I’ve got a confession to make. I love the film Rosemary’s Baby.
I saw it for the first time when I was in my early twenties. I was a senior in college and taking a class called American Gothic, a course that would shape my academic trajectory through my MA and even my Ph.D. Rosemary’s Baby was on the required viewing list, and I went into it not knowing what to expect. I think all those feminist and women’s studies courses did a number on how I approached the film. It was not Rosemary giving birth to a demonic baby that bothered me, or even the deeply disturbing imagery of the conception scene. What bothered me the most was Rosemary’s lack of agency throughout the entire film.
Now, one week away from my due date, I feel that theme resonating with me more than ever.
Before I explain, if you haven’t seen the film, here’s the quick version: Rosemary Woodhouse and her new husband Guy move into a swanky New York City apartment (the movie was actually filmed at the Dakota), and soon talk about having children. They become friends with their elderly neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castavet. Unbeknownst to Rosemary, her husband makes a pact with the Castavets: promising their firstborn child for a successful acting career. It turns out that Roman and Minnie are members of a Satan-worshipping witch coven, and they want Satan to impregnate Rosemary. Needless to say, their scheme works and the film follows Rosemary’s painful, complicated pregnancy and her quest to find out the truth.
A popular reading of the film is that it is a commentary of patriarchal culture regarding pregnancy (Berenstein, Skal). Many scholars also attribute this desire to take control of the body as a reaction to the advent of the pill in the 1960’s. On the surface, those readings are completely accurate. At every turn, Rosemary is told what to do, what not to do, what to eat, what medications to take, and is not expected to question any of it. She tries to resist the forces that are building up against her. She attempts to reclaim ownership of her body in a multitude of ways: throwing out the daily “health drinks” Dr. Saperstein prescribed her, getting rid of the pendant with tannis root Minnie had given to her as a gift, and speaking up to Guy about wanting a new obstetrician because she doesn’t trust Dr. Saperstein. Two interesting points raised in an article about the film mention the commentary Rosemary receives about her appearance and her decision to cut her hair (and to be fair, I adore that pixie haircut and rocked it a few times myself). The commentary about her gaunt and pale appearance, Smyth comments, is indicative of the societal notion that the pregnant body is under constant surveillance. She views Rosemary’s haircut as one of her many attempts to reclaim her body.
All of these points resonate with me. I do not necessarily feel, though, that this is a product of patriarchal society alone anymore. I agree that the film reflects anxieties about female agency and the pregnant body, but I think it goes beyond patriarchal forces. Adrienne Rich published Of Woman Born in the late 70’s, before my time, and she clearly shows how pregnancy and motherhood have been institutionalized by these forces. In one example, she examines the tool of the forceps, a tool that involves “the effective displacement of the midwife through the male monopoly of that invention” (p. 142). However, in our recent childbirth class we learned that forceps are more or less a last resort, and used when only all other options have been exhausted. In another example, Rich contrasts labor with forced labor, and declares that the availability of anesthesia in childbirth makes the female more passive in her experience (pp. 158-159). I’ll be the first to come out and say it: I plan on having an epidural. The thought of the pain frightens me. That fear is reinforced by the literature and the stories around me, and the stories are written and told by women themselves. Sure, there’s a push for natural childbirth, but the midwife in our birthing class rather wryly said most women can’t stand the pain and ask for drugs, an offset of “I told you so.”
I’ve found that the suppression of bodily autonomy does not just come from doctors, but from peers. I’ll say that I don’t think this is a conscious act; I believe that peers mean well and believe they are helping as opposed to hindering. And in many ways, peers have helped. Rich emphasizes the importance of the informal network of women, and she’s right to do so–it’s crucial. At the same time, the voices turn into a litany of “do this” and “don’t do this.” It turns into an overwhelming barrage with many different voices, and it’s hard to discern what is right and wrong. In some cases, the assumptions made are belittling and harmful. I do see the inverse, the “in my pregnancy” comments a little differently. In a way, I think they are a way for women to fight back against these forces, a way to declare some kind of autonomy in their pregnancy because they were brash enough to go against the doctor’s rules. It’s a way of saying, “I broke the rules and I did ok,” which is another way of saying that some kind of control was taken back.
As for the surveillance angle, I have felt it ring true more since I only started to show at seven months. Various individuals are all of the sudden telling me what activities I should and should not take part in, where I should and should not be going, and the things I should and should not be ingesting. People comment on the size of my bump, ask if the baby is doing ok because the bump is on the smaller side, and question whether or not I am going to breastfeed. Once again, perhaps it’s well intentioned or done unconsciously, but sometimes I feel like Rosemary, just swimming in a sea of intentions that makes me feel disconnected from my own experience.
The common theme, and the link between Rosemary’s Baby and Rich, is that the woman’s body is a battlefield. Things are done to a pregnant or laboring woman’s body, and in the end her voice is not the one that rises above the others, it becomes diminished. We are told that we can have a birth plan, we can say no, and that we can make our own choices, but we are not the final say. Rosemary tries hard to reclaim her body and make her own choices, and the true horror of the film lies in the fact that she ends up giving in to those forces instead of continuing to fight.
I have not watched the film since getting pregnant, and Matt hated it. I joke about watching it sometimes, especially since birth is right around the corner, but I’m not so sure Matt finds it funny. I will rewatch it sometime soon, though, mostly because Rosemary’s lack of agency is the most terrifying thing of all, and the most real.