Rosemary’s Baby

Behold! This blog lives! Not only does it live, it has gained another member, the always elucidatory Mr. Gleicherd.  Soon we will be co-blogging a post about the new Coen Brothers movie, Burn After Reading, but for now, I thought I would review Rosemary’s Baby, which I saw for the first time last Sunday.

I’m definitely a fan of Roman Polanski’s directorial work. Despite the bizarre goings-on in his personal life, many of his films definitely open the door for a feminist reading and there is a consistent theme in his work surrounding the deep complications of gender and gender roles. Rosemary’s Baby could be read to have certain feminist interpretations. Interestingly, Polanski’s co-screenwriter Ira Levin also wrote another film considered by some to be an early feminist classic, The Stepford Wives. Ultimately though, I think Rosemary’s Baby does not have the full radical import present in some of Polanski’s other films, such as Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Beware, spoilers follow.

On one hand, there are many potentially feminist moments in the film. One of these few bright spots appears when she strikes up a friendship with another young woman living in the apartment complex early on in the film. Up to this point, the movie still has an optimistic, albeit slightly unsettled tone. The breaking of Rosemary’s tentative friendship with her neighbor when she supposedly “commits suicide” is ultimately the catalyst for the film’s first major shift into darkness, as it presents the only blatantly gory image in the whole movie and leads to the Woodhouse’s introduction to the creepy couple next door. It’s a stretch, but arguable, that losing this friendly female acquaintance was an important turning point toward the darkness Rosemary becomes fully entangled in soon after. Further, when Rosemary inherits the necklace that this woman was wearing, it represents a clear identification between her and this other woman. I believe her friend’s suicide is doing more work than foreshadowing the path Rosemary will ultimately go down in building an interesting early link between her and another woman facing similar perils.

The most notable feminist moment happens when Rosemary finally reaches out to her female friends for help after months of experiencing pain that her well-regarded, vaguely menacing physician repeatedly tells her is no big deal. The women shut her meddling husband out of the room and explain to her that she needs to listen to what her body is telling her.  As second-wave feminist catchphrases go, “listen to your body” has to be in the top ten. It is after this moment in the film when Rosemary finally gains the courage to directly go against her husband’s wishes, something that does not happen again in the movie until it is already too late. It is this fight with her husband which makes his participation in what has caused her suffering the most clear and signifies another important turning point in the film. I believe it is at this point that the audience fully believes what is happening to Rosemary is abnormal, after the slow building up of doubt before this point. Also, it is an interesting scene in the sense that her husband’s interests are clearly aligned with the male authority symbolic in the doctor’s position rather than with his wife. The fact that the audience is led to side with Rosemary in this exchange gives that feminist idea “listen to your body” a lot of subconscious weight in the minds of the viewers. Also, it is notable that at the very end, her final resort is to call one of her female friends, albeit far too late. It is crucial that she reaches out at this moment and is unable to speak with her female friend during this climactic scene, because it especially emphasizes the sense that if Rosemary had trusted in her female friends over the masculine authority symbolized by her husband and her doctor she may have been able to escape her situation.

On the other hand, this feminist reading is complicated by the fact that one of the major villains in the film is female: Rosemary’s neighbor Minnie, played by Ruth Gordon of Harold and Maude. A momentary digression from the feminist analysis: although Harold and Maude was released a few years after Rosemary’s Baby, I have to say she plays the character with the same eccentric, buzzy energy which is ultimately what’s so lovable about Maude. It is very odd to see her play a villain and it is the kind of casting choice that really effects the whole tenor of the film in a really unexpected way. Anyhow, Minnie is definitely one of the most essential instruments of evil in the film. She mixes the drugged chocolate “mouse” which allows Rosemary to fall prey in the first place and then she goes on to mix Rosemary’s poisonous vitamin drink every morning. Further, she also actively participates in the constant monitoring of Rosemary’s daily activities and precludes Rosemary’s efforts to escape. On the other hand, when we add in the idea that Rosemary’s plight is meant to mirror not just a woman’s entrapment within an evil, patriarchy-driven scheme, but as a young woman facing these perils, Minnie’s role in the film becomes clearer. As young women emerged into second wave feminist consciousness in America some of the loudest and most active opposition came in the form of women of the older generation who felt deeply wedded to the patriarchal culture and ideas they were raised in. Minnie’s role in Rosemary’s life is as a mothering figure, which syncs up nicely with this reading of Rosemary as a young woman resisting the role her mother played in the household, subordinated to and an instrument of a larger patriarchal regime.

