Motherhood in Film & Television: ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

This is a guest post from Erin Fenner.
Rosemary’s Baby, the Roman Polanski 1968 adaptation of the novel with the same name, uses minimal effects. While it is a horror story about the mother of Satan’s child, we only briefly glimpse the arm and eyes of the feature’s supposed monster. And, while the plot against Rosemary is conceived by a coven of witches, we don’t see bubbling potions. That is because Rosemary’s Baby is not a horror story about Satan or witchcraft.
Rosemary’s Baby is a horror story about being a woman.
Watch the trailer:
Rosemary, played by the waifish Mia Farrow, is a young woman excited for her role as wife and soon-to-be mother. But, even in her acceptance and celebration of traditional gender roles she is exploited, robbed of autonomy, discounted as hysterical and ultimately must give up all control of herself and her body.
Sound familiar? That’s because her terrors are real ones with just a dash of supernatural motivations.
We meet Rosemary when she and her husband, Guy, played by John Cassavetes, decide to move into a new apartment house. She is the picture of a cheerful stay-at-home wife – taking pleasure in decorating the house, filled with bubbling optimism and one who enjoys pleasing her husband. All she wants beyond her currently cozy situation is to become a mother.
She gets her wish when Guy, an ambitious actor, declares he’s ready to be a dad. The audience learns quickly that his motivations aren’t rooted in a comparable desire for fatherhood, but because he’s made a pact with peculiar neighbors we later discover are witches. He gets a shot at success if he delivers them a baby.
While the viewer can deduce this easily, we never see the world from anyone’s perspective but Rosemary’s. We spend most of the film cooped up with her, claustrophobic and powerless, in the apartment house.
The conception of Rosemary’s baby happens in a particularly brutal way – through rape. Guy drugs his wife and takes her to a ritual to be impregnated by Satan. Rosemary is semi-conscious and cries out, “This is no dream – this is really happening!” And, when she wakes up the next morning, Guy casually mentions that he had sex with her while she was sleeping. So, even though upon waking she concludes the rape was a dream, she still considers the conception of her baby as one derived through non-consensual sex. Her first step toward motherhood is one where she is deprived the right to control her own body.
Her journey into motherhood is further hijacked by Guy and her witch-neighbors who insist on her going to a different doctor – one we learn is part of the Satanist coven. Her new doctor, Dr. Sapirstein, played by Ralph Bellamy, demands she ignores the advice of her friends and books, and only listen to his instructions. Whenever she expresses concern about her pregnancy, he shoots her perspective down and shames her for self-education.
Rosemary (Mia Farrow)
We see the already thin Rosemary develop pronounced dark shadows under her eyes and become emaciated. She says she’s in a constant state of pain. It’s only when, during a party with her peers, that she is validated by other women. One of her friends even pushes Guy out of the room so that they can express their support and concern. It’s from this very brief exchange with her friends, where they insist her pain is abnormal, that Rosemary is empowered and encouraged to change doctors and take charge of her own health.
This empowerment is short-lived, because she gives up after a fight with Guy and her pain eases up. She relinquishes to her husband and her body.
Her small rebellions against others’ attempts to control her body – like not drinking the drink her witch-neighbors prepare for her – cease. She falls easily into passivity until she reads a book left to her by an old friend who we can presume was murdered by the coven next door.
The book details the history of the coven that had lived in her apartment house generations before, and helps her conclude that her pregnancy is central to a plot devised by her neighbors, husband and doctor.
With this new realization Rosemary rushes to her old obstetrician, Dr. Hill, played by Charles Grodin, to seek help. After pleading with him for assistance, Dr. Hill brings her into a room for rest, but then returns with Guy and Dr. Sapirstein to sedate her and take her away. She is dismissed as being a hysterical woman: pre-partum.
The next scenes are delirious. Rosemary is sedated, and when awake she attempts to make demands, but is denied. And, when she gives birth, she is not allowed to see her baby and is deceived about its condition.
Rosemary’s only motivation now is centered on her motherhood. It’s the only power she can claim. So, after recovering from giving birth, she sneaks around her apartment house, and finds a hidden passage to the witch-neighbors. There she finds the coven surrounding a satanic crib.
The scene is almost anti-climactic. There is no struggle and no high drama speeches. Rosemary discovers her baby is a monster – the son of Satan. She learns the truth – her husband and neighbors were plotting against her. And then, she resigns herself. She has already lost control of her body long ago and has nothing left but her role as a mother.
Rosemary lives up perfectly to the norm of womanhood. Unlike the women who we begrudgingly expect to be punished in films because they are promiscuous, independent, “bitchy” or uninterested in family life – we would expect Rosemary’s story to pan out positively because she adheres to gendered expectations.
But, Rosemary’s Baby is not a film meant to encourage a fearful narrative about the value of following prescribed roles – instead it is about a woman who is victimized by the very gender roles she had enthusiastically accepted. Rosemary accepts her societal role as a woman. Still, she is punished and suffers. And, because it is so close to reality, it is horrifying. 

Erin Fenner is a legislative intern and blogger for Trust Women: advocating for the reproductive rights of women in conservative Midwestern states. She also writes for the Trust Women blog and manages their social media networks. She graduated from the University of Idaho with a B.S. in Journalism.


  • Posted May 23, 2012 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    oooh what a haunting post. good job!

  • Posted May 24, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I saw this movie with a friend sometime around the time it was widely released.

    It haunted me for years but until I read this post I hadn’t realized what it was that plagued me.

    I thought it was merely a horror film and now understand that it was more of a commentary, an observation of a world that exists beyond heaven and hell.


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