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Hosemary's Baby.

Gothic Pregnancy,
and Fetal Subjects
Karyn Valerius

The strategy of antiabortionists to make

fetal personhood a self-fulfilling prophecy by making the fetus a public presence
addresses a visually oriented culture.
Meanwhile, finding "positive" images
and symbols of abortion hard to imagine, feminists and other prochoice advocates have all too readily ceded the visual terrain. (Rosalind Petchesky, "Fetal

Karyn Valerius is an assistant

professor at Hofstra University's
New College where she teaches
literature, cultural studies, and
women's studies.

osemary's Baby, a 1968 horror film adapted by Roman Polanski from Ira Levin's
1967 best selling novel, invites feminist
speculation. It is a story of violence, deceit,
and misappropriation of a wfoman's body by
people she trusts that makes pregnancy a
Gothic spectacle. This discussion reads
Rosemary's Baby in relation to the contestations over abortion that have inflamed the
pubhc sphere in the United States for forty
years. 1 The film explicidy situates itself in
Manhattan in 1965-66, and it is a product of

Karyn Valerius 117

and widely distributed participant in the anxieties and conflicts of that specific moment.2 In the intervening years, the heat of debate has been a powerful catalyst for reactions among medical, legal, religious, poHtical, commercial, feminist, and antifeminist agents in reproductive politics, and the debