Don’t Worry Darling: Critiquing the Nostalgic Cultural Logic of Late Patriarchy

by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling is a stylish take on patriarchal nostalgia in which a group of men from the 2020s retreat into a computer simulation of 1950s suburbia in which they can exert full control over their chosen wives. Meanwhile, the real-world models on which these fantasy wives are based are forced (without their knowledge or consent) to give up their own lives in the 2020s in order to support the simulation (via some unspecified process). It’s a far-fetched concept that bounces about among genres and doesn’t entirely make sense, but it is obviously meant to be read allegorically, rather than literally—as a commentary on the persistence of patriarchal ideas in our own time. The male characters of the film look back nostalgically on the 1950s, which they see as a sort of lost Golden Age of American patriarchy and which they hope to re-create in order to escape their perceived loss of patriarchal power in their own time. The film, however, makes clear that this nostalgic patriarchal utopia is to be viewed negatively—and even includes a revolt within the simulation that is reminiscent of the plots of rape-revenge films. Moreover, as portrayed within the film, nostalgia for the 1950s has implications that go beyond gender. Read through the optic of Fredric Jameson’s seminal theorization of postmodernism, Don’t Worry Darling can be seen to call attention to the ways in which fears of the loss of patriarchal power are part of a general turn to nostalgia as a response to the psychic damages inflicted upon individuals by late capitalism.

Utopia, Dystopia, and Gender Relations in the 1950s

The basic (science fictional) scenario of Don’t Worry involves a high-tech cult leader named Frank (Chris Pine), who has developed the technology (not really explained in the film, which is not interested in that sort of detail) to produce a sophisticated and highly detailed computer simulation of an affluent 1950s suburban community, known as “Victory.” This community (somewhat visually similar to Palm Springs, California, where much of the film was shot) is gleefully inhabited by simulations of Frank’s male followers and by simulated versions of women selected by these followers to serve as their wives within this simulation. These virtual women are programmed (without the consent of the original models on which they are based) to be ideal 1950s-style wives (with perhaps a bit of added male sexual fantasy). Thus, they are all totally devoted to providing domestic services to their working husbands, who exit the simulation each day to go to “work,” while the wives stay home to cook and clean and perhaps go out to shop within the town of Victory (which they are never allowed to leave).

The film particularly focuses on one couple, Alice and Jack Chambers (played by Florence Pugh and pop star Harry Styles). In real life, Pugh’s Alice Warren is a medical doctor, while Jack Chambers is her scruffy, insecure, unemployed live-in boyfriend, who spends a great deal of his time waiting alone in their rather seedy apartment while Alice works long hours at the hospital where she is employed as a resident. Their relationship thus functions as a kind of exemplification of the loss of patriarchal power in the present-day world of the film. Wanting to have Alice all to himself and under his control, Jack contracts (without consulting Alice) to join the Victory Project and to have a simulation of Alice programmed into Victory to serve as his wife there. In the course of the film, though, glitches in the simulation lead Alice to suspect that something is very wrong in the town of Victory, thus driving the plot, which involves her eventual rebellion and attempt to escape the community.

Frank and the husbands of Victory have colluded to produce a patriarchal utopia that is, for the women of the community, decidedly dystopian, though the simulated women have been programmed to be happy with their subservient positions. While Don’t Worry Darling produces an interesting visual representation of an upscale 1950s suburban community, it is important to note that this film is not, in itself,a work of 1950s nostalgia; instead, it is a critique of the kind of 1950s nostalgia that might lead men, in the 2020s, to view the 1950s as a lost Golden Age of patriarchal power. It is certainly the case that Don’t Worry Darling thoroughly demolishes any notion that its simulated version of the 1950s might represent an ideal world, but this fact tells us far more about the film’s attitude toward the 2020s than about its attitude toward the 1950s.

