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With two of the pop star’s films on the horizon, we appointed a Senior Harry Styles Correspondent. Several exhausting months later, Sacha Judd concludes it’s time for Hollywood to get to grips with online conspiracies—and audiences to find new ways to approach films soaked in manufactured scandal.
Don’t Worry Darling, Letterboxd’s most anticipated film of 2022, finally came to cinemas last week, claiming the US box office number-one slot and topping this platform’s most popular rankings by the end of its opening weekend. Anyone buying a ticket for the debut public screenings was inevitably either doing it because or in spite of the drama surrounding the film’s release.
I was definitely in the latter camp, going with two friends I met at Harry Styles’ first solo show in New York in 2017 and have been fandom besties with ever since—because what else do you do when you’re reunited with your fellow Harries after three long pandemic years than park up in recliners at Alamo Drafthouse to watch him in his first starring role?
Styles, famous in fandom for his rambling interview answers, was mocked relentlessly by Film Twitter for saying that Don’t Worry Darling was a movie that “felt like a movie”, and though it’s not at all what he meant, once you’ve seen a film soaked in so much manufactured scandal it’s hard to not reach the conclusion that it’s just a movie.
Visually, it’s absolutely stunning to look at, with an incredible performance by Florence Pugh in the lead. It’s also so refreshing to watch something that isn’t yet another piece of franchise IP, or yet another prequel, reboot or sequel. But ultimately it’s just a film—there’s absolutely nothing about it that warrants the space it’s taken up in the discourse and no way to get back the brain cells wasted on all that spilled tea. How does anyone even watch a film critically (or uncritically) when there’s so much noise surrounding it?
It was a question that loomed large earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was there in my newly minted role as Letterboxd’s Senior Harry Styles Correspondent—a joke that became decreasingly funny as the hot takes and breathless explainers spilled over from Venice across every conceivable media outlet. There to promote his other new movie, My Policeman, you got the sense that Styles’ appearance was being tightly controlled. Questions for the press conference had to be submitted in advance, before anyone had even seen the film. On the red carpet, the stars didn’t speak to the media at all.
“What was it like??” my friends and fellow fans asked me. He’d sat across from me, after all, mere meters away. But the photos on Tumblr were clearer than the ones I snapped, the video from the Twitter livestream just as good. There really isn’t any insider access granted by a press pass when the fans are having the same or better experience, at the same time—ready to publish their own critiques before you even get out of the theater.
Asked at Venice about the tabloid speculation surrounding Don’t Worry Darling, director Olivia Wilde said, “the internet feeds itself, I don’t feel the need to contribute, I think it’s sufficiently well-nourished.” There’s certainly been no better recent example of fandom, celebrity gossip and film discourse combining into an ugly ‘well-nourished’ ouroboros than what’s unfolded over the last few months surrounding this particular movie.
You could look anywhere and find headlines promising the “truth about the drama”, memes, and endless TikTok unpackings. One friend even sent me a PowerPoint presentation someone had shared in her book club. The hot takes eventually simmered down to reflections about how enjoyable it all was, post-pandemic, to engage in “harmless” celebrity gossip again.
Harmless, reputationally, for Styles, who I watched quip about spitting on Chris Pine the following night at his show during a sold-out residency at Madison Square Garden. Harmless for Pugh, certainly—who became the internet’s “queen of quiet quitting”. Harmless for Pine, memed endlessly for his dissociating stare. Beneficial, even, for Shia LaBeouf—now cast in a Coppola film as part of an ongoing redemption tour. But for Wilde—one of a tiny handful of female directors to be greenlit on a second project—none of this seemed very harmless at all.
In watching all of this unfold, all I could think was that we are overdue a reckoning with the way the online environment is allowing misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods to be increasingly weaponized against women in cinema. And the Hollywood engine is beyond overdue in getting to grips with fandoms and the power they wield, even after over a decade of toxic hate and harassment being leveled at artists of color, widespread blowback over casting choices, and the inability of studios to protect their stars.
While a number of commentators rightly identified the misogynistic tilt to this whole affair, the rapid cycle of takes overlooked one crucial point: all of this happened to Olivia Wilde simply because she’s dating Harry Styles.
It helps to go back to the beginning and understand how we found ourselves in this particular mess. The rumors about the Don’t Worry Darling set didn’t start with TMZ or Page Six. They didn’t even start with the earlier gossip blinds shared on anonymous Instagram account DeuxMoi. They started on Tumblr and they started in the One Direction fandom.
