Don’t Worry Darling speaks – but misunderstands – the horrors of the ‘tradwife’ phenomenon
IIt’s hard to remember a time before I knew don’t worry darling. It is as if it had always existed; like it was here before everyone I know was born; as if it were older than time itself. And yet, the gossip juggernaut only landed in theaters this week. In the haze of confusing behind-the-scenes drama, red carpet antics, and endless Twitter clips of Harry Styles trying to outdo Florence Pugh (bless him), one thing got a bit lost, and that’s the movie. himself. The discussion on this subject seems to have boiled down to two rather banal questions: is it don’t worry darling is it good, and is Harry Styles good? However, it’s certainly more interesting to ask what the movie is trying to say about the contemporary moment. Because, behind the haze and the hype, Olivia Wilde’s film speaks of fantasy and the dangers of nostalgia. It’s about feminist backlash and alt-right male anger. These are translations.
A sexy pastel motorcade pulls out of a cul-de-sac. In the cars: men in suits. In the aisles: a parade of dolls, plump, curved and blowing kisses. Eggs and bacon in frying pans, a fresh pot of coffee, a little vacuum cleaner. Oral sex on the dining table when my husband comes home; an orgasm near the roast beef. How hot and delicious, what a dream. On the shiny, shiny surface, Alice from Pugh and Jack from Styles live the perfect life of mid-century America. In the landlocked desert town of Victory, they embark on – according to their enigmatic and brilliant leader Frank (Chris Pine) – an exciting and progressive exploit. And so, the women stay home, while the men go to work at the mysterious Victory Project, where they make “progressive materials.”
Except, of course, modern moviegoers have consumed enough media to know that America’s palm-lined cul-de-sacs still hide strange horrors, that the suburbs are a suffocating trap (I won’t use the word “Lynchian “, but you all know I’m thinking about it). If anyone had any doubts, Wilde’s management explains it to us. In a scene sure to delight anyone with an auto-erotic asphyxiation fantasy, Alice wraps her entire head in cling film; in another, she’s suddenly stuck between a wall and the sliding glass door she cleans every day, the two clutching ever tighter in a familiar surreal glitch. You understood? His life is suffocating! She’s in a golden cage!
The truth is, don’t worry darling manages to both exceed expectations and fall victim to convention. The first half is luscious and full of potential (thanks in large part to Pugh and the sinister menace of Pine), but the final third slips into cinematic cliche. When the twist comes, as it should, rather than opening the film up into intriguing new territory, it seems to rule out all options, forcing the narrative to resolve itself in a quintessentially Hollywood fashion. At the end of the day, don’t worry darling feels like The matrix and The Truman Show locked up and moved to the middle-class suburb of Stepford, Connecticut. Like those films before it, the horror in don’t worry darling revolves around a chasm between fantasy and reality. Here the fantasy stems from nostalgia; of the idea that life was better before.
There’s no denying that kind of nostalgia is rampant right now. At a time don’t worry darling was in production – long before Spitgate electrified Twitter – pockets of the internet kept proclaiming the emergence of the tradwife trend. Short for “traditional wife,” the tradwife promotes ultra-Orthodox gender roles in relationships, including “feminine submissiveness” and a cook-clean-sewn domestic lifestyle. Essentially, the ideal tradwife is barefoot and pregnant and is in the kitchen. Search the hashtag on social media and you’ll see images of pies, flowers and babies alongside flowery inspirational quotes: ‘a woman’s place is at home’, ‘trying to be a man is a waste of a wife”, even “it is healthy for a wife to fear her husband”.
The tradwife has found particular popularity on TikTok. “What’s a Tradwife” videos regularly go viral, usually mixing defensive arguments about personal choice with explanations about submitting to your husband, and how such a thing “triggers people”. Other videos feature women explicitly contrasting their past lives as “unleashed feminists”. [and] ‘Miss Independent’” with their current status as an “enlightened” conservative tradwife. Some might say being extremely online in this way isn’t very traditional-retro-housewife-anti-feminism-white-supremacist-Xanax, but TikTok tradwives make it work.
Of course, 50s fantasies about “good old days” picket fences are nothing new. They are the backbone of conservatism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. But what is remarkable about the contemporary wave of tradwife is how its proponents have embraced the language of defiance and individual action; how conservatives present themselves as radicals going against a liberal-feminist status quo. In this fantasy, it is the neo-con trad woman and her trad husband who are the oppressed minority; the Red Pilled rebels.
Yet to some extent, the tradwife trend should be seen as a logical extension of neoliberalism’s toxic potion of individualism and “choice” feminism. It rests on an understanding of human action as governed by individual desires, totally free from the constraining influence of social conditioning. This is how the language of agency and oppression is able to float away from any social fact. Attracted by dominant men? Personal choice. Financially dependent on a partner? Personal choice. Cook, clean and take care of the children and never complain? My body, my choice. There is no society.
A woman whose social media promotes “feminine growth” through a hodgepodge of “new housewife advice” (“in married life, the wife is properly the social secretary”) told me that she couldn’t comment on what attracts her to a “traditional” lifestyle, because her husband doesn’t like journalists. But, if he had given her permission to speak, would she have said that “the female household” was her vocation, as she does in her Instagram captions? Would she have said that it was a personal choice, and that serving and submitting to her husband was also serving herself?
In don’t worry darling, the sweltering suburb Alice finds herself in turns out (shock horror) to be unreal. It is precisely a golden cage – a fake utopia designed by and for men who feel out of control and deserve attention. “Utopia” is, of course, “no place”. It’s a male fantasy; pure misogynist fabrication. The horror here is a lack of choice: women are stripped of their agency and the battle is to regain control. Essentially, the movie’s message seems to be that men are bad and all women’s choices are good. If only it were that simple. In the real world, nostalgic fantasy also has gangs of girls in its grip.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is currently in theaters