It should also be noted that the simulation makes no attempt to reproduce the 1950s with literal accuracy. Instead, Frank and his followers, feeling that men were more empowered in the 1950s, use certain cultural memories of that decade as the basic matrix for their simulation. In this sense, the simulation of Don’t Worry Darling is similar to the many nostalgic visions of the 1950s that have proliferated through American culture since the 1970s. In this case, though, the memories of the 1950s are not only selective but are intentionally distorted, then supplemented by completely invented materials, in order to produce a version of the “1950s” that supports the desire, in the 2020s, to believe that there was once a time in American history when gender roles were firmly fixed, with men unquestionably in charge and women happy to obey. The fact that the simulation is based, not on the real historical 1950s, but on a fantasy version of the 1950s, means (among other things) that this simulation is a copy without a real original. It should thus more properly be regarded as a simulacrum, in the Baudrillardian sense, an understanding that makes clear, among other things, how thoroughly postmodern the construction of Victory really is, something that is quite central to the actual meaning of this film.

The fact that the simulation is motivated by the desire to produce certain pre-determined results (rather than a desire to produce an authentic replica of the 1950s) is clear from a number of aspects of Don’t Worry Darling, including the fact that Frank is perfectly happy (with the complicity of his followers) to draw upon characteristics of life in the 1950s that were considered problematic even in the 1950s themselves. For example, as Richard Pells notes, there was a rich body of cultural criticism in the 1950s, in which intellectuals of this period—C. Wright Mills, Dwight MacDonald, Lewis Mumford, and others—focused on topics such as the baleful consequences of mass culture and the homogenization and standardization of American life. In his visualization of Victory, Frank has no interest in correcting the flaws in 1950s society indicated by such critics. Indeed, Victory actually doubles down on the conformism of the historical 1950s, something that is figured in the film in the way the husbands of Victory all drive away in choreographed formation (echoing the synchronized dancers imagined by Alice throughout the film, possibly because they were part of her programming) to go to work each day, suggesting that men can also be “programmed” by patriarchal ideology. All in all, the emphasis on order and control is certainly reminiscent of the 1950s (as figured in the work of cultural critics of the time), but these choreographed drive-offs serve to telegraph the fact that this emphasis in Victory goes well beyond what actually reigned in the 1950s.

Of course, what Frank most obviously ignores is the legacy of feminist critiques of the patriarchal biases of the 1950s, which began in the 1950s themselves. As early as 1963, Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, provided a major boost to the rise of Second Wave feminism with her blistering critique of the subservience that was expected of women in the 1950s. Here, Friedan identifies the 1950s as a key moment in the history of women’s unhappiness and lack of fulfillment in America, largely due to idealized visions of the housewife-mother that American women were expected to accept as their own desirable role during the decade. Indeed, Friedan notes, there were massive efforts to convince American women that this situation was ideal for them, though this argument was likely far more persuasive to American men than to American women:

The suburban housewife—she was the dream image of the young American woman and the envy, it was said, of women all over the world. The American housewife—freed by science and labor-saving appliances from the drudgery, the dangers of childbirth and the illnesses of her grandmother. She was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home. She had found true feminine fulfillment. … In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. (60–61)

In his design of Victory, Frank seems to be resuming this same campaign, relying on nostalgia for the supposedly happy days of the 1950s to help further his cause. But he also draws upon more negative aspects of the 1950s by envisioning Victory as an ideal enclave surrounded by dangers from which the community’s women must be shielded. As Jameson has noted, a key element of the American mindset during the Cold War involved a vision of the “hometown reality of the United States surrounded by the implacable menace of world communism (and, in this period to a much lesser degree, of Third World poverty)”[1] (283). However, while memories of the Cold War are figured in the construction of Victory by hints that the community is surrounded by some unspecified danger, there is no clearly identified enemy to play the symbolic role that had been played in the real 1950s by the Soviet Union. Victory is also a community supposedly surrounded by danger, but the danger is patently invented, simply to encourage the wives not to try to leave the community (lest they discover that it is merely a simulation).

Perhaps the aspect of Don’t Worry that is most clearly dystopian is the figuration of Frank as the unquestioned Big Brother–like ruler of the community. It quickly becomes clear, in fact, that the devotion and adulation the other men accord to Frank go well beyond what would normally be accorded to a boss by his employees. When a new employee and his wife are invited to a party at Frank’s house, one of the other husbands informs the newcomer that Frank is so extraordinary “you’re lucky to even know who he is, let alone be standing in his house.” Later, Jack figures Frank as a sort of godlike creator, telling Alice, after she begins to realize the truth of the simulation, “Frank built this world so that we can live the life we deserve!”