To grasp what’s happened to Olivia Wilde online, you have to grapple not just with what may or may not have happened on set. She and Pugh may have fallen out for any number of completely justified reasons and it would never have resulted in the kind of digital hyena-pack that’s waited to consume Wilde at every turn. We would likely never have heard about it at all, if it weren’t for a dedicated subset of Styles’ fans.
Hating Olivia Wilde is an example of the depressingly common venom leveled at the romantic partner of a star with whom stans have a parasocial relationship. Styles has been notoriously private about his personal life, saying in interviews that regaining his privacy was paramount to him after five years of intense scrutiny as a member of the world’s most famous boy band.
And yet, all of the women with whom he’s been linked over the years have been subject to the same outrageous levels of hateful conduct and harassment. Styles, speaking to Rolling Stone last month alluded to this, saying “Can you imagine going on a second date with someone and being like, ‘OK, there’s this corner of the thing, and they’re going to say this, and it’s going to be really crazy, and they’re going to be really mean, and it’s not real… But anyway, what do you want to eat?’ ”
These so-called fans are happy to dig through years of social-media posts to find ways in which a romantic partner has been “problematic”, dismissing French model Camille Rowe for “supporting serial killers” (she dressed as Sharon Tate for Hallowe’en) and British chef Tess Ward for being fatphobic. In the eighteen months or so that Wilde and Styles have been seen together, Wilde has come under an even more intense array of criticism. The ten-year age gap between her and Styles makes her “predatory”. Her shared custody of her children with former partner Jason Sudeikis has been interpreted to mean she is a bad mother who routinely abandons her kids. She is “unprofessional” for embarking on a relationship with someone she met on set.
For the fans spreading these talking points, finding reasons to justify their toxic behavior is critical—that way they can deny that this is a case of, “if I can’t have him, no one can”. It’s not that they don’t want Harry to find love, it’s just that this woman (and the one before her and the one before that) is obviously completely unsuitable.
For Styles though, the problem is exacerbated by a core group of conspiracy theorists who have plagued his fandom since One Direction was first formed. Calling themselves Larries (after the portmanteau ‘Larry Stylinson’), these fans believe that Styles has been in a closeted gay relationship with former bandmate Louis Tomlinson for over a decade. No amount of denials from either man (or any number of people close to the pair) have dissuaded this group, nor the fact that Tomlinson is in a long-term relationship with a woman, nor that he has a son, nor even that Styles and Tomlinson haven’t been seen in the same room for over six years.
All of this nonsense seems “harmless” on the surface—just another example of toxic behavior in niche corners of the internet providing hilarious fodder for the group chat. And yet film and television stars are increasingly dealing with baseless conspiracy thinking taking on an ugly and outsized importance. Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife, director Sophie Hunter, is regularly accused of faking her pregnancies, being a drug user, and worse. Outlander star Catríona Balfe has spoken out about conspiracists (who think she is secretly dating her co-star) casting doubt on the paternity of her son, and even harassing staff at the church where she wed in an attempt to prove her marriage was a sham.
Harry’s own mother Anne, sharing a proud Instagram post this week praising the film and Olivia’s achievement, was so drowned in hateful comments that she posted a follow-up in her stories. “If you can’t say something nice,” she said, “don’t say anything at all. I’m astounded and saddened by the vitriolic comments… If you don’t like me, don’t follow me.”
This behavior by “tinhats” (as they’re known in fandom—a term first coined to describe fans of The Lord of the Rings who were convinced cast members were in secret gay relationships, unable to declare their forbidden love) has at its core the idea that everything is a stunt constructed for media consumption. Every paparazzi shot is staged; every time we see a star in a public place it’s “for promo”.
If you genuinely believe Harry Styles is gay and not allowed to come out, then every time you see a picture of him with a woman, you can assume it’s fake, that the woman concerned is being paid or getting something out of it for herself and thereby “profiting” off his closet. If it’s a stunt, there’s no obligation to like this woman—in fact the opposite. You’re justified in thinking of her as a villain and behaving accordingly, as viciously as possible, something Alice Marwick has dubbed morally motivated networked harassment. Regardless of who gets hurt in the process.
On Tumblr, Larries tag their posts with an increasingly hateful taxonomy: “Don’t Watch DWD”, “Olivia Wilde is a Narcissistic Asshole”, “Fuck You Olivia Wilde”. Meanwhile, these same fans are keen to promote My Policeman at every opportunity because it’s deeply unthreatening to their false narrative. Styles’ co-star is Emma Corrin, with whom he has never been romantically linked. Styles himself is playing a closeted gay man, something they believe to be true in real life. “Michael Grandage seems like such a professional and competent director,” they say, as if the implications were not obvious.
