The Hollywood actor/director’s new movie ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ has been caught in a series of controversies—mostly bizarre and entertaining. But the PR debacle also reveals the perils of using feminism to get ahead—and promote your personal brand. No, being a girlboss isn’t a good thing any more.
If you don’t spend your time tracking Hollywood, here’s what you need to know about the movie—and the main cast of characters in this tamasha.
The movie: ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is basically a ‘Stepford Wives’ knockoff where a young wife is trapped in a 1950s-era company town. Seemingly idyllic, it hides dark secrets that put her in peril—and the rest is about her desperate bid for freedom. The movie recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has received mostly negative reviews, most of which focus on its shallow treatment of patriarchy. Example, the BBC News writes:
“But this point is ultimately so basic and expressed in such an exhaustingly overdone way—with near-identical scenes of Alice being concerned, then gaslit, staged ad nauseam—that you quickly tire of the film's rote, ‘feminism 101’ plotting. That's not to mention that the dystopian suburban setting feels wholly unoriginal too, considering The Stepford Wives exists, though that story was aided by a healthy helping of satire. This one feels more like it wants to pat itself on the back for its skin-deep message about female subjugation and empowerment.”
That the movie’s feminism is superficial is a bit ironic, as you will soon see.
The cast of characters: Here are the leading roles in the melodrama playing out off-screen:
Olivia Wilde: This is her second movie—after the well-received small budget film ‘Booksmart’. In the publicity for the film, she was framed as the next big female director—much like Greta Gerwig or Sally Potter. She started out as an actor, and her previous credits include the medical drama ‘House’ to Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell.’
Harry Styles: He is the former member of the boyband One Direction—and the adored object of affection for millions of young women. The singer’s acting ambitions—which were until now limited to a small role in ‘Dunkirk’—got an unexpected boost when he was cast as the husband. In the midst of filming, reports of his romantic relationship with Wilde became public—just months after she publicly split with her partner Jason Sudeikis (of ‘Horrible Bosses’ and ‘Ted Lasso’ fame).
Florence Pugh: She plays the wife—and is the primary focus of the movie. She is one of the hottest actors in Hollywood—with breakout performances in a pair of 2019 films, Ari Aster’s indie horror hit ‘Midsommar’ and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the beloved classic ‘Little Women’—which earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination.
Chris Pine: While he plays the villain on-screen in the movie, Pine’s role in the offline drama is just a cameo—albeit of the most amusing kind. You might remember Pine from the reboot of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise or ‘Wonder Woman’.
First, you need to know that this tamasha is entirely entertaining and worth your time—even if you don’t think it has any educational value. Happily, none of it rises to the level of other nasty Hollywood scandals about sexual harassment or bullying.
The beginning: The ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ project was announced back in April 2020—after a heated bidding war that made Wilde look good. She and Sudeikis—whose ‘Ted Lasso’ premiered in August—were Hollywood’s “it couple”. But in November, they announced an “amicable” split and by January, Wilde was holding hands with Styles at a friend’s wedding.
Wilde’s girlboss avatar: In January 2022, Vogue put Wilde on the cover—accompanied by a gushing profile that frames her as a brave feminst director—giving voice to the “female experience”. The writer declares:
“I suspect that what many women see, when they look at Wilde, is boldness itself… Onscreen, she radiates a self-possession that is untainted by self-seriousness, a quality that she has put to good use in life, too, while campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, or delivering an address to several hundred thousand protesters at the 2018 Women’s March in LA.”
The first sign of trouble: was an Instagram post shared by Wilde around Valentine’s Day this year. She praised Styles at length for taking a smaller role in the film:
“Not only did he relish the opportunity to allow for the brilliant @florencepugh to hold centre stage as our ‘Alice’, but he infused every scene with a nuanced sense of humanity. He didn’t have to join our circus, but he jumped on board with humility and grace, and blew us away every day with his talent, warmth, and ability to drive backwards.”
All of which led many to wonder whether a male pop star with barely any acting credentials was in a position to ‘allow’ an Oscar-nominated actress to take the lead role.
The Sudeikis drama: But things got seriously ugly in April 2022, when Wilde was served custody papers while on-stage at a promotional event for the movie—suggesting all is not well. But the incident only served to underline the odds Wilde faces as a woman—her male ex-fiancé stomping all over what is supposed to be her moment of professional glory. Speaking later of the incident, she said: “To try to sabotage that was really vicious. But I had a job to do; I’m not easily distracted.”
Enter, the silent Pugh: There were persistent rumours that Pugh had been paid a third of Styles’ salary. There was talk of her being upset with Wilde for her alleged habit of disappearing from set with Styles. And many began to notice Pugh’s own strange reticence about the film. In her own V-day post celebrating the wrap of shooting, she didn’t mention Wilde.
The Shia Labeouf debacle: Things really went south in August, soon after Wilde gave a Variety interview—where she explained her reasons for firing LaBeouf, and replacing him with Styles:
“I believe that creating a safe, trusting environment is the best way to get people to do their best work. Ultimately, my responsibility is to the production and to the cast to protect them… Particularly with a movie like this, I knew that I was going to be asking Florence to be in very vulnerable situations, and my priority was making her feel safe and making her feel supported.”
The reasoning sounded wise and kind—especially since LaBeouf is being sued for sexual battery by his ex-girlfriend.
