The United States is perhaps the last surviving empire of memory from its golden age. The sun set on the British a long time ago, and the Greeks literally rested on their laurels for a few thousand years.
But America is within earshot of the post-war boom, close enough to cry back. Our country is haunted by the 1950s like no other decade. The dividing line across the American heartland is not the Mason-Dixon, but rather the debate over whether the 1950s is something to run from or run away from.
“Don’t Worry Darling,” the latest from director/actress Olivia Wilde, is no exception to this obsession. The story follows the young married couple of Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles, whose appearance earned an enthusiastic standing ovation from a row of teenage girls at my screening.) They and their neighbors live in the Edenic company town of Victory, run by the mysterious Frank (Chris Pine).
As it’s the 1950s, the men go off to work at Frank’s top-secret company while the women stay home to cook, clean, and abstain from abstract thought. All except Alice, of course, who begins to pick up on the incongruities of her perfect life.
It wouldn’t be too spoiler to reveal that there’s a dark underbelly to this suburban paradise. (When was the last time there was a movie about the 1950s that didn’t address the seedy undercurrent beneath the facade? It would be more of a shock to see a positive portrayal of consumerism and parenthood emotionally distant.) In a shocking not-so-shock, Alice discovers that Victory is a virtual reality town, where husbands erase their wives’ memories so they can live in a world where patriarchy is in full swing. I know, stop the presses.
Yet the cheeky predictability of history here raises a much more interesting question, not about gender roles, but rather about the aesthetics of traditionalism.
The current battle for America’s soul has bogged down in trench warfare, with neither side conceding an inch. As a result, the war has shifted to more frivolous battlegrounds, particularly in the realm of aesthetics: the right and the left attempt to derive meaning from polyester, believing there is something inherently good or bad in what amounts to a mound of tissue.
The film is correct in its diagnosis that there are many men who think tradition comes from aesthetics, rather than an aesthetic reflecting established virtues. The men in the story did nothing to earn the respect of their wives; they feel it is their due. If there’s a crisis in masculinity these days, it’s in trying to reconcile that respect once compelled must now be earned. Victory’s literal men’s retreat mirrors the spiritual retreat some men take out of old-fashioned clothes, hiding from the world instead of working to change it. I have seen many pained faces of men who coughed on a pipe, smoking not out of desire but to follow the furrows of masculinity already traced before him.
Director Olivia Wilde further hints at this with her villain. Frank, who appears to be inspired by popular psychologist and conservative lecturer Jordan Peterson. Like Peterson, Frank attracts a retinue of directionless men, adrift in a society that doesn’t really need them. Frank often speaks in Petersonian axioms, the substance of which matters less than the conviction he inspires in his devotees.
Peterson, of course, is much more constructive and less murderous in his advice, but the parallels seem deliberate. Avowed agnostic, Peterson speaks favorably of Christ but sees more utility in the teachings of Jesus than any divine consideration. Peterson sees religion and tradition as tools for a good life, simply means and not ends in themselves.
The flip side is just as messy, treating the traditional aesthetic like a totem of dark magic. Throughout history, many garments have become symbols of female oppression. There’s hardly any positive correlation with the corset, and there’s a horrible chance your mom burned a bra in her day.
But that every era needs a new symbol of subjugation suggests that the evil never resides in these garments, but in a shifting system outside of it. Patriarchy is shrewd and fits in well with any age it finds itself in. After all, there were plenty of men in the audience for those liberating bra burns.
By treating mantillas and above-the-knee dresses like the shackles of misogyny, they are granted power they never asked for and credit where men never tried. The male gender does not dictate fashion; we can barely stay awake while we wait for you outside the locker room.
The corset was made by women for women, and the slander against it is technically misogynistic. Even though Wilde paints this 1950s world as a male fantasy, his camera lovingly skims Alice’s many dresses. If it’s a cage, even she has to admit it’s golden.
If there is a lesson here, there is no lesson. The traditional aesthetic gives no meaning beyond its own beauty; the only thing worse than burdening them with a socio-political purpose is to burden them with a purpose. Beauty is a gift from God, and the best gifts are useless. So if you insist on drinking your drink like Don Draper, have the decency to kill your liver just for the fun of it.