In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique irrevocably altered the cultural landscape. Credited with sparking second-wave feminism, the book explored the “problem that has no name”: in short, a lingering sense of dissatisfaction that pervaded women’s roles as mothers and wives. Though Friedan was wholly committed to the responsibilities of the home, she—like many other housewives in mid-20th century suburbia—felt stifled by its lack of intellectual stimulation.
As Friedan wrote, “Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”
Don’t Worry Darling, a new film directed by Olivia Wilde, explores the issues raised by The Feminine Mystique through the lens of Alice (Florence Pugh), a 1950s housewife who resides in an idyllic California community with her husband, Jack (Harry Styles). Alice initially relishes the suburban bliss that the neighborhood of Victory upholds. But she soon comes to question the rigidity and isolation of the town, which confines all women to a regulated schedule as their husbands toil away on the mysterious Victory Project.
In an interview with Vogue, Wilde deemed the movie “The Feminine Mystique on acid.” Articulating the story’s central conflict, she added, “What are you willing to sacrifice in order to do what’s right? If you really think about it, are you willing to blow up the system that serves you?”
Here’s what you need to know about the history behind Don’t Worry Darling—and its feminist foremothers—before the film’s arrival in theaters on September 23. Spoilers ahead.
Is Don’t Worry Darling based on a true story?
Don’t Worry Darling is a work of fiction that draws loosely on experiences detailed in The Feminine Mystique. Repeatedly, the movie leans into Alice’s growing sense of unease as she wades through the monotony of her day-to-day life. She makes breakfast for her husband, sweeps the floors, attends ballet class with her fellow housewives, buys groceries and returns home to cook dinner. Alice and the other women are barred from leaving the neighborhood and discouraged from asking their husbands about the work they perform for Frank (Chris Pine), the leader and architect of the Victory Project.
Whenever Alice dares to question the town’s rules, she is reminded of the privileges that Victory provides for its loyal occupants. Here, the movie introduces images of upper-middle-class luxury: sleek automobiles, spacious homes and ornate furniture.
As Wilde tells Variety, she attempted to construct a “[p]aradise as defined by the largely monogamous, misogynistic media and world that we’ve grown up with.” Describing the aesthetics of the film, she refers to the iconic photography of Slim Aarons, who captured the lush worlds of wealthy, chic socialites (in his own words, “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places”). Like The Feminine Mystique, Don’t Worry Darling focuses on the lived experiences of a very specific kind of woman: namely, a rich white one.
Who is The Feminine Mystique’s target audience?
Friedan based much of her research for The Feminine Mystique on interviews with alumni of her alma mater, the all-women’s Smith College. As a result of this skewed research pool, the book centers the experiences of upper- and middle-class white women like Friedan herself.
According to Lisa Tetrault, a historian at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in the history of gender, race and American democracy, The Feminine Mystique spoke to “this malaise that these women feel, that they’re smiling and there’s this whole kind of happy housewife thing.” It was “both supposed to speak to the facade and also the discontent underneath.”
In doing so, Tetrault adds, “It gave them a way of understanding that this was not their own individual discontent, but something that was a problem with the system. So it allowed them to move from a place of immobility and defeat to a place of anger and action.”
Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator in the division of political and military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), similarly emphasizes that “the book hit a nerve.”
“It helps to identify what you’re feeling,” she says. “It helps to give you some kind of [idea] that there are other people who are feeling this way, and, once you know what something is, you can start to think about what to do about it. You know, how do we solve this? Is this a problem? Does the problem have a solution? Is this systemic?”
In Don’t Worry Darling, Alice grows more aware of Victory’s constraints after hearing Margaret (Kiki Layne), one of the only Black housewives in the community, condemn the town’s system of control. Interrupting the chatter of a boisterous backyard party, Margaret asks, “Why are we here? We shouldn’t be here.” Later, she ominously adds, “They’re lying to us.”
Margaret’s defiance leaves a mark on Alice, who pays greater attention to the ways in which the town’s women must follow a specific domestic routine or risk social ostracism. As such, the film depicts a vision of femininity that relies on inherent assumptions about what it means to be a woman; it also underscores the perils awaiting those who don’t perfectly align with this image.
Who does The Feminine Mystique leave out?
The Feminine Mystique has courted controversy since its release in 1963, with detractors like bell hooks pointing out that Friedan’s arguments fail to account for the experiences of lower-class women and women of color. (Don’t Worry Darling has attracted its own fair share of controversy, albeit for off-screen reasons of a very different kind.)
“When Friedan speaks about work, it’s usually about finding a career and a kind of purpose, as opposed to surviving,” says Tetrault. “There’s an economic privilege that she doesn’t acknowledge and an educational privilege that she doesn’t acknowledge.”
Friedan assumes “that the gender experience is shared,” Tetrault adds. “So whatever affects a middle-class, educated white woman also affects all other women. [But] it doesn’t.”
In 1963, more than one-third of women were already in the workforce. According to the Department of Labor, most of these female employees were sales clerks, secretaries, blue-collar operatives or domestic servants. Race played a large part in determining which positions were available for specific women. In 1960, 33 percent of all Black women in the United States were domestic workers, versus just 3.2 percent of white women, per census data. Race also influenced whether women entered the workforce in the first place, with Black women historically participating in the labor force at higher rates than white women.
“Although many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique,” wrote hooks in 1984.