This worshipful adulation of Frank is more reminiscent of a Stalinesque cult of personality than of actual American attitudes toward authority in the 1950s, though it does perhaps recall the warnings of Mumford in his book In the Name of Sanity (1954) that the repressive tendencies of 1950s American society might potentially put it in danger of becoming as authoritarian as the Soviet Union. Again, though, as Frank is a citizen of the 2020s, not the 1950s, one suspects that, if he got the idea of making himself such an exalted figure from any real-world events, it would probably be from the role played by Donald Trump for his followers between 2015 and the early 2020s. However, it is also the case that, as Victory is a computer-generated world, it is something like a virtual reality social media platform, much in the mode that Mark Zuckerberg has envisioned in the effort to build Facebook into the “Metaverse.” Of course, Frank’s particular megalomania, building a world where he can be worshipped almost as a god, also recalls the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, perhaps the most ego-driven of all tech moguls[2].

This dominance of Frank in Victory also reveals a crucial element of the ideology of patriarchy: because this ideology is so strongly hierarchical, if husbands are to be the rulers of wives, then there still needs to be a higher authority to rule the husbands. The obvious analogy here would be the Christian model of reality, in which women are supposed to be ruled by their husbands and their husbands ruled by God. In Victory, however, the one element of 1950s society that is most obviously and completely missing is any explicit appeal to religion, an element that played a key role in figurations of the American national identity during that decade[3]. In Victory, however, there is no need for religion because the symbolic space normally occupied by worship of a god has here been diverted into worship of Frank. Indeed, it is fairly clear that Frank’s principal motivation in creating this simulated community is precisely so that he can occupy this godlike role and bask in the adulation of his subjects. In this sense, the dystopian vibe of Victory is less political than religious, and Frank has less in common with traditional authoritarian political leaders than with cult leaders[4].

As in most dystopian narratives, Don’t Worry Darling features one key character (Alice) who begins to see through the prevailing ideology and thus to rebel against its control. Often, in such narratives, a woman plays a supporting role in inspiring the male protagonist to rebel, as with the case of Julia and Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Don’t Worry Darling, though, the woman herself is the rebel—and appears to be an unusually effective one, partly because Victory is not an actual dystopian state but merely a simulation. At the same time, Alice’s feminine rebellion does remind us that women in the 2020s are not likely to accept the kind of roles that are forced upon them in the simulation (with the possible implication that women in the 1950s might not actually have been quite as subservient as their men would have liked in the first place).

In this case, Alice is not subservient at all, which is not surprising, given her position in the real world. Ultimately, she strikes back in a mode that makes Don’t Worry Darling a variation on the rape-revenge film, which makes sense given the key role played by lack of consent in the manipulation of the women of Victory. In Don’t Worry Darling the oppression of women figures most obviously in the fact that the men of Victory know precisely what this community is and are entirely complicit with it, while the women have generally been co-opted without their permission in the “real” world and are programmed without their knowledge to play specific roles in the virtual world. The situation thus literalizes the traditional patriarchal notion that only men really understand the way the world works, while women should be “protected” from that knowledge for their own good.

For reasons that are not made entirely clear (but that go beyond the typical man-as-breadwinner motif of the 1950s), the men of Victory are required to go to “work” every day, a fact that Jack describes to Alice as a terrible burden. “I have to leave every day, just to make enough money to keep us here, and I fucking hate every minute of it!” he complains to Alice, while she gets to stay home in Victory. He then assures her that she is the lucky one in this exchange and even attempts to convince her that she is happy and that things are perfect when they are together in Victory. Perfect for him, of course, is not perfect for her: Alice has been given no say in the matter, and Alice Warren had greatly enjoyed her work. She then reminds him that he, far from trying to “protect” her has put in a great deal of effort to try to gaslight her in an attempt to “make me feel like I was fucking crazy” as part of his effort to cover up the real situation in Victory.

