In a pivotal early moment in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is raped and impregnated by Satan as a coven of chanting witches looms over her. She, of course, thinks this is all a feverish dream. With the help of her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), who has essentially traded his wife’s body as real estate for Satan’s spawn in exchange for big break on Broadway, Rosemary has been drugged by neighbour and cult-leader, Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon). The supernatural elements of the scene are disturbing for sure, but it’s what comes next that really throws the gut punch.
When Rosemary wakes up the next morning, covered in red scratches, Guy mocks her for getting so drunk that she passed out (“From now on you get cocktails or wine, not cocktails and wine.”), concealing a guilty conscience with jokes about trimming his fingernails. He’d rather his wife think that he had sex with her while she was unconscious (“I didn’t want to miss baby night.”) than know the truth.
"It was fun, in a necrophile sort of way,” he quips as he dresses, while she groggily tries to get her bearings. “I dreamed someone was raping me. I don’t know, someone inhuman,” she ponders softly, coming to terms with what happened. “Thanks a lot!” he calls out from the other room. He’s already moved on. And very quickly, she does too, in a pivot that might be difficult for modern audiences to accept. In fact, looking back at that scene on the eve of the film’s 50th anniversary, it seems the most likely to be singled out as the one heralding Roman Polanski’s problematic legacy. Less than 10 years after the release of Rosemary’s Baby, the director would plead guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor, 13-year-old Samantha Jane Gailey (now Samantha Geimer), and flee the country for Europe, where he’s remained for the last 40 years. (In October, another woman, Marianne Barnard, came forward with allegations that Polanski molested her as a 10-year-old in 1975.)
It’s tempting, in a post #MeToo environment (a movement that Polanski has dismissed as “collective hysteria”), to discount Rosemary’s Baby as a byproduct of toxic masculinity, a problematic work from a problematic man. Since October 2017, when the New York Times first broke the story about allegations of sexual harassment and assault by mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, we’ve had a lot of conversations, online and off, grappling with the art or cultural contributions made by men accused of sexual misconduct. As a result, we’ve had to revisit a lot of accepted narratives from men whose art we enjoy. Can we, in good conscience, continue to bring new aggressors to light while ignoring the ones we know about, and have allowed to go unpunished? Can we still, in good conscience, enjoy movies from bad men?
I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, although I have read several compelling and thoughtful pieces on the topic (Notably, here, here and here.) I find it difficult to tell people what they should, and shouldn’t like, or that they’re terrible for still liking Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. (For the record, I do.) And so, I can only speak for myself when I say that I think that in the case of Rosemary’s Baby, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I believe that Roman Polanski’s actions were wrong, and that he should face the justice he evaded years ago (beyond getting expelled from The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences by a Hollywood with a guilty conscience, a decision he has vowed to appeal). The fact that he presumably still profits monetarily off this and other works does weigh on me. On the other, I love his movie, and believe it's important. And yes, the fact that a bad man made a good movie about a woman is dissonant, but that in itself is worth unpacking.
Because while it would be an easier fit for my own worldview, I can’t frame Rosemary’s Baby as unilaterally dismissive of women. As Rosemary, Mia Farrow may start out meek and submissive, eager to please her husband and fulfil her duties as a homemaker and wife, but she evolves throughout the film, her anxieties and burdens becoming our own. The coven may think of her body as a vessel, but the audience never does. We see a person trying to get out of a bad situation. We’re on her side.
Even in the scene described above, which could easily be misinterpreted as condoning marital rape, the film doesn’t dismiss Guy’s actions as benign — if anything, his betrayal causes us, and Rosemary, to suspect his complicity in what she increasingly suspects is a plot to steal her baby for use in a satanic ritual. Her reaction to his heinous behaviour, while shocking to us now, wasn’t out of line at a time where marital rape wasn’t a recognised offence. (It would only start to be criminalised in the 60s, and wouldn’t be formalised as a crime until 1993.)
