In The Bloody Truth, every Thursday, Calhoun Kersten looks at the deeper meanings within one of film’s most subtext-heavy genres, horror.
The 1960s were a time of turmoil, fraught with terrors both domestic and abroad. On the foreign front, the U.S. was at war in Vietnam, and at home, domestics were facing equally terrifying possibilities. The quest for civil rights was in full swing, with both sides edging toward violence over a peaceful solution. However, one of the oft-unheard voices of the generation belonged to the women of that time period. Frequently relegated to the role of domestic, or low-level work positions outside the home, it seemed that the fate of females was all but decided by their gender. However, in 1967, the world was confronted with its prejudice by the horrifying vision of Ira Levin in his sophomore novel Rosemary’s Baby. The next year, director Roman Polanski brought this prophetic tale to the silver screen with the help of a seemingly helpless Mia Farrow and an unsettling (and Oscar-winning) Ruth Gordon.
As previously discussed, The Exorcist would later go on to detail the horrors of womanhood, but Rosemary’s Baby presented a bleak vision of femininity and domesticity in the 1960s. The film achieves this in a number of ways, but there are two of critical importance: the movie’s relationships between men and women, and the relationship between Rosemary (Farrow) and herself.
In order to understand what makes the film so unsettling, it is important to recognize the roles of Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary. The two are your typical domestic couple, happily married and looking to settle into a new apartment to start a family together. However, Guy is an actor, a struggling one at that. As such, his quintessential “manly” duties of providing for his wife and being successful are in serious jeopardy when the movie begins. As the movie progresses, and Rosemary’s condition deteriorates, Guy begins to enjoy some modest success. It is only towards the end of the film, that the audience discovers Guy’s success is based on his pact with the devil.
In exchange for personal success, Guy has allowed his wife to become a pawn. Guy quite literally uses his wife as a bargaining chip for his own gain. In this sense, Rosemary’s Baby calls to attention the horrific realization that women were not being seen or treated as their own entities. Instead, they are merely extensions of their husbands, men who could do with them what they pleased. In many ways the film explores Rosemary as the property of just about everyone but herself, contrary to the feminist rhetoric that was soon to come with the struggle for women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights. However, both Levin and Polanski treat this moral mortgaging as a shocking act. The film in no way rewards these kinds of actions. Even though Guy becomes successful, the film constantly questions the cost.
The terror of Rosemary’s Baby isn’t always at the hands of outside forces. Indeed, Rosemary’s Baby has a distinctly psychological element that puts its heroine in constant danger. Rosemary is unsure of who she can trust, but in the back of her mind, as well as the viewer’s, the question remains: Can she even trust herself? Rosemary thinks for herself throughout the movie, but it is always a point of contention.
In this sense, the message of female empowerment is muddled until the close of the movie, where it is discovered that Rosemary has been right all along: her fears were justified and most of the people in her life have betrayed her. However, it is her own body that has betrayed her as well. Her pregnancy has, arguably, made her hysterical and in the film’s final moments, she gives birth to the son of the devil. Not only is it a terrifying rebellion of the traditional conservative values that the nation held so dearly not even a decade prior, but it is a frightening demonstration of a woman with no control over her own femininity.
Rosemary’s Baby has always been hailed as a classic horror film, but it is a timely one as well. Rosemary’s Baby speaks to the ever-present threat against women at the time of its production. There was the mounted threat against women by men who still championed the antiquated values of domesticity and marriage. However, the film also details the power of the female, and how even their own bodies can be used against them.