Each man’s home in Victory is his castle, where he reigns supreme and where his wife is his subject. In a flashback late in the film, we see a scene in which Jack was originally signing up for the Victory project (in what looks like a rather dystopian setting). Not only is he able to specify (without her permission) the real-world woman who is to serve as the model for his virtual wife, but he must also affirm that he is willing both to allow the requisite hardware to be installed in his home and to be “responsible for the physical upkeep of your chosen wife.” In short, the simulated society in Victory puts the husbands in the know and firmly in charge, with the wives as unknowing victims.

The Alice of Victory also seems to have been programmed to be perpetually (and enthusiastically) sexually receptive (as opposed to the real Alice Warren, who was, understandably, often too tired from work to be interested in sex). However, while the simulated Alice engages in sex with the simulated Jack quite willingly and seemingly as the highlight of her day, this relationship is still, in a very real sense, nonconsensual. For one thing, Alice Chambers has been programmed to respond to Jack sexually and thus has no real choice. For another, Alice Warren never consented to become the basis for Jack’s simulated wife in the first place. Of course, Don’t Worry Darling is not the sort of hard science fiction that is concerned with providing technological details, so we get very little information about exactly what happens to the original women on whom the wives of Victory are modeled. It is clear, however, that these women are not able to continue their normal lives, and the few shots that we see suggest that the originals are kept in some sort of medical stasis[5].

When Alice Chambers begins to rebel within Victory it is presumably because Alice Warren is beginning to regain control, proving herself every bit a match, not just for Jack, but even for Frank. There is a key scene in which Alice and Jack are hosting a dinner party after she has begun to suspect that something is rotten in the town of Victory. Frank follows Alice into the kitchen where she is preparing dinner and begins making comments that are clearly designed to establish his dominion over her and to assure her that he can easily handle any threat that she might pose. He tells her that she fascinates him, because a great man like him needs someone to challenge him. “No great man has changed the course of history without being pushed to the limits of his potential,” he tells her, revealing the full magnitude of his arrogance. Then he walks over to her, placing himself in a close physical proximity that is clearly meant to intimidate her. “And yet here you are,” he tells her. “Preparing dinner. Like a good girl.”

Alice, however, is not intimidated. As the dinner begins, she co-opts her husband’s place at the head of the dinner table and then takes control of the conversation, interrupting the men as they launch into various attempts at casual mansplaining to impress the wives. In particular, she calls attention to many of the suspicious details in the backgrounds of the couples, clearly suggesting that these backgrounds have been falsified by implanting memories in the women: “We’re told what we remember, until we try to remember things that they want us to forget. … Frank is doing something to us.” Frank calmly responds that she is simply insane, but the party quickly breaks up, leaving Alice and Jack alone. She gives him a pep talk clearly designed to prop up his fragile male ego, hoping to convince him to leave Victory with her; instead, he hands her over to Frank’s red-coated henchmen, so they can take her away for “treatment.”

After she returns from this reconditioning, Alice continues to suspect the real truth about her existential status. She confronts Jack and demands that he explain what he has done to her. He responds with the classic patriarchal “just stay calm,” then actually has the audacity to try to explain to her what she really wants in her life. She begins to understand what has happened. “I had a life!” she cries, “You took my life!” He then tries to explain that he actually saved her by rescuing her from a life of drudgery in which “you worked all the time!” She responds, though, by declaring, “I wanted to work! I loved working!” Jack continues to try to convince her that she was miserable and hated her life, but she finally attempts to shut down the exchange with a final key declaration, “It was my life! You don’t get to take that from me!” Jack doggedly sticks to his course, declaring that he gave her a wonderful new life that they are both lucky to have together, showing a classic patriarchal inability to grasp the notion that Alice is a person with a right to make her own decisions about how to live her own life.