And what’s most interesting about Rosemary’s Baby — especially with half a century of hindsight — is that it both feels distinctly of its time, while resonating far beyond it. The film was released in June 1968, in the midst of a different, but still comparable climate of cultural upheaval. In that same month alone, radical feminist Valerie Solanas, founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM) shot and almost killed artist Andy Warhol; days later, Robert F. Kennedy, then a candidate for president, was assassinated after giving a victory speech for the California primary. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in April of that year, the Vietnam War was raging, and the burgeoning Women’s Liberation movement was just starting to find its feet. In September, nearly 400 women staged a protest at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, coining the term “bra-burning.” That atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that comes with major change reverberates throughout the the film, and is most likely what resonated with viewers. (In her original 1968 review for the New York Daily News, Kathleen Caroll wrote: “The subject matter is peculiarly repugnant. It is witchcraft, not as practiced in Salem or the like, but as taken seriously in our very own city.”) The idea that there might really be a Satan-worshipping coven living next door didn’t actually seem that far-fetched. It’s a cruel irony that the director of a movie in which the protagonist loses her child, and nearly her own life, to an imaginary cult would lose his own wife (Sharon Tate) and unborn child to a very real one (The Manson Family) only a year later.
But beyond the whole witches worshipping Satan thing, Rosemary’s Baby is, at its core, a story about the expert gaslighting of a woman, and the techniques so embedded in our societal structure that she doesn’t notice it’s happening until it’s too late — and that’s something that, sadly, doesn’t feel dated.
The first time I saw the film, it didn’t register as more than a horror movie. (This was before I realized that there was no such thing as “just a horror movie,” a genre that’s been exceptional in its handling of issues of identity, gender, sexuality, family, and subversion more generally.) I was too young, and the fears of a woman frantically struggling to regain control over her body didn’t resonate. But watching it again as an adult, and someone who thinks about the intersections of women’s issues and film for a living, it’s those smaller, more subtle moments that I found truly terrifying, far more than any trick of the devil. As Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore wrote back in January: “It’s a movie that reflects a keen understanding of gender dynamics and how regularly women are undermined, disbelieved, and made to question their own realities — by their spouses and their doctors as well as the occasional evil coven.”
Those are themes that, while progressive in their own time, are astoundingly in tune with conversations women are still having today. In her book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, released in April, author Maya Dusenberry painted a pretty bleak portrait of women’s experience dealing with healthcare professionals. “The tendency to not believe women’s reports of their symptoms is definitely connected to these larger, broader cultural stereotypes about women as emotional and irrational and hysterical in the colloquial sense of the word,” she told Refinery29. “Women are stereotyped as more ready to seek care."
You see that dynamic play out clearly in Rosemary’s Baby, when a distraught Rosemary confesses to a group of female friends that she’s been in agony for months, but unable to do anything about the pain because her OB-GYN, Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) keeps telling her it’ll pass “in a day or two.” It turns out he’s in on the whole Satanic cult ploy, but the sad fact is that it’s not hard to believe. At all.
It plays out once more in the scene prior to the dream sequence, when Guy is convincing Rosemary to eat the chocolate mousse Minnie made, which is meant to drug her. She initially pushes it away, complaining of a chalky aftertaste, but he insists, first cajolingly (“Come on. The old bat slaved all day. Now eat it.”), then derisively (“There’s always something wrong.”), until finally, she takes a couple of concessionary bites, and dumps it into a napkin while he’s not looking.
Those kinds of sly, cutting comments even make it into smaller interactions throughout the film, like when everyone from Guy to her friend Hutch tells Rosemary how ugly they think her new Vidal Sassoon haircut is (for the record, the look became iconic, inspiring women’s pixie cuts even today) . Her ability to make her own decisions is constantly questioned, and the film seems to be daring her to fight back.
Still, no matter how much feminist leeway you give the film, it’s hard to get around the big elephant in the room: that this nuanced, empathetic story with a female lead was written for the screen, and directed by a man accused of raping a teenage girl. And I don’t think it’s something we can get around. If you watch the film, it’s something you have to face, and ponder, especially in scenes dealing with non-consensual sex, just as you can’t watch Gone With The Wind without grappling with how it falsely portrays slavery as benevolent. But those considerations don’t have to obscure the whole film, which remains a cinematic feat, and movie with tremendous impact on future works. Without Rosemary’s Baby, we wouldn’t have The Babadook, or Hereditary, where the journey into a woman’s psyche becomes the centrepiece of horror.
Rosemary’s Baby leaves us with a disturbing image: a distraught Rosemary, having confronted the coven about stealing her devil baby (“what have you done to it?!” she cries), is asked to rock him — to be mothering. She resists at first, but then approaches, and gazing down at her child (whom we never see) she smiles in a kind of horrifying acceptance of her fate. It’s a message that I’ve been thinking about since: You can’t help who made the thing you love. All you can do is roll with the punches, and carry a massive kitchen knife — just in case.