Before watching ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), the main thing I knew about it was that Tyra Banks spent the entire 2000s berating aspiring models for whining when she made them get a “Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby” haircut.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the haircut is NOT a fierce power move on the part of our young heroine! Instead, it’s a timid attempt to be stylish that earns snide remarks from every man she meets, and sets her off down a path of obsessing over her own appearance that would fit right in on America’s Next Top Model.
Buckle in, folks, because I am pissed about this movie.
I’m not going to waste much time talking about how absurd it is that this film–which makes rape seem like a mild inconvenience compared to the challenges of being a white guy who can’t get a meaty acting gig–was made by Roman Polanski, famously bad guy. Gross, but also I have nothing new to contribute to that particular discourse.
Instead, let’s start with some semiotics. I’ve already soap-boxed at length about how horror movies have morals because they’re fables, so if you want a refresher on this guiding principle of the genre you can check that out here. Suffice it to say, when you think of horror as a moralistic fable, it becomes impossible to ignore the subtext; the moral of the story BECOMES the story itself. Symbols–like a milky glass of DIY “medicine” delivered to a sickly girl by an unlikable female neighbor–tell us what the movie really cares about (devious womanhood; how easy it is to convince a fool to drink poison).
If, like me, you’ve fully internalized this horror-moral point of view, you may lose the ability to enjoy ROSEMARY’S BABY. While we could interpret this film as a critique of women’s exploitation, the design, editing, imagery–basically everything dear old Roman is responsible for–tells a different story. ROSEMARY’S BABY is a story about how easy it is for powerful and practical people to exploit women’s bodies for personal gain: not just easy, but fun and sexy, too. The moral of ROSEMARY’S BABY is “Go ahead and do rape. No one will believe her, anyway.”
This movie can suck my semiotic dick.
Let’s focus on my main points of ire: Rosemary herself, the word “rape,” and the question of What We Get To See. Starting with the simplest one!
As the ostensible POV character (more on this “ostensible” later), Rosemary is supposed to be likable and liked by us, the audience. I hate her. She’s sickly sweet to everybody, tiresomely obedient to her casually mean husband Guy (John Cassavetes), and so obsessed with her own appearance that the agonizing pain caused by her pregnancy seems to take second-fiddle to the fact that the pain is making her skinny and pale (heaven forbid!). The movie makes a big deal of her girlishness: she speaks in a high, plaintive voice and is costumed in loose, short, dresses with high necks and big collars, like a nearly-adult Madeline. Also like a well-behaved schoolgirl, she nearly always does what she’s told: one of the only times she does try to stand up to Guy, she does it by quoting, nearly word-for-word, advice given to her hours earlier by her girlfriends.
I also found her irritating as a direct contrast to the witches. Where elderly witch Minnie (Ruth Gordon) is hale and hearty, Rosemary is delicate and weak. We could, of course, postulate that Rosemary was selected specifically for her weakness, her malleability. But it seems more like she was selected for her accessibility (she happens to live next door to satan’s handmaids! how convenient!) and because Guy wanted something in exchange for his willing participation in the victimization of his wife. The film fetishizes her delicacy, with lingering shots of her emaciated body and plenty of opportunities for her to plead sweetly, and weep prettily, and faint appealingly.
As far as heroines go, I’ll take Ripley over Rosemary any day.
“Rape”: the Word and the Deed
Despite the fact that a ritual rape is the hinge of the entire plot, the word “rape” is never said in this film. The moment that really gets me seething is when Guy tells Rosemary that he had sex with her while she “slept,” claiming this is the source of the scratches on her body. While we later find out that what actually happened is even more bizarre and obscene than marital rape, the story Guy tells Rosemary is still horrific…and it’s told with a wink and a laugh.
What’s worse than the way Guy tells the story of his rape of his unconscious wife is the fact that she lets it go with hardly a complaint. She seems mildly unhappy with him for not waiting until she was conscious, but never gets noticeably angry with him. She notes that he “hasn’t been looking at her” shortly afterward, but her biggest issue with that seems to be the way it’s preventing a feeling of closeness between them.
So while the film is ostensibly about this great violation that happened to Rosemary, it doesn’t frame rape itself as much of a problem. The rape scene is mildly erotic, with only brief flashes of upsetting things (like the crowd of nude watching witches, and the creepy face of Satan), and lots of glimpses of kind-of sexy things, like symbols being painted on Rosemary’s naked body. During most of the rape she’s in a sort-of dream state, where her head is separated from her body, experiencing relatively pleasant memories or dreams, and we occasionally flit back to her being lightly, rhythmically bounced, clearly being sexed…sexed upon? And her own reaction to the experience is super understated. Either Rosemary doesn’t have any very bad feelings about being raped, or we don’t get to enter into those feelings with her–one of the reasons I posit she’s not really the main character, here.
Rosemary does spit in Guy’s face when she finds out the truth, but it seems one of the biggest sources of her anger is that he sold her dream of motherhood in exchange for an acting job. The violation of her body is far less important to her than the lies about her baby. And while the loss of a baby/identity as mother is a big deal, it troubles me greatly that the film is centering these losses as so much more important than Rosemary’s physical violation. In the end, faced with the possibility that she might nurse the satanic rape-baby, she…seems to be seriously considering it. As a character she is more “mother” than “human,” more “usable body” than “embodied person.”
And again I say, fuck that.
What We Get To See (Or Don’t)
Horror movies traffic in things that, well, horrify. One of the primary appeals of the genre is the push-pull between things that repel us and intrigue us. I love a scare that has me watching something disturbing from between my fingers: can’t look, can’t look away. And sometimes, as I’ve discussed at length before, what’s horrifying isn’t so much the terrible thing, but the palpable pain the terrible thing causes. This is the whole idea of a scream queen: someone who’s pain and existential despair is so apparent onscreen that we feel it, too.
ROSEMARY’S BABY has very little of this.
The most horrific things that happen to Rosemary are shielded by cuts, implication, and dreams. In addition to the sexification of the actual rape scene, a lot of other potentially horrible stuff in this film is left offscreen entirely. If Guy feels any guilt or disgust at what he’s done, it’s offscreen. Rosemary’s (apparently excruciating) physical pain in her first trimester is indicated only by pale skin and a sad face. Whatever happened to her friend Theresa (Angela Dorian) is immediately forgotten. Rosemary’s presumed grief at the loss of her child is brief. The actual birth is skipped completely, and childbirth has no discernible effect on her body. Any evidence she might’ve ever been pregnant is erased the moment her pregnancy ends. We never see the satanic baby.
Most of the things that could be traumatic in this movie simply aren’t. This leads me to the conclusion that the filmmakers don’t really think this stuff is that bad. Rosemary herself doesn’t seem traumatized: when she believes she and her baby are in mortal danger at the hands of witches, she goes to another doctor for help and…takes a restful cat nap in his office.
Overall, the film seems invested in convincing us that Rosemary’s traumas are bearable. There are no consequences for the witches or Guy, who have successfully mined Rosemary’s uterus for material gain. Despite being named for the supposed heroine, this film isn’t really about her. It feels a lot more like a story about an aspiring actor who finds a way to trade his slightly annoying wife for his dream career. It has a happy ending.
As long as you’re on the side of the witches.