When she continues to resist, he tries to restrain her physically, holding her so tightly that she can’t breathe and causing her to brain him with a drinking glass, “killing” his simulation. We learn, however, that, if a simulated person dies inside Victory, then their original body dies as well, thus upping the stakes in a fairly predictable way[6]. Alice then attempts to flee the simulation and seemingly succeeds, though the ending of the film remains ambiguous—we see a black screen and hear a gasp, presumably suggesting that the real Alice has awakened, ending her participation in the fantasy. That Jack is “really” dead seems unambiguous, though. Moreover, in what might be the film’s most surprising development (because there is virtually no set-up for it), Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), seemingly in on the game from the beginning[7], suddenly stabs and kills her husband, declaring, “You stupid, stupid man. It’s my turn now.” This moment would appear to be Shelley’s declaration that she is now taking control of Victory (perhaps to establish a matriarchal simulation), though exactly what that might entail is unclear[8]. Still, as the film ends, the film’s two central examples of patriarchal power over women have both been killed by the women they once ruled, with the implication that a blow has been struck against patriarchy.

The Anti-Nostalgic, Anti-Capitalist Anti-Postmodernism of Don’t Worry Darling

Jameson’s seminal theorization of postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” was itself originally developed through the 1980s—and thus at a time when 1950s nostalgia was still at peak intensity. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that many aspects of Jameson’s characterization of postmodernism help to illuminate Don’t Worry Darling (and vice versa). For example, Jameson consistently regards “pastiche” as the crucial stylistic technique of postmodern art, arguing that, unable to generate a genuinely personal style of their own, postmodern artists simply borrow from the styles of the past, as if choosing them from a cafeteria menu or from among the displays in a museum, without any real consideration of their meaning in their original context. Jameson notes that this process is, “like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of any laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists” (17).

In short, Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche describes quite well the construction of Victory in Don’t Worry, in which Frank’s vision of an ideal patriarchal paradise is borrowed uncritically from bits and pieces of the 1950s (and 1960s). What is perhaps more important, though, is Jameson’s insistence that postmodern pastiche is informed by a strong strain of nostalgia. Writing in a 1980s he saw as so broken beneath the weight of late capitalism that it was almost desperate for solutions, he saw his present as looking nostalgically to its own past for signs of what was perceived to be missing in the 1980s.A crucial example of postmodern pastiche for Jameson is the “nostalgia film,” a terminology he applies to films that stylistically evoke a specific period in the past in a blank, affectless mode that is bereft of the kind of genuine longing for something that has been lost that we typically associate with the emotion of nostalgia. This emotion, for Jameson, is unavailable to postmodern films because of their inability to grasp the historicity of the past (or of the present as the future of the past).

In the case of film, the styles to which Jameson refers are primarily visual, and he argues that the nostalgia film shows its lack of genuine historicism “by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts” (296). Some of his favorite examples of the nostalgia film are neo-noir films such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), noting the “stylish recuperation” of the American 1930s in the former (19), but arguing that the latter is particularly distinctive because it is set in the present but stylistically evokes the past of the film noir era, producing a “glossy” and “mesmerizing” demonstration, not of our ongoing ability to connect to our past, but precisely the opposite. For Jameson, such nostalgia films show that we have become so estranged from our present that “we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience” (21).

Don’t Worry Darling certainly produces a lavish reproduction of the visual style of the 1950s and 1960s in its set design, so it resembles Body Heat in its stylistic evocation of the past, even though it is set in the present day of the film’s production. Otherwise, Don’t Worry Darling couldn’t be more different from Body Heat or the other nostalgia films described by Jameson. These differences partly involve the fact that, within Don’t Worry Darling, characters intentionally re-create the style of a past world, rather than have that re-creation simply be the prevailing style of the film itself. Even more importantly, the simulation of the 1950s by Frank and his supporters is overtly critiqued in the film as a tool for the patriarchal domination and exploitation of women.

Thus, rather than simply participate in the postmodern nostalgia that Jameson sees as a consequence of late capitalism (which has now morphed into neoliberal capitalism), Don’t Worry Darling is directly critical of that kind of nostalgia and (by extension) of contemporary capitalism itself. Indeed, the film undermines the 1950s nostalgia on which Victory is built in a number of ways beyond the simple fact that conditions in Victory are actually so dystopian for women. For example, Frank also rules the men of Victory with an iron hand, as is illustrated perhaps most vividly when, midway through the film, Styles’ Jack executes a weird and improbable dance routine at a party hosted by Frank. The performance is ostentatiously odd, with Jack twirling about in response to prompts by Frank, dancing almost as if he were a puppet with Frank pulling the strings, thus indicating the power-hungry nature of Frank’s project, even with regard to the other men of Victory.

