Friday, February 01, 2013

Women in Horror Month # 1: On The Sexual Politics of Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Based on Ira Levin’s best-selling novel, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) presents viewers with a dark, mirror-image of the Christian nativity scene during its final, horrifying moments. 

Here, a human mother -- Rosemary rather than Mary -- gives birth not to the savior Jesus Christ, but to the Anti-Christ.  At the same time, craven worshipers and sycophantic attendants gather to witness the historic occasion. 

This is the beginning of “Year One…”

Meanwhile, surrounding Rosemary (Mia Farrow) are several signs and symbols of encroaching darkness and societal collapse, from the Time Magazine headline that asks the question “Is God Dead?” to the deliberate betrayal of marriage vows which stem from her husband’s (John Cassavetes) insatiable narcissism.

Even the architecturally-imposing but dilapidated and decaying Dakota Building -- infested by creepy old denizens like the Castevets -- expresses something deeply unsavory and perverse about “modern life” in the American 1960s.  Man’s world has been twisted and left to ruin…

For decades now, critics and scholars have written about Rosemary’s Baby in terms of the fears the film reflects and expresses. They have pinpointed those dreads as either “fear of pregnancy” or “fear of children/parenthood.”

Yet both examples clearly miss the film’s point. 

Rosemary’s Baby is explicitly about women, and the sexual politics that stem from that identity. 

Accordingly, the film concerns the fear of a life that is out of one’s control.

It is the fear that arises when a woman can’t exert control over her own body, and therefore her own destiny.  The out-of-control and devilish pregnancy explored in the film is but another embodiment of Rosemary’s inability to shape her own life, as well as the connected fear that others are determined to shape it to perfidious ends.

If God is indeed dead, suggests Rosemary’s Baby, it is because the 20th century American patriarchy killed Him, substituting its own narcissistic, preferential rules for the human values of liberty and freedom for all (even women).

This 1968 horror film, which critic Tim Grierson at The Village Voice termed “defiantly feminist,” thus explores vividly and memorably “the anxieties of women trapped in a male-driven society.”

“Awful things happen in every apartment house.”

In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy move into the old Dakota apartment building after a tenant on the seventh floor has died.  There, Rosemary and Guy soon meet the neighbors, the Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon).  One night, Roman Castavet makes a clandestine, dark proposal to Guy, a struggling actor.

Soon after that secret deal is arranged, Rosemary is drugged by the Castavets and, while under the influence, ushered into a religious ritual wherein she is forced to copulate with Satan.  Rosemary awakens the next day to finds scratches on her back, but Guy lies and tells her he just took some liberties with her while she slept.  

Rosemary soon learns she is pregnant.  This news coincides with the fact that Guy’s acting career finally seems to be taking off.

As the pregnancy progresses, Rosemary grows more and suspicious about it.  Her doctor, Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) refuses to tend to her excessive daily pain, and Guy won’t let her schedule an appointment with the doctor she prefers, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin). 

Meanwhile, Rosemary’s friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) falls into an inexplicable coma after warning her that he has some grave news regarding the situation…

Soon, Rosemary comes to the realization that no one in her life is looking out for her, and that if she is to save her baby, and her future, she must act.  But is it already too late? 

“We're your friends, Rosemary. There's nothing to be scared about. Honest and truly there isn't!

Rosemary’s Baby serves as a blistering social critique of what one might term the Mad Men Era in the 20th century, which by the mid-1960s was beginning to show cracks, if not outright crumble.

But this was an era in which a wife could be treated as a child, and boasted very little control over her own destiny.  Rosemary fits that description perfectly.  She speaks in a sing-songy voice and is infantalized by all the men around her.  She is not the competent, capable heroine of today's horror genre, the final girl.  Instead, Rosemary is a woman who is only just beginning to realize how little control she asserts over her own life.

Andrew Sarris in his review of the Polanski film writes that: “What is frightening about Rosemary's condition is her suspicion that she is being used by other people for ulterior purposes. She has no family of her own to turn to, but must rely on a husband who seems insensitive to her pain, neighbors who seem suspiciously solicitous, a doctor whose manner seems more reassuring than his medicine, and a world that seems curiously indifferent to her plight. When she tells her story to a disinterested doctor, he dismisses it as pure paranoia…”

But here’s the thing: Rosemary’s situation -- pregnancy by Satan -- is odd enough, but her treatment by the patriarchal society is completely routine for the epoch.