Crystal Moten, a curator in the division of work and industry at NMAH, discusses the importance of contextualizing the multifaceted experiences of feminists who didn’t see themselves in Friedan’s book. “You have to think about the specific backgrounds and identities of the women who are speaking,” she says. “Because that background and experience matters.”
While attempting to define universal sisterhood, some white feminists of the second-wave movement invalidated experiences specific to activists from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. “They’re speaking on behalf of everyone and, frequently, not realizing that they’re not speaking on behalf of everyone,” says Graddy. “[W]hat they assume is a consuming issue for all women isn’t. It might be an issue for all women, but it isn’t the priority issue for every group of women.”
Many activists of color wanted to push back against the racism, homophobia and classism that existed within second-wave feminist groups. They sought to protest on their own terms, introducing a wide-ranging lens of social parity. The Mexican American Chicana feminist movement, for instance, gained traction in the late 1960s and 1970s by simultaneously fighting for gender equality, labor rights, immigrant rights and educational rights. Meanwhile, the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian socialist feminist group formed in 1974, supported a new framework for social change that acknowledged overlapping trends of oppression, including race, gender and sexual orientation.
As activist and writer Audre Lorde explained in a 1980 speech, “When I say I am a Black feminist, I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my Blackness as well as my womanness, and therefore my struggles on both these fronts are inseparable.”
How does Don’t Worry Darling address issues of race and class?
While Don’t Worry Darling strives to dig into the ways that patriarchal control can be damaging for women, it fails to recognize how systemic inequality differs based on who is experiencing it.
By the time viewers meet Margaret, she has already been shunned by her peers, most of whom refuse to listen to her pleas for help. While she is arguably the first to touch upon the “problem that has no name” in Victory, she, unlike most of the other housewives, is a Black woman. Shelley (Gemma Chan), who resolutely plays the part of supportive wife to her husband Frank’s domineering ambitions, is the only other woman of color with a prominent speaking role.
Unfortunately, the film does not engage with the historical nuances of Margaret’s ostracization, which portrays a largely white community alienating, shaming and controlling her, even going so far as to medically intervene with unspecified pills in order to keep her quiet. Much of Margaret’s distress stems from an earlier attempt to escape into the California desert with her young son. When she awakens, she is horrified to find that her child has disappeared and is presumed dead. Though Margaret insists her son was taken from her to “punish” her transgressions, no one believes her.
During much of the 20th century, state officials and health experts focused their efforts on creating a medical and cultural infrastructure that rigorously supervised the reproduction of women, particularly minority groups. The U.S. government asserted control over women of color’s bodies, painting them as “feebleminded” individuals who needed state guidance on how to properly enter into (or refrain from) motherhood for the health of the broader public.
In Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, Johanna Schoen sheds light on how class divisions and racial inequality influence the reproductive care certain women receive. When Nial Cox, an 18-year-old Black woman, had a child out of wedlock in 1965, the local welfare department threatened to remove her and her family from welfare if she did not assent to sterilization. As Schoen writes, county officials could “extend reproductive control to women, or they could be used to control women’s reproduction.”
Margaret’s unfulfilled quest for recognition culminates in her suicide—a violent end that the men of the town quickly work to cover up. Meaningfully, it is Margaret’s death that cements Alice’s desire to flee her utopian nightmare. Unlike Alice, though, Margaret never has a chance to escape. As Scott Mendelson writes for Forbes, “It’s probably not an accident that this dark-skinned Black woman finds herself unable to cope with the conventionally ‘perfect’ post-World War II community.” But the situation is far less about Margaret’s inability to “cope” (phrasing that implies culpability on her part) than the ways in which she is emotionally and physically suppressed by those with greater systemic power.
Reflecting on the propensity to silence—and kill off—Black characters in film and television, Moten says, “In a sense, this media representation of erasure further compounds the historical and the intellectual erasure that happens all the time, directed at Black women and their struggles for racial and gender equality.”
“Black women have been working for women’s equality at the crux of racial and gender equality since before feminism was a name for it,” she adds. “And so, in some ways, you have this long history that when you erase Black women from conversations around racialized gender equality, you’re not only erasing their contributions to feminism. You’re also saying that they don’t have a legacy of this type of activism when they do.”
Does Don’t Worry Darling fulfill its feminist aims?
Whether Don’t Worry Darling lives up to the label of “The Feminist Mystique on acid” is up for debate. We won’t spoil the film’s big twist, but as critics have pointed out, the script takes its cue from The Truman Show and The Stepford Wives, both of which “present an outwardly pristine, if antiquated, design for living that ripples with sinister, unseen energy,” per Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. Ultimately, writes David Rooney for the Hollywood Reporter, “It … seems just a bit basic that it all points to a nefarious movement to combat the emasculation of the fragile male and the advancement of women seeking career fulfillment and financial independence—like the most elementary feminist cartoon take on male oppression.”
Beyond the predictable nature of its plotlines, Don’t Worry Darling suffers from its failure to engage with issues of race and wealth beyond a surface level.
“Even though the representation of popular culture and media has expanded since the ’50s, there’s no doubt that mainstream popular media still overrepresents a particular socioeconomic and racial profile. There’s just no getting around that,” says Robert Self, a historian at Brown University. “And it doesn’t mean that the representations are fundamentally inaccurate or wrong for specific groups, so much as they shouldn’t be universalized.”
Moten, for her part, argues that “when you intentionally engage with a political conversation and, really, a historically fraught moment, you are automatically making a political statement.”
She adds, “So then, what are you asking of your audiences? … Why are you referencing The Feminine Mystique? What do you want people to come away with?”