There is also a telling moment quite early in the film in which the wives and children lounge around a pool, providing an image of what made Southern California such an attraction in the 1950s and causing so many people and companies to head west by the end of the decade. The music that plays on the soundtrack is “Sh-Boom,” first recorded by The Chords (whose version is on the soundtrack) in 1954. So far, so good, in terms of setting the stage for a 1950s feel (though the music that plays diegetically in the community sometimes comes from the 1960s, as well). However, the lyrics of this well-known classic (in which a male point-of-view declares that “life could be a dream” if only the woman he loves would accede to his desires) turn out to be more telling than we realize at the time. Soon after the beginning of the scene, though, a topless woman (shot only from behind) walks across the view of the camera, causing one of the wives, Violet (Sydney Chandler), to remark, “There’s so much … skin.” It’s a quick moment, and nothing more is made of it, but it seems completely unrealistic for a topless woman to cause very little stir at a 1950s community pool, especially with children present. Clearly, Victory is based, not on genuine nostalgia for the 1950s, but on a male sexual fantasy of the 1950s.

That Don’t Worry Darling undercuts Frank’s vision for Victory in such ways shows that the film itself is actually anti-nostalgic. It is also anti-capitalist, and in a way that Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism helps to clarify, given that the film’s direct critique of capitalism is fairly mild and works partly by its absence—as in the absence of a working class[9]. But this critique resides mostly in the fact that the objectionable simulation in Don’t Worry is cast in specifically corporate terms. Despite the quasi-religious resonances of Frank’s rule in Victory, the community is explicitly cast as a company town in which all of the men supposedly work for the same company, with Frank as their CEO. It is not clear exactly what Frank’s position is in the real world, but his simulated world is built around a specific company, and many aspects of the community of Victory seem to derive from 1950s corporate culture in general.

Here again, Victory uncritically adopts problematic characteristics of the real 1950s. In fact, one of the most prominent contemporary discussions of the corporate culture of that decade, William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), might almost have been written about Victory. Described by Jackson Lears as the “locus classicus of the 1950s critique of conformity” (44), Whyte’s book argues that the growing regimentation of corporate culture in the 1950s was producing a population of corporate clones whose identity was determined by the culture of the company they worked for, rather than by any genuine individual characteristics.

Most importantly, Don’t Worry Darling illustrates Jameson’s notion that, in the postmodern era, nostalgia works in the interest of capitalism, a notion that runs contrary to the classic Marxist vision of capitalism as driven by a ruthless pursuit of innovation and modernization, as exemplified by the famous passage in The Communist Manifesto in which Marx and Engels note that capitalism is marked by “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudice and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air” (6). At the beginning of the twentieth century, when capitalism entered a new consumerist phase, it became even more devoted to the new. As William Leach notes in his study of the rise of consumer capitalism in America, “American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods” (14). However, despite other differences, Marx (and Engels) and Leach are both describing a capitalism that was still in the process of sweeping across and modernizing the globe, while Jameson consistently describes the postmodern era as one in which the process of capitalist modernization has essentially been completed, removing much of the innovating impulse that had formerly driven capitalism. Mark Fisher goes even farther, arguing that late capitalism breeds mediocrity, suppresses creativity, and produces a “culture of monotonous moribund conformity” (73).

Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the men of Victory, filled with a vague sense that something is missing from their lives in the 2020s, can only look to the past for solutions. The husbands of Don’t Worry specifically misidentify the cause of their malaise as the decline of patriarchy from the 1950s to their present, but this attribution is consistent with broader nostalgic tendencies in American society in the 2020s, illustrated culturally by a wave of nostalgia (aimed, ironically, mostly at the 1980s, when Jameson was writing about nostalgia for the 1950s). This tendency is embodied politically in the slogan “Make America Great Again,” which really means make America like a fantasy version of the 1950s, thus erasing the past six decades of progress in the Women’s Movement and Civil Rights Movement. Postmodern nostalgia thus turns out to be a highly effective strategy for diverting attention from the damaging consequences of the advance of capitalism into its neoliberal phase during those six decades, instead exploiting racism and sexism to deflect the blame for those consequences onto either the collapse of traditional gender roles or the decline in white domination of America. By deconstructing nostalgia for the 1950s, Don’t Worry Darling potentially undermines this project of deflection, shifting attention back onto neoliberal capitalism as the true cause of the current prevailing mood that something is badly wrong with the texture of American society in the 2020s.

Don’t Worry Darling is, first and foremost, a critique of the persistence of seemingly obsolete patriarchal fantasies into the United States of the 2020s, leading some men to fantasize about a return to an imaginary past (the 1950s) when men were more firmly in control. Despite the interesting science fictional conceit that drives the film, some critics found anti-patriarchal message of Don’t Worry a bit heavy-handed and clichéd, as when Adrian Horton, reviewing the film for The Guardian, declared its feminism to be “empty” and concluded that the film“turns the brain off rather than on.” However, reading the film’s interrogation of nostalgia as a potential critique of capitalism adds a whole new dimension to the film by suggesting that one key reason for the persistence of patriarchal fantasies (like other forms of nostalgia) is that this persistence works in the interest of the capitalist system, diverting attention from the damaging psychic effects of neoliberal capitalism onto false alternative villains, such as feminism, immigrants, or “woke” politics.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. 1963. W. W. Norton, 2013.

Horton, Adrian. “The Empty Feminism of Don’t Worry Darling.” The Guardian,26 September 2022, Accessed 10 March 2023.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.

Lears, Jackson. “A Matter of Taste: Corporate Cultural Hegemony in a Mass-Consumption Society.” Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War. Edited by Lary May, University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 38–57.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Ed. David McClellan. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1954.

Oakley, J. Ronald. God’s Country: America in the Fifties. New York: Dembner Books, 1986.

Pells, Richard H. The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Whyte, William. The Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.


[1] Interestingly, Jameson makes this point amid a discussion of Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, a novel that deals with 1950s nostalgia and the creation of a simulated 1950s community, with the twist that the novel itself was published in 1959.

[2] For another cinematic version of the tech mogul as dystopian patriarchal figure who tries to use his resources to produce fantasy versions of women, see Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014).

[3] For a discussion of the role of religion in American society in the 1950s, see Oakley.

[4] Meanwhile, as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) famously demonstrates, dystopias with a religious orientation tend to have a strongly patriarchal character, with their most oppressive energies typically aimed primarily at women.

[5] When Alice asks Jack what has happened to the original bodies of the other wives, he professes ignorance. “A man’s responsible for his own wife and nothing else,” he explains.

[6] Compare the 2006 horror film Stay Alive, in which participants in a haunted video game learn that “if you die in the game, you die for real.”

[7] Other than Shelley, the only woman in Victory who seems to know about the simulation from the beginning is Alice’s friend Bunny (Wilde), who admits to Alice late in the film that she has known all along but agreed to enter the simulation willingly so that she could be with simulations of her two young children, her real children having apparently died. This motif potentially suggests the way in which motherhood has traditionally been used as a tool of patriarchal manipulation, though that suggestion is not developed in the film.

[8] The exact implications are a bit unclear, but the names “Shelley” and “Frank” surely evoke the Frankenstein story, and there is clearly a way in which Frank functions as a Frankensteinian mad scientist, as does Nathan Bateman in Ex Machina. Shelley’s final defeat of Frank perhaps reminds us that, in the original Frankenstein story, it is Mary Shelley who is the true creator, not Victor Frankenstein.

[9] There are some service personnel, such as the trolley driver who transports Alice at one point. These workers appear to be entirely virtual simulacra, with no models in reality—which is also stipulated to be the case for the children in Victory. The redcoat security personnel in the film are presumably in this category as well.