Consider that Rosemary is not permitted to decide where she wants to live. Instead, she must petition her husband for the right to make that choice.  She does not get to choose her own obstetrician either. That duty is also assigned to her husband. 

Guy (John Cassavetes) even gets to dictate (with a handy calendar no less), when “they” should begin attempting to get pregnant.   She has desired to have children for some time, but her feelings have not been taken into account, until now, when that desire can be co-opted by others.

Later, when Rosemary’s pregnancy begins to go awry, the doctor, her husband, and the neighbors all poo-poo her very legitimate concerns about pain and weight-loss.  

And when Rosemary runs, helpless, to another doctor, Hill, he betrays her because he’s part of the dominant culture’s “boy’s club,” though not a devil-worshiper.

Lest this aspect of life in the 1960s be dismissed as part and parcel of the film’s considerable (and effective) atmosphere of paranoia, one should remember the facts of women’s health in the 1960s:

In the 1960s, a woman had to get permission from her husband to have a tubal ligation,” for instance, “a procedure that made pregnancy impossible.  Single women were generally refused such procedures.” (Laban Carrick Hill, American Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the 1960s; 2009, Hochette Book Group, NY.) 

Similarly, author Sue Vilhauer Rosser reminds readers in Women, Science and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present (ABL-CIO, 2005, page 407) that “women sought to control their own bodies” in the 1960s “through access to safe birth control, abortion and information about their physiology and anatomy; to define their experience as a valid aspect of their health needs; and to question the androcentric bias found in the hierarchy of the male-dominated health care system and its approach to research and practice.

The relevant line there, perhaps, involves a woman’s ability to define as valid her own health needs

That’s precisely the war that Rosemary repeatedly wages in the Polanski film.  Her pain is routinely dismissed by others, and her dislike of the “vitamin” drink prepared by Mrs. Castavet is similarly ignored. 

The reason why? 

Men such as Guy, Sapirstein and Roman boast an alternate agenda for Rosemary.  Her pain is irrelevant to that agenda.  Finally, Rosemary acts out or rebels against her male masters in the only way the culture permits, in terms of fashion; in terms of her appearance.  She gets a very severe hair-cut. 

Perhaps one of the scariest qualities of Rosemary’s Baby today is the fact that there are still folks out there who want to go back to the 1960s in terms of women’s health care. Many have run for the U.S. Senate or for President recently. 

Oddly, these are usually the self-same men arguing that government shouldn’t intrude into people’s private lives.  That libertarian principle, however, is ritually sacrificed when it comes to control over the uterus.

On a connected note, the most unpleasant interaction I’ve likely ever had with a horror movie fan arose over a discussion Rosemary’s Baby that came down to sexual politics. 

At a horror convention, a fan approached Joe Maddrey and me at our vendor’s table and began asking our cinematic likes and dislikes.  He almost immediately went into chapter and verse regarding his dislike of Rosemary’s Baby.  He went so far as to say that Mia Farrow’s character “deserved to be raped.” 

I questioned him about that.  I asked two questions, actually. 

First, what did Rosemary do, precisely, to deserve being raped? 

And secondly, why did she deserve to be raped by the Devil

His response was -- verbatim -- that she was “too whiny,” and that because she was so whiny, she had it coming. 

To "whine" means “to complain” and this fellow clearly disliked Rosemary because she had the audacity to complain about her plight, her terrible misuse by husband, doctor, and neighbor.

So there you have it.  Even today, some folks feel threatened by the fact that a woman may not do exactly what men want her to do.  She steps out of that narrow box, and deserves rape…and rape by the Devil, no less.  

Why would anyone who loves his mother, sister, daughter, or wife hold such a draconian belief?

Fortunately, such beliefs have, in my experience, been the rare exception in terms of horror fandom.  Horror film fans -- often judged harshly by others, themselves -- are not usually the type to repeat the mistake.

But Rosemary’s Baby and this fan’s hostile viewpoint towards it lead characters always reminds me of a famous quote from the great Rod Serling:  

If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive."


  1. Insightful essay. I agree with one addition. This film is about life out of control in light of the nihilism that streams in with the death of God.

  2. Anonymous7:23 PM