Psychological Patriarchy and Covert Submission in ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ (2022)

Major spoilers for ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ ahead! 

“Psychological patriarchy is a “dance of contempt,” a perverse form of connection that replaces true intimacy with complex, covert layers of dominance and submission, collusion and manipulation. It is the unacknowledged paradigm of relationships that has suffused Western civilization generation after generation, deforming both sexes, and destroying the passionate bond between them.” So goes the caveat to bell hooks’ ‘Love Trilogy,’ in her fourth installment on the subject: ‘The Will To Change, Men, Masculinity and Love’. The book is also one Styles has mentioned reading in order to further understand toxic masculinity, in an interview at the Venice film festival. It carries a logic that can be easily applied to Don’t Worry Darling’s leads Jack (Harry Styles) and Alice (Florence Pugh) in retrospect, but is unassuming and hidden for most of its runtime. Despite the obviously Stepford Wives (1975) / The Prisoner (1967) – esque sun soaked setting where pregnant women sip martinis awaiting their husbands’ return from a nebulous concept called ‘The Victory Project’ way beyond the desert, even Bunny (Olivia Wilde) acknowledges the dissonance of this couple’s relationship with that of the other residents’: “Jack and Alice only have time for each other.” 

Where previous films of the same territory have made clear a coldness between husband and wife (I’m thinking of my favourite The Truman Show scene in which Laura Linney is a paid actress hopelessly reciting hot cocoa adverts to Jim Carrey’s bewildered Truman, who doesn’t realise his entire life is a televised live show), Alice lives — at least superficially — happily in a realm of domesticated bliss. Confined within the expectations of ‘50s suburbia, Jack is as good a partner as any housewife could wish for— unwaveringly supportive, affectionately doting, even attempting a roast dinner whilst donning a floral apron. Sex scenes are usually replaced with cunnilingus; female pleasure is the centrepiece of the dinner table more than once. Wilde has, as the film’s director, articulated the need for their trust and intimacy to feel genuine, a couple to root for so that the crushing plot twist is all the more disturbing. 

Alice pictures in a yellow apron stood in the kitchen, crushing 2 empty eggs.
Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Alice begins to unravel the well-trodden and pedestrian tale evident from the trailer; crushing empty eggshells, cellophaning her head in a sort of Tupperware party hellscape, and attending ominous dance classes conducted by the haunting Shelley (Gemma Chan). It’s most interesting from a pivotal dinner party scene and onwards, where Alice confronts cultleader Frank (Chris Pine) by drilling the surrounding women for their memories. None can dig back further than meeting their men after dropping their train ticket— coincidentally, the first encounter for all these couples. A collective awakening begins to ensue, with women pondering just exactly how and why they arrived here, with no other family or past to speak of. Yet Jack unconventionally stands by his wife, rejecting pills prescribed for her “paranoia” by a more than suspicious male doctor, and even advocating for her sanity. This realisation becomes even more twisted as it is revealed Jack has plugged both himself and his (now ex) girlfriend Clockwork Orange-style into a virtual reality-type world, in which they act out his fantasy daily.

An emasculated, unemployed incel, the real Jack is seen tucked away in a basement listening to Frank’s pseudo-intellectual philosophy of gender, based on psychology professor and culture warrior Jordan Peterson. Meanwhile Alice is a surgeon, working 30 hour days and consequently dismissing her boyfriend’s sexual advances a bit too often for his liking. In this self-imposed Matrix programme, Jack can position himself as provider and breadwinner, addressing a personal crisis of masculinity perhaps in order to feel worthy of Alice, whilst degrading her to the status of sex object and personal maid. This inevitably doesn’t serve him though, as Jack seems almost as helpless as his wife when confessing he hates the control exerted on him by Frank’s system; in particular, the day job he works in the real world to pay for the simulation. As bell hooks has written, “To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings.” Patriarchy so blatantly doesn’t bode well for anyone here, not even the husbands who appear content to the untrained eye. It is now clear that most of the housewives Alice has befriended are also purposefully trapped in this town by the men in their lives, although they almost certainly don’t know it yet.

Jack (Harry Styles) with a 50s hairstyle, in their gleaming kitchen, cooking for Alice.
Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

This Black Mirror-style twist would have been far more intriguing had it occurred in the second act as opposed to the third; these interesting ideas are unable to reach their full potential in the film’s strain to satisfy a rushed ending. Still, its final moments manage to build to a tense crescendo; one car chase sees Pugh running up a rocky hill to John Powell’s thundering score, in Alice’s final attempt to return to her own autonomy. Press fodder about the offscreen relationships and apparent feuding have certainly overshadowed Wilde’s second directorial effort (Here’s a great video summation if you needed one). In an ironic plot reminiscent of her own film, Don’t Worry Darling’s 38% on Rotten Tomatoes feels undoubtedly unfair and it is a misogynistic desire for a female director’s follow up to her first movie to be a bad one. Whilst male directors have had films succeed with far worse accusations aimed at them away from the camera, Don’t Worry Darling should at the very least be praised for trying to push ambitious questions of gender roles, set against high-stake action scenes and glorious set design backdrops whilst being a production carried out peak pandemic. It’s heartbreaking and demands a rewatch— if not for Pugh’s outstanding performance, then to better view Styles’ character’s duplicit and tortured existence, which comes about half an hour too late to be really appreciated.