1950s crooners, the not-so-desperate, not-quite-real housewives set about their day knowing nothing of what their husbands are getting up to in the heart of the desert. Intercut throughout the film is a big, black-and-white Busby Berkeley chorus line number featuring a host of identical Depression-era showgirls moving together like cogs in a machine. Their dance is hypnotic, lulling the women into an unconscious march of male progress.
The genre potential of this familiar set-up is broad. It can be a dark but fantastical romance, as in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), a twisted neo-noir like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), or a black surreal comedy like Greener Grass (2019), directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. There is something deeply unsettling about the immaculate, a place too smooth around the edges to have any life. The crushing sense that it’s all too good to be true, and the exhausting cover-ups required to maintain the artifice of perfection when things fall apart. Edward Scissorhands is hidden away in a castle, Frank Booth’s drugs and sadomasochism are kept behind the red curtain, and Jill Davies pretends that her son has not, in fact, turned into a dog.
Don’t Worry Darling is most indebted to The Stepford Wives, originally a 1972 novel by Ira Levin and later films directed by Bryan Forbes in 1975 and Frank Oz in 2004. The story follows Joanna Eberhart who moves with her husband to such a neighbourhood in Connecticut where the subservience of the wives to their husbands borders on domestic slavery. She realises the women are all robots built by the male inhabitants, eventually giving up her career as a photographer to become a ‘Stepford Wife’ herself. While Oz played the narrative out as comedy, the 1975 adaptation uses a subtler form of science fiction that remains convincing as a fabrication throughout. Both book and film were made in a climate of masculine fear for the resurgence of feminism in the USA, of losing control on women and their assumed docility.
Silberman and Wilde have seen a parallel between this male anxiety of the 1960s and ‘70s and contemporary anti-feminist backlash. The Victory Project at the heart of Don’t Worry Darling is bred of an incel cult, supposedly ‘involuntarily celebate’ men denied sex by career-minded women failing to serve their womanly duties as sexual submissives. The founder of the Project is Frank, a grotesquely arrogant man convinced of his right to dominance unsubtly based on Jordan Peterson. Just as living in Stepford requires a man to replace his wife with an engineered model, joining the Project involves drugging one’s partner and hooking up to a virtual reality mainframe. It’s a technology founded on the principles of the rights of man, to be served by his wife and give her stability, comfort, and protection in return. A return to a bygone heterosexual ideal of nuclear family life.
Considering the premise of the Victory Project is using women for the ends of men, it’s striking that the sexual emphasis in Don’t Worry Darling is placed on female pleasure. The moment Jack Chambers bursts through the door at the end of the working day, his tongue is between his wife’s thighs. All the film’s sex scenes involve Jack stimulating Alice’s clitoris, as she gives herself over to him wherever they are, be it at a friend’s pool party or knocking a freshly home-cooked meal off the kitchen table. The amount of cunnlingus in the film is surely indicative of Wilde’s directorial hand, of aiming to reverse the general absence of women’s orgasms in the history of cinema.
The cracks in the Victory Project start to show early on. Alice questions the reality deftly crafted around her, breaking through the gaslights to return to her life as a surgeon who gains value from her own work, rather than her husband’s. By waking up from this masculine fantasy and removing the gingham-patterned wool from her eyes, Alice recovers her agency in the final moments of Don’t Worry Darling before the picture fades to black. In doing so, Wilde seeks to remind us of the illusory ‘feminine mystique’ condemned by Betty Friedan in the 1960s, that all women will gain fulfilment from housework and raising her children. It’s a return to the Second Wave of feminism, to attack the attempts of incel culture to regurgitate the gendered dynamics of the past in the 21st century.
There’s no subtlety to Don’t Worry Darling. The film always feels egregious in its handling of feminist history, relying on a model that feels as attached to an outmoded era as the Victory Project does itself. After Alice condemns the Project at dinner with Frank, she is taken to a facility where she has electrodes attached to her head in a form of electroshock therapy evocative of that used on women like Sylvia Plath in the 1950s as a ‘cure’ for depression. Wilde plays with trauma throughout the film, using fragments of a melody half-remembered by Alice as the song Jack sang to her as he hooked her up into the virtual world. Wilde’s own character, Bunny, willingly entered the Project to bring back her dead children in a similar vein to Scarlet Witch in Marvel’s WandaVision, in which she builds the suburban world of I Love Lucy in a desperate attempt to have a ‘normal’ family life. The shallowness of the film’s engagement with trauma and female oppression renders it almost as superficial as the world it creates. Perhaps it’s time to let go of the past altogether and focus instead on the here and now.
Lillian Crawford (@lillcrawf) is a writer on all things film, culture and gender. She is a Contributing Writer for READ ME and her musings can be found at Little White Lies, Letterboxd and Varsity.