But, but, but: LaBeouf immediately countered Wilde’s claims, forwarding two emails and a damning video clip of Wilde trying to coax him to stay on the film. Worse: it contained a dismissive reference to Pugh: “I think this might be a bit of a wake-up call for Miss Flo, and I want to know if you’re open to giving this a shot with me, with us.” See it below:
It’s not a good look if you’re being called out as a liar by a man accused of sexual violence. In an email to Wilde, LaBeouf also wrote:
“Firing me never took place, Olivia. And while I fully understand the attractiveness of pushing that story because of the current social landscape, the social currency that brings. It is not the truth.”
All downhill from there: Since the revelations, Pugh has launched a total boycott of almost all promotional events for the film at the Venice Film Festival—except for its premiere. And she had zero contact with Wilde at them. When the rest of the cast was at the press conference, Pugh was doing this:
Styles referenced it as a joke at his concert last night.
But far more damning: Pine’s body language at the movie’s press conference—where he looked bored, even frustrated. See this clip of his face while Styles is speaking:
What we have here is a director—who touted her feminist credentials—but most likely undermined her female lead, Florence Pugh—while feeding the male egos of Harry Styles and Shia LaBeouf. In many ways, this is the archetypal story of the girlboss—and why she has now suffered a great fall.
The girlboss: Around the mid-2010s, Sheryl Sandberg, then CEO of Facebook, urged women in the workplace to “lean in”—and soon after, Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso invented the term with her memoir ‘#Girlboss’. This was a new kind of feminist icon—who is unabashedly ambitious and boldly claims her place at the very top:
“Instead of dismantling the power men had long wielded in America, career women could simply take it for themselves at the office… ‘#Girlboss’ argued that the professional success of ambitious young women was a two-birds-one-stone type of activism: Their pursuit of power could be rebranded as a righteous quest for equality, and the success of female executives and entrepreneurs would lift up the women below them.”
The self-serving feminist fantasy: Female money and power became a feel-good win for all women everywhere:
“Riding on feminism’s increased cultural cachet… Sandberg, Amoruso, and the girlbosses who came after them seemed to propose (along with the press that breathlessly profiled them) that women advocating for themselves and their worth was, intrinsically, a form of justice.”
Their claim was based on a core and flawed premise: women were inherently better than men. They would create a more equal and inclusive workplace—expressing true feminist values.
The real girlboss: turned out to be, well, human—in other words, not much better than many CEOs elsewhere. And every bit as capable of abusing their employees. As Amanda Mull writes in The Atlantic:
“Amoruso’s career at Nasty Gal was dogged by constant turnover, accusations of discrimination and abusive management, and the company’s eventual bankruptcy… Over time, accusations of sinister labour practices among prominent businesswomen who fit the girlboss template became more common. The confident, hardworking, camera-ready young woman of a publicist’s dreams apparently had an evil twin: a woman, pedigreed and usually white, who was not only as accomplished as her male counterparts, but just as cruel and demanding too.”
The most damning bit: is that almost all these women had built their careers on the back of other women. The women they sold their products to—and the women who worked for them. And, of course, there’s all the money they raised from men by selling themselves as this attractive corporate icon. As Vox notes, the girlboss story followed a standard formula:
“A woman, or a group of women, has an idea for a company that fulfils a need for young women especially; funding is difficult to find (because venture capitalists underestimate women) but is eventually secured; a unique company is created, one that is an extension of the founders’ backstories and forged by their struggles; the women succeed because they’ve leaned into their strengths as female founders, and in doing so overcome a specific stripe of sexism.”
Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss: Thanks to the relentless spate of stories of employee abuse, the girlboss has fallen out of favour. She is instead associated in memes with the three Gs:
“In January 2021, a sentence appeared on Tumblr: ‘today’s agenda: gaslight gatekeep and most importantly girlboss.’ Very much like how the girlboss became a cultural archetype who outgrew her original ambitions, gatekeep and gaslight are terms that, in recent years, exploded in popular usage. ‘Gaslight’ has become the trendy synonym for lying—particularly a strain of lying where someone denies an obvious truth—and ‘gatekeep’ has become interchangeable with discrimination.”
Specifically, the girlboss’ discrimination is aimed against other women—to promote her own ambition—which is to be, well, exactly like a man.
A big OTOH: It would be wrong to dismiss the girlboss phenomenon as just a corporate shill. It has inspired many young women entrepreneurs to create brilliant businesses—and fostered many new funds and networks to help them do so. As Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes in The Cut, these women worked extremely hard to get ahead—inspired by its philosophy:
“Despite its flaws, the spirit of the #Girlboss — once stripped of the too-cute branding and the Instagram-follower counts and untenable investment dollars — did, for a moment, provide a template for young women as they move forward in their careers. And many of these young women, especially the less privileged ones, needed to believe they could get ahead in order to do so.”
And while we rightly critique an ugly iteration of this spirit, it is important to remember that the value it placed—on female ambition and inclusivity—remain important ideals even today.
The Olivia Wilde story: is hardly as ugly—nor her actions anywhere as serious. But it shows us that the girlboss narrative will not be easily dislodged—despite the many media stories announcing its demise. She will always offer a low-cost option—for men and women—to deploy feminist values to sell something, be it a product, a movie or a person.
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