Maintaining their ongoing hate campaign against Wilde puts stans in what should be some awkward spots, given the demographics of Styles’ fandom (female, progressive, queer). They side with Wilde’s former partner Sudeikis in their split, revelling in Wilde being served papers relating to custody on stage at CinemaCon, despite it being a cruel and humiliating tactic deployed against a woman in a professional setting. While they won’t come right out and say that LaBeouf is a hero, the glee with which his side of the story was received was a sight to behold. Even aligning yourself with alleged abusers is okay if it’s against a woman who isn’t what you want her to be.
Worse still, Media Matters found that right-wing sites exploited the situation, amplifying the hateful content and using terms like “commie whore”, “Hollywood harlot” and “bimbo” to describe Wilde, “eager for the downfall of women who are outspoken on progressive issues” (and for the income that clicks on these stories generate).
If all of this seems familiar, it should. We are only months from an unrelenting news cycle that painted Amber Heard as an unsuitable victim, reduced her defamation trial to popcorn emoji and endless memes, and cast anyone with a TikTok account in the role of expert commentator.
And none of this might matter, if the pernicious behavior of these conspiracists stayed in the pettiest corners of the internet, but in this case it broke containment, bubbling up through the gossip blogs and tabloids, repeated over and over until lies ossified into “facts” that even the trades were credulously republishing seemingly without any scrutiny at all.
People close to Don’t Worry Darling describe it as “famously untroubled”. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique described it as “one of the most harmonious sets” he’s worked on. Forty members of the crew put their names to a statement saying all the stories were false. But it’s too late. The truth is boring: far better to green-screen some cast photos behind you on TikTok and boldly state that Gemma Chan was pressed into service by forces unknown to keep Wilde away from Styles on the Venice red carpet.
Even in writing this piece, I don’t get the luxury of just writing about the film (which, for the record, I enjoyed)—or about Styles’ performance, or Wilde’s directorial vision. No one does, anymore. Every review is forced to reference the ugliness and give further column inches to the opinions of people who genuinely don’t deserve them. I’ve chosen not to rate the film on my own Letterboxd because I know stans have been trying to identify my account.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch Harry Styles perform over the years at venues all over the world, including the Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the O2 and the Hammersmith Apollo. At every single show he encourages his audience to “feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room tonight”. The crowd always goes wild. It’s an invitation to participate in something so filled with joy and abandon. To dance and sing your lungs out and watch your fave do the same.
His exhortation to “treat people with kindness”, however, seems to fall on deaf ears when some of his stans are back behind their keyboards again, filing half-star reviews on Letterboxd before the film has even come out. It’s depressing to see a film-reviewing community being used in this way. Letterboxd HQ confirmed to me that Don’t Worry Darling has been one of their most heavily moderated films this year: online reviews yet another cudgel deployed against women in cinema, again and again.
It’s easy to enjoy Florence Pugh iconically wielding her Aperol Spritz, Chris Pine drifting drama-free above the fray, and ultimately Olivia Wilde is successful and seems unbothered and doesn’t exactly need our help. But if we let ourselves continue to be led around by conspiracists with axes to grind, we’re allowing a set of tactics to flourish that will continue to have dangerous consequences, something I’ve spent more time than I’d like to digging into over the last few years.
Already the post-opening reviews of Don’t Worry Darling are making sly—or even overt—reference to the fact that the scandal may have helped the film, giving fans and the media alike fuel for future fires. Indeed, the distribution chief for Warner Bros suggests that “the background noise had a neutral impact” (he’s speaking financially). But conspiracy thinking isn’t fun or neutral or harmless anymore. Believing everything you see to be constructed or manipulated is a dangerous onramp to far more significant political movements—something, ironically, that is explicitly raised in the film.
Celebrity gossip can—and should continue to—be a delightful, empty-calorie snack. But only when we take the time to think about where it’s come from, why it’s so popular, and if there isn’t a toxic amount of poison hidden inside. When the industry is still stacked so heavily against the very small number of women who have risen to the point Wilde has—her film taking in an above-forecast $19.2 million at the US box office on opening weekend, and becoming one of the widest openings by a female director ever in the UK and Ireland—we should be interrogating much more closely the motivations of the people who seem ready, willing and eager to tear her down.