Graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern

Content warning: The following piece mentions suicide and gender-based violence, which may be upsetting.  

This does have spoilers for Don’t Worry Darling. If you’re especially keen on watching a hollow white feminist version of The Truman Show, go ahead and dash to your local theater and then come back to read this.

When I walked into The New 400 Theater on Sept. 23 to see Don’t Worry Darling, my expectations were already low. Like, my mental health once week four of the quarter hits, low. It was mostly because of the film’s sensational press tour riddled with headlines ranging from set rumors and controversial interview responses to the alleged spit take viewed round the world. The other fraction of my doubts were fostered by a latent memory of Harry Styles in suspenders and a wide-brimmed hat… How could I take the film seriously with this photo floating around my subconscious?

With my expectations on the floor, it was difficult for me to anticipate the big “twist” of the film: that the idyllic 1950s style suburb of Victory is a virtual reality where men like Jack (Harry Styles) trap their partners, such as Alice (Florence Pugh).

The male characters in the film are portrayed as feeling emasculated by their partners in the real world, and are subsequently lured in by the rhetoric espoused by Frank (Chris Pine) via podcasts. They then incapacitate their female partners, bind them and force their subconscious into the virtual reality that Frank has constructed.

While the actual story of the film might have been overshadowed by bad press, Northwestern School of Communication second-year Cameron Chang says that the premise is not unfounded in reality.

“I guess it is true what the movie was saying,” Chang said. “A lot of men really do want to control the women in their lives, in a way, if they don't get what they want or they aren't the breadwinner in their household or relationship.”

The film seems to offer the same suggestion: the men of Victory all report back to Frank and defer to him as their leader. This chain of deference continues into the domestic sphere as the women of Victory are expected to support the men with warm food, gentle words and a comforting embrace.

I tried my best not to yawn in the theater as the premise of the film became clear. It’s about women and men, who are white and presumably cisgendered, and their positions within the cisheteropatriarchy. Wow. It’s almost like I had never seen anything like it before.  

Declan Franey, a second-year in the School of Communication, added that it’s not so much that Don’t Worry Darling lacks nuance, it’s the amount of times he’s watched the same messaging echo in other films.

“This has been a topic for so many years and feels definitely like a conversation that's been had a lot,” Franey said. “So it's kind of like, why was this made? What is it adding to the conversation?

Case in point: In the public conversation recently has been Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), based on the original novel by Margaret Atwood, which takes place in a dystopian society where women are forced into homes as “reproductive surrogates” and are stripped of their agency completely. The series was initially met with criticism for centering white women as the victims of a system of sexual violence that women of color have been subjugated to in real life for decades.

The hierarchies and power dynamics of Don’t Worry Darling don’t examine the nuance of the intersection between race and gender. A majority of the wives of Victory are white women. There are exceptions, like Margaret (KiKi Layne), who figured out that she was being held captive early on in the film and died by suicide in a gory sequence of shots.

The theater grew quiet as giggles about Harry Styles’s acting were suddenly sucked from the room in a matter of seconds. Men in red uniforms snatched away Margaret’s body, and she was never seen again. My chest grew warm as I realized that her death was relegated to a plot point for Alice’s character development – and later escape – from both Jack and the virtual world of Victory.  

My reaction to that dreadful scene was not unique. School of Communication second-year Elshadai Aberra said that Margaret’s death unsettled them and their friends.

“The way they executed that plot line, I feel like it was violent,” Aberra says. “She was the victim that was disregarded.”

The assumption that extreme misogyny and gender-based violence is exclusively linked to whiteness neglects the notion that anyone can be affected, according to Dr. Saed Hill. Hill is a counseling psychologist and the assistant director of prevention and masculine engagement at the Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE) on campus.

“I've had students who come to me and have said it feels hard to address these issues within our own [Northwestern] community, because it feels a lot of people treat it like it's a white issue or a white community issue,” Hill said. “We sort of have this idea of what is a victim, and what they look like. Or what a survivor looks like, or what a perpetrator looks like and what communities they belong to.”

Stories like The Handmaid’s Tale and Don’t Worry Darling attempt to make a statement about patriarchy, but that statement is only surface level. Yes, some men turn to radicalization to assuage feelings of emasculation. And yes, those ideas do reinforce the larger, overarching structure of patriarchy. But in the United States, patriarchy is intimately intertwined with and reinforced by racism.

Olivia Wilde, the director of Don’t Worry Darling, said she sought out to create a film that’s about “being willing to blow up the system that serves you.” How can I blow up a system that’s burying me? Is the true message of the film that I, a Black woman, should accept my own fate as a sacrificial lamb used to stoke the flames of a white woman’s fire, poised to set the patriarchy ablaze? And how will I know that my own story, and stories of other women of color, won’t turn to ash as well?