Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Dir Roman Polanski Starring Mia Farrow John Cassevetes
Novel by Ira Levin 1967
A few random notes about the leading lights from RB. The Dakota Mansions in New York where the apartment of the film is set was where John Lennon was murdered. In 1977 Roman Polanski was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl but absconded from the US before he could be imprisoned. Roman Polanski’s 26 year old wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 a year after RB by the satanic-inspired Charles Manson gang and repeatedly stabbed in the belly while she was nearly 9 months pregnant. Mia Farrow’s husband Woody Allen conducted a sexual affair with their adopted child who he subsequently married. Truly a horror film, then.
Start from the view that all cultural forms (tv, films, literature, advertising) tell stories that relate to the cultural construction of social reality. This is the view that common-sense social norms – about our shared social life, our roles, our identities – is actually the result of a huge investment in telling stories that reinforce traditional power structures and make them seem normal and natural. The point of analysing them is to understand the ways in which an enjoyable Hollywood horror film also works to reinforce social beliefs that work in the favour of maintaining a specific social organisation of power – in this case, about gender, patriarchal beliefs and the female body. RB tells the story that it does because it is located in a network of unspoken ideological assumptions - the job here is to reveal and to challenge what we consume along with a story of satanic possession in 1960s New York.
Narrative format- Gothic horror centred on the domestic sphere with a supernatural satanic element. This genre works by unsettling the domestic sphere by intrusion of supernatural events. Part of its narrative drive is based on exploiting existential uncertainty; rational explanations become useless for Rosemary in explaining reality. There is a gradual withdrawing of day-to-day reality as basis for adequate interpretation until a supernatural explanation provides the key. It is central to the narrative meanings that I want to unpack that RB is located in recognisable, contemporary life – it is not set in 17th century Transylvania or 19th century haunted mansion house: the horror is instead brought into the domestic home life of a seemingly ordinary New York couple of newly-weds. There is a much longer history of film and fiction relating to the horror of houses but RB is one of the earliest to use a contemporary representation of home as site for supernatural horror (later feeding the sub-genre of suburban horror in the 1970s and onwards: Halloween (1978), Poltergeist (1982) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the suburban home becomes the preferred setting for horror’s slasher sub-genre. RB, however, is most closely aligned with the sub-genre of domestic gothic horror which is caught well in the idea that ‘someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband’. Not a werewolf, Undead, poltergeist or vampire but human agents. Human agents that you happen to be married to…
The narrative viewpoint is Rosemary’s – it is one structured as ‘paranoia’. She is suspicious: her home, the traditional site of feminine power over the domestic - becomes a place of gradual imprisonment in which coercive control by her husband and neighbours over her looks, activities and personal freedom frustrate her search to end her suspicions that there is something weird going on. She is proved right after experiencing utter betrayal by anyone from whom she has sought help. Only after the film has undermined her ability and credibility to resist is her paranoia explained by what it really is. Rosemary’s characterisation of a female-specific instability and neurotic paranoia is easy to accept. Why is that? The ending confirms the complete annihilation of her personal autonomy and it can be noted here that Ira Levin also published The Stepford Wives in 1972.
The pregnant female body is both abnormal and normal.
Normal in that the cultural gendering of female bodies demands proof of their essential worth, the essential definition of their femininity, in procreation. Giving birth is culturally revered as a destiny that only ‘unnatural’ women would swerve to avoid. The pregnant female body is, in one sense, a primary signifier of women’s acceptance of subjugation to patriarchal procreative imperatives. A pregnant female body physically exhibits willing subordination to a sexual order that consequently overvalues femininity & motherhood to compensate women for their submission to it. The ending of the film play this out with Rosemary compensated for her experience by being offered the opportunity to be restored to her ‘rightful’ role of mothering the product of rape – the Devil’s child.
Abnormal in the Freudian sense which understands that women suffer fundamentally from a lack – the lack of having a penis - which is the entry ticket to identifying with and assuming the place of patriarchal power. Instead women suffer from ‘penis-envy’: as they can never possess a penis, they can settle for the second-hand power inferred from ‘having a penis’: temporarily in heterosexual coitus and more permanently by producing the evidence of that – the pregnant body. But the pregnant female body can also be seen as a site of disturbance: it is a monstrous body and potentially a site of male fear: female sexuality is treacherous - paternity cannot be guaranteed. Rosemary’s Baby provides a reassuring fiction that it can. The autonomous pregnant female body is a significant threat to conventional heterosexual power relations: women must be regulated and their procreative power controlled. In this way, Satanic possession and insemination figures literally the legal, social and medical control of women as subjects under patriarchy.
RB can be read as a parable of patriarchal control over female bodies; the female body is here simply a repository or instrument of male power where procreation is figured without female agency. It is not surprising that the insemination scene takes place without Rosemary’s knowledge or consent. Her husband explains the scratches and bruises she sustains as the result of his overzealous wish not to miss ‘baby night’. Marital rape is normalised. The real context of RB is the terrain that feminism challenges: to the normalisation of sexual abuse and violence, rape, domestic murder (near two women a week in UK), abortion rights, termination legislation, ‘foetus over mother’ rights, and rights to reproductive control: the film instead depicts coercion and loss of personal autonomy while the pregnant female body is utterly annexed for male succession.
Now that’s truly monstrous.
Dr Esther Sonnet