Another “Hot Text” For the War on Women: Rosemary’s Baby

In Margaret Atwood’s modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale, the U.S. has been replaced by the theocratic Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state in which men control every aspect of women’s lives. Unsurprisingly it’s been the go-to text for critics of the ongoing “War on Women.” 

But I believe an earlier text offers even greater insight into a future in which the multi-pronged assault on women’s health care continues: Rosemary’s Baby—both Roman Polanski’s film and Ira Levin’s novel, on which the film was based.

While some use Pinterest (which encourages users to “organize and share things you love”) to post cute baby pictures, weddings, or diet inspiration, I tend to “organize and share” things like this Rosemary’s Baby tribute. So I turned to Scott Poole, associate professor at the College of Charleston (where he teaches courses on Satan and modernity and monsters—as well as religion) and author of Satan in America and Monsters in America. Having read Poole’s writings on Rosemary’s Baby, I decided to invite him for a little chat about it.

In your book Satan in America, you quote Darryl Jones as saying “Rosemary’s Baby is a film about men controlling women’s bodies.” It seems to me that the satanic stuff blinds a lot of people to what the story is actually about.

Maybe. I think that Polanski really played a fairly elaborate joke with that film. Levin had borrowed the trope of the satanic conspiracy that has old roots in Western culture and used it to create a fairly obvious social parable. Polanski melded that with aspects of the grindhouse tradition and old Val Lewton horror films. I’m not sure if the satire is too broad or too focused. But I also think it might have been clearer to viewers in ’68 than today, especially to Catholics in the wake of Humanae Vitae [the 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Roman Catholic view on birth control, abortion, and other life issues]. The Catholic elements are hard to miss, as is the intertwining of the Pope with satanic rape/conception/motherhood as destiny.

I enjoy how the satanists are the ones who lock Rosemary down. As you write, she becomes “surrounded” and “hemmed in” by her neighbors, doctors, and spouse who are all only concerned with “the monstrous life growing inside of her.” This seems to be what the conservatives are gunning for for all women: confining us and making us accept any pregnancy—even the “gift” of rape—with women eventually surrendering to it all because it’s for our own good.

Even though I volunteered for pregnancy, I thought about Rosemary a lot during it, because I felt like people began to regard me as a “carrier.” I remember during a baby shower, I thought the whole thing was creepy and then also that that was a strange thing to think. Because it was a party for someone who technically wasn’t there. But I was.

There is this other side to it all. Rosemary’s Baby may be largely about the efforts of men to constrain women to home and family, but it’s part of a landslide of horror films that expressed a lot of anxiety about motherhood and childbearing in the wake of the sexual revolution(s).

These are not just personal anxieties. The sexual revolution was really about thinking about personal choices in a political context rather than “a change in moral standards” as conservatives believed. That is both liberating and terrifying.

Explain the difference.

I think that horror films like It Lives Again and The Brood and all the other fetal horror classics are [typically] interpreted as being about women and men’s psychological angst about childbearing. I think it’s really important to read them instead as about the structural changes in American society—not just psychological ones. This makes them personal issues that some people are dealing with and others not.

What you had in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was a sea change in gender roles and sex lives that stretched back to the ’20s. Let me add that I think that in the post-World War II era, a male-controlled culture seeking to represent the white middle class mom as both constrained and utterly capable, virginal, and fertile, and demure yet available, created an enormous amount of social anxiety about gender that these films made fun of.

I think a lot of the panic happening right now in the GOP has to do with what they perceive as losing population dominance to the “other” and the desire to spur the creation of the “right” kinds of babies—that is, white and Christian. I get a chuckle out of the Castevets, because, eccentric garb to the contrary, they’re sort of “middle American” and banal with their book of “John Jokes” and yelling and bad food. I could easily picture Roman in a parade riding one of those little Shriners’ cars—if there were a satanic branch.

I get that. Even his “I’ve been everywhere” speech is a bit Willy Loman. I think that comes out even more in the novel.

Roman seems more retired insurance company man than career-genetic-satanist.

That’s the genius of it. My students always note that the satanists are not in black robes, they are well-off, and “respectable.”

Well, they do live in the Bram, which is played by the Dakota. It reinforces the feeling, to me, that this could happen to any woman, anywhere—even one living in a sophisticate’s paradise. I find myself envying Rosemary’s lifestyle, and clothes, even though her kiddie-chic turns to slippers and a housecoat by the end.

