April 15, 2010

Rosemary's Body: A Feminist Reading of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby

Roman Polanski has been called many things, and the term feminist does not surface very often in relation to him. I had seen Rosemary's Baby once in high-school, at a party, but didn't remember anything from it, so decided to watch it again.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story revolves around titular character Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her actor-husband Guy (John Cassavetes) who move into a swanky apartment building in New York City surrounded by kooky, but endearing elderly folks. To make a long (but great) story short, the neighbors are all Satan worshipers who make a deal with Guy that, as payment for launching his professional acting career, Rosemary will be impregnated by Satan in order to bring Adrian (think the satanic version of Jesus) to Earth and bring about a Satanic revolution. The trailer is provided below, but it doesn't really do much for the film.

Apart from the suspense, the superb acting on the part of Farrow, and excellent photography, the film is in itself a vehicle for the story. Polanski apparently thought that film adaptations of novels were supposed to be as accurate to the original text as possible, so this film is in essence a bringing to life of Ira Levin's book. Now, I'll admit to having never read Levin's novel, so I'll speak only to what I got out of the film version.

Rosemary is a waifish, innocent looking character whose docility not only sets her up as the perfect victim for the film but portrays her as the ideal domestic woman of late-mid 20th century America. Despite her frail appearance though, I found her to be a strong woman, especially in her ultimately futile attempts at the end of the movie to defy the controlling men in her life and escape with her child. For me, the film was never about light and dark or good versus evil but rather about the battle that is constantly being waged over the female body.

Body invasion is a common theme in horror and science fiction films. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and even new films such as District 9 and 28 Days Later all hinge on human fears of bodily invasion and impregnation. In all of these films the source of invasion is otherwordly and victims are chosen randomly. Rosemary's Baby departs from these in that Rosemary is chosen specifically, by fellow humans, as a sacrifice. Whereas in other body-invasion films, the victims are hosts of a disease or alien form, Rosemary is picked as a host to serve her fellow humans. In essence, her body becomes a public domain.

The satanic copulation scene and Rosemary's discovery of her child serve as bookends to the film, somewhat diminishing their overall importance. The saga of her pregnancy and the battle over Rosemary's body makes up the majority of the movie. Rosemary is consistently forced to relinquish control over her body to other characters throughout her pregnancy. Her favored obstetrician is fired in favor of a new (Satan-worshipping) doctor, when she wants to take medicine for the pain that her satan-baby is creating the neighbors force her to drink a milky-concoction, and her pain is not only ignored by her doctor and husband, but is actually refuted. Even her haircut is controlled by her husband, who upon seeing her Vidal Sassoon haircut partway through the film, becomes angry at the un-permitted change to her appearance.

In fact, men do the majority of the prescribing for Rosemary throughout the film. Trips to the doctor only result in chastisement, and her husband becomes angry at her for any complaints about pain. Despite her first-hand knowledge of the changes in her body, her experiences are diminished by characters who not only can't understand what she's going through, but couldn't even have the opportunity to experience them. I saw this as a direct political statement on government interference with women's rights as it pertains to their bodies. Roe v. Wade, although not yet a concept entered into the political lexicon would soon become a huge court case. The U.S. government and supreme court had been waging war over contraception, and socially the idea of women's reproductive rights were (and still are) a contentious issue.

The evil-smoothie creation of the Woodhouse's neighbors is another critique of the corporate world's battle over women's bodies. The neighbor assures Rosemary that the coctail is entirely "natural" as opposed to the medicine she would recieve otherwise. This struck me as a clever way of referencing the multitude of pregnancy related products advertised to women. Also, it is not just in pregnancy that products aimed at women rely on distortions of body image and use the body as a tool for manipulation.

The scene of Rosemary's rape by Satan is uncomfortable (as it should be) and casts all sorts of religious allusion (some of which I'll get to later). One of the most striking parts about this scene is her emergence from sleep afterwards. She finds scratches all over her side and back from the claws of the Devil.
Asking Guy what happened to her, he remarks that he got carried away the night before and not only had sex with her while she was passed out (he drugged her the night before) but was also extremely rough with her. The implication here of domestic abuse as a part of married life is shocking, in that it is presented matter-of-factly. Polanski shows, through lack of melodrama or lingering on the subject, that rape and abuse are often an unspoken part of traditional hegemonic relationships. Guy implies that not only is he not sorry about the abuse, but that it's just a part of their marriage and he actually has a right over her body in this way. This scene, for me, signaled the complete trade of ownership of Rosemary's body away from her and to Guy and his co-conspirators. As I wrote above, Guy trades Rosemary for a shot at a top acting job in a deal brokered by the Satan-loving neighbors. In this prostituting of his wife, Guy shows clear ownership over his wife, as he is able to trade her like a commodity.

Although I wrote about the lesser importance of the end of the film (maybe originally the end would have provided a surprise, but anyone who gets to the end now and doesn't know what's coming must be living under a rock) it provides simultanously the most poignant and ironic moment of the movie.
After giving birth, Rosemary stumbles into the study where the child is being held by cult-members. It is revealed to her that she has been used as a vessel to bring the son of Satan into the world. After brief moments of revility, Rosemary picks up the child and cradles him in her arms. The camera shows her face and frame holding the child in a halo of white. Her frail appearance, baggy blue gown and white aura with child are a beautiful recreation of the Madonna bringing the film to its end. The parallel between Rosemary and the Virgin Mary become clear at this point, bringing Polanski's religious criticism to its pinnacle.

By creating this image of Rosemary and her baby as the Madonna, Polanski points out that the precendent for the battle over women's bodies is in fact biblical. He forces us to consider whether the impregnation of Mary, with Joseph as witness, is any different than Rosemary's impregnation at the hands of the Devil. A loaded topic, absolutely, but interesting nonetheless. I don't know that Polanski intended to make a statement either way in this issue, but I do sense an intentional exposure to the concept that we have a biblical reference to support the fight over women's bodies. Writers and filmmakers don't always need to come down on any side of an argument, but here I believe Polanski is pointing out that the greatest mother figure of all may have faced similar conflict, and that her story set the stage for future male domination over the female body.

I think Rosemary's Baby is one of the greatest and most important films of all time for the above reasons. The argument about whether or not the movie is a feminist film probably misses the point and in the end doesn't matter very much, but as a feminist, I found the movie an ingenous allegory for women's issues in the 20th and 21st century, and found his critique on religion both frightening and thought-provoking.


  1. saw the film for the first time yesterday (and couldn't sleep at all last night). your analysis is very spot-on. one of the most chilling moments for me was the scene after the party when Rosemary suggests getting a 2nd opinion about her abdominal pain from Dr. Hill and Guy says "that's not fair to Dr. Sapirstein." It's a patient right to get a 2nd opinion, one that most ethical doctors would insist the patient exercise. And then when the pain stops, Rosemary forgets all about it--the joys of motherhood blinding her of what's right. that scene foreshadows the end when she abandons her plan of killing her baby (and the coven) and "becomes a mother" to the son.

    thanks for the post!

  2. Also saw the movie for the first time last night, and kept thinking how clearly it was speaking about a woman's lack of control over her own body (especially during pregnancy, when a woman, is considered to be living for another being rather than for herself). I was glad to find this review of it. One correction, though - though the movie almost screams for an image of Rosemary holding her baby in her arms Madonna-style, this never actually happens. We only see her looking at him as he lies in his cradle.