On the other hand, the primary impediment to me being able to read it as a truly feminist film comes through precisely the element that makes the psychological drama so compelling. The movie really gets the lion’s share of tension from the juxtaposition of the innocent, almost child-like quality of Mia Farrow against the darker forces that menacingly surround her in the form of her too-friendly neighbors, her ambitious husband, her stodgy physician, and even the ancient apartment building. Mia Farrow’s waifish cheerfulness in the beginning and her extreme vulnerability and naivity throughout the film really emphasizes how, despite the fact that she is about to have child, she herself has the childlike qualities that are classic to the historic, sexist modeling of femininity. Her childishness is emphasized by the parental quality of the role the Castavet’s play in her life, her relationship with the male authority represented by Dr. Saperstein, and the often condescending way her own husband interacts with her. Rosemary rarely transcends the role of the victim and it is clear that the movie plays up her childlike qualities in order to gain maximum sympathy from the audience. Relying on this childishness and victimhood to establish the essential tension in the film ultimately means relying on stereotypes of passive, innocent femininity that do more to re-establish sexist stereotypes than challenge them. While much of the film can be read through a feminist lens, her childishness seems problematic to me. I believe the fact that Rosemary never quite transcends the role of victim makes Rosemary’s Baby have a much less compelling read than a film like Repulsion where those boundaries are much more readily crossed.

With that said, it’s definitely a horror movie worth watching, as you’d expect from Polanski. And for more on the feminist implications of the movie, I also recommend the following:

Rosemary’s Baby: A Fountain of Feminism

Spinster Aunt

Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects

– Posted by VickyVengeance

1 Response to “Rosemary’s Baby”

  1. September 30, 2008 at 2:34 am

    I think it’s interesting that Rosemary’s childishness takes away from the feminism of the movie for you. When I was watching it I thought that was the largest argument in favor of a feminist interpretation of the movie; Rosemary’s forced childishness and lack of agency fuels the horror. It’s not just that all this creepy stuff is going on, but that Rosemary is unable to fight it effectively because she is so consistently stripped of any agency whatsoever. Like, here, madness and despair is the inevitable result of a patriarchal power structure.

    Horror films are always about punishing someone, some reason that the victims *have* to die. Like noir movies — and unlike action movies, which are about reinforcing the “right” way to behave — horror movies tell you what you’re doing wrong. Usually it’s because the victims have crossed out of the “good” behavior — by having sex, by drinking, by being out when they aren’t supposed to be — and it’s hard to find anything that Rosemary does that requires her punishment other than putting up with all the denial she’s exposed to. *No one* listens to Rosemary, except Hutch, and he dies; no one gives her any advice except her female friends and her husband calls them bitches. She goes to her original, male doctor (who was CHARLES GRODIN, what the heck) and he immediately betrays her back into the knowledgable, protective, dismissive hands of her husband and other doctor. I kept thinking of Joanna Russ while I was watching the movie, and of R. D. Laing; her relationship with all of the men in her life (and especially her husband!) is almost straight out of those two authors.

    So I kept watching it and I kept thinking that this madness was her way of escaping from everything. She couldn’t fight the society she was in, so she twisted it, made it evil, invented this other world that gave her an excuse to do what she wanted to do from the beginning, and simultaneously denied her husband and her doctor and the coven what they wanted from her: docility, agreement, acceptance.

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