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7 October 2022

The hollow feminism of “empowering” Hollywood thrillers

From Don’t Worry Darling to Promising Young Woman, a recent wave of purportedly feminist films have shallow, simplistic messages.

By Amelia Tait

This article contains spoilers for the films Promising Young Woman, Don’t Worry Darling, Last Night in Soho and Not Okay.

In my opinion, the manicures give the game away. In the past couple of years, I’ve watched a number of purportedly feminist thrillers about women in the darkest and most desperate times of their lives. But no matter whether a protagonist is spiralling out of control after her best friend’s suicide, wrapping her head in clingfilm to embody the suffocation of being a 1950s housewife, or haunted by the murdered clients of a sex worker: they never miss an appointment with their manicurist.

In 2020’s Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has dropped out of medical school after her best friend’s rape and suicide. As Cassie’s life descends into chaos – she learns that her boyfriend was present during the rape – each of her fingernails remain painted with quirky, mismatched pastel colours. (Multimillionaire Mulligan has said she could “never” maintain the manicure in real life.) When, at the end of the film, Cassie is murdered trying to avenge her best friend, the camera focuses on these pastel nails encased in mud while her body is burned.

In September’s Don’t Worry Darling, Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) becomes suspicious about her picture-perfect life as a mid-century housewife – she experiences terrifying hallucinations and watches a neighbour slit their throat without so much as nibbling at her red shellac. In 2021’s Last Night in Soho, Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) suffers night after night of similarly terrifying visions, but it is with pearly white nails that she pushes away clawing spirits at the film’s climax.

So what? What’s my point? That’s Hollywood, baby! Women in zombie apocalypse films always have time to shave their pits, so why shouldn’t the tortured ladies of modern thrillers find solace painting their nails?

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But this small detail betrays the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of these ostensibly feminist movies. Don’t Worry Darling and Last Night in Soho want to show that something sinister lurks behind the gloss of 1950s and 1960s femininity but refuse to actually strip away this gloss themselves. Promising Young Woman wants to contrast candy colours with gritty violence but ultimately shows violence enacted on women, not by them. Where’s the contrast there? All of these movies want to show women in pain, but they don’t want them to look pained.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that feminism is about what is or isn’t on your fingernails. If some acrylic gel was the only problem with these movies, my critique would fall apart. But all three films have shallow, simplistic messages that ultimately flatten their women characters – the nails are just a symptom of this one-dimensionality. All three films miss or misrepresent the ongoing battles of the feminist movement.

The twist at the end of Don’t Worry Darling is that Alice is actually a 21st-century surgeon – her boyfriend has permanently strapped her to a bed and placed devices on her eyes to trap her in a simulation where he can live out his sexist fantasies. Alice’s boyfriend, Jack (Harry Styles), is revealed to be a greasy, bespectacled incel-caricature, as if the only bad men are ugly ones.

Despite the potential for horror in this twist – how does Alice pass waste? After her boyfriend has sex with her in the simulation, what does he do with her comatose body in real life? The horror is so flattened that the only objection Alice can vocalise when she realises what has happened to her is, “I like to work!” Laughably, the movie fails to show why a glossy fantasy life filled with raucous parties and teak furniture is worse than Alice’s real life as an overworked surgeon with an internet-addicted boyfriend; the film wants to be feminist without engaging with the oppressive force of modern capitalism – impossible.

Because the truth is lots of women don’t “like to work” – there is a burgeoning “tradwife” movement in which alt-right women willingly submit to men. Women’s labour is still deeply underpaid and undervalued (there’s a reason scriptwriters made Alice a surgeon and not a carer). In the UK, 62 per cent of women under 30 have experienced sexual harassment at work. American women tend to have higher job performance ratings than men but are still less likely to be promoted. We have been emancipated from the home only to be imprisoned by the office.

Don’t Worry Darling ignores all of this, so what, exactly, is it commenting on? That tying women to beds is bad? The director Olivia Wilde has said she was inspired by incels: “Disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they are entitled to sex from women.” But her depiction of incels is insultingly inaccurate – the worst are not happy to stay at home in simulations but instead impose themselves on to the world by shooting women in the streets. Today’s male supremacists don’t want to hide away in computer-generated multiracial 1950s communities – they want to impose white supremacy and sexism on all of us; they want to take all of us back to the past.

Promising Young Woman is equally empty. When we meet Cassie, she is seeking vengeance by regularly feigning drunkenness, going home with men, then revealing that she’s sober to shame them for taking advantage. Despite a misleading trailer, she doesn’t murder any of these men (boo) and settles instead for telling them off. Before Cassie is inevitably murdered herself, she has the foresight to schedule texts identifying the culprit. The film’s happily-ever-after sees the police showing up to arrest the murderer (and her best friend’s rapist) on his wedding day. No matter that in the UK, less than 1 per cent of reported rapes lead to a conviction. No matter that cops themselves rape, brutalise and murder women.

What about a movie that does let women murder men (yay)? In Last Night in Soho, Eloise moves into a bedsit owned by an elderly landlady and has increasingly disturbing nightmares. The twist is that the landlady was forced into sex work in the 1960s and murdered her clients – Eloise is being haunted by her victims. In the end, Eloise ultimately sympathises with her landlady (“They deserved it,” the landlady says. Eloise replies: “I know”) even though the murdered men were paying clients who did not know the sex was non-consensual. Are we supposed to think anyone who visits a sex worker is irredeemably bad and deserves to be murdered? That the problem with men is that they’re willing to pay for sex?

A film that pleasantly surprised me was Not Okay. The dark comedy, which wasn’t touted as feminist, follows Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) as she lies about surviving a terrorist attack for online fame. While the film still fails the manicure test – Danni has incredibly long, unchipped and unbroken nails when she is finally cancelled and hides away in fear – it treats women as complex, multifaceted people. Danni isn’t flattened into someone-that-has-stuff-done-to-her; she’s a doer, and she does lots of messed-up stuff that the movie never tries to excuse with an “empowering” message. The film lets a woman be evil for selfish, messy and non-feminist reasons – it lets her experience regret but not redemption. Somehow, that feels like real equality.

[See also: Gutsy review: This “feminist” TV series from Hilary and Chelsea Clinton is bizarre]

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