My students also notice Rosemary’s clothing—in the beginning they note she is a little girl in many ways, even right down to getting affectionate and patronizing pats from Guy.

She looks like she’s ready for a very chic First Communion when she and Guy first come to the Bram.

By the end she looks like she is institutionalized, because, in a way, she is.

“Institutionalized”=“mother of infant.” There’s some truth there. What do you make of the Jewishness on display? We have Ira Levin, the author of the book. We have Polanski, the film’s director. We have satanic society physician Abe Sapirstein.

That’s part of the joke. I think Levin was very aware of the longer history of Jewish representation as witches… that is, the old early modern idea that the witches’ sabbath took place on Saturday.

It has occurred to me that this is one area where many Americans in the ’60s might have read the satanists as “other” rather than just like us. I think the point was to take those prejudices and mock them by introducing extreme examples: wealthy Jewish doctors who are up to no good with Catholic girls. I’m not sure if it works in the film. Satire can be difficult to pull off, especially when most people are not in on the joke.

Lapsed Catholic girls who move to New York from Omaha get what they deserve, I suppose. She and Terry Gionnoffrio, the Castevets’ first (failed) victim, are both explicitly mentioned as being lapsed Catholics in the book. Aside from the obvious joke of Catholics being prime targets for satanists looking for “not virgin” Moms-of-Satan, what do you make of this?

I think it offered a way for both Levin and Polanski to talk about a post-Christian society. We see that in the effective use of the famous [1966] “God is Dead” Time cover in the doctor’s office, also, I think in the idea of Adrian’s birth being the beginning of a new age. This was a time period when Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City and there was discussion in theological circles about the post-Christian world… the whole “God is Dead” movement. Turned out that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated and then you have the emergence of the Christian Right in America within about ten years or so of Rosemary’s Baby coming out.

The God is Dead movement was completely premature. God didn’t go anywhere. God was just taking a rest, letting in a bit of “fresh air” and gearing up for the ’80s.

It was also an effective conceit to suggest the “innocence” of Catholic girls. That works in the narrative because its a way to suggest they are easy prey. And it’s fairly misogynistic in many ways. That’s part of the film too, despite how it’s obviously subversive.

His name isn’t Adrian, by the way. It’s Andrew John Woodhouse. Which brings me to the end of the story. The book goes on a bit more when Rosemary meets Andy for the first time. She begins to cluck over him, and accepts him as her son, giving him the name she picked out. The satanists hail her. I think this is an important scene because it expresses the logic of hardcore anti-abortion, anti-contraception people. It doesn’t matter if you are raped, or even if you don’t want to have the baby, or even if the baby has claws and satan’s yellow eyes, as a woman you will love your baby and automatically get into mothering. This myth persists. Biology is destiny. You’ll dig it no matter what the circumstances.

It’s linked to the argument that motherhood is about something “natural” that cannot be defined or defiled. This ideology of biology as destiny undergirds the conservative war on women. It continues to be the basis of the [Roman Catholic] Church’s opposition to birth control; in much of the rhetoric of John Paul II, this was phrased as the only way to achieve “true” marital love because, otherwise, you were introducing various artificial elements into the bedroom. It’s actually a fairly powerful rhetoric, a sexy argument that I bet Rousseau would have bought into.

I think that rhetoric may be more powerful for men. Being seen as the “animal” of humankind really isn’t a compliment. I just keep thinking “Reacquaint yourselves with Rosemary’s Baby, women of America, because if the right wing has their way, we’ll all be heading for housecoats and unlimited childbearing which we will allegedly turn out to love.”

There’s a critical reading of the film that says that what’s really going on is that Rosemary is insane (hysterical) and she imagines everything that happens to her, that the whole satanic conspiracy stuff is pre- and postpartum depression. I especially dislike that reading because it seems to replicate the misogyny that the film, at its best, critiques.

Sure. Women are notoriously unreliable and “hormonal.” I love how the “nice guy” Dr. Hill placates Rosemary, puts her down for a nap, then calls in her husband and Dr. Sapirstein. It’s so sinister. But it shows how women are seen as not knowing what they want or even as reliable witnesses to their own experiences.

Polanski’s Repulsion is that kind of tale, but in Rosemary’s Baby, he had to balance how he wanted to use the female narrative voice with the demands of the novel and we came out with something much better than Polanski could have done on his own.

I agree. Otherwise it would have been “Repulsion II: The Bramford” instead of the uterus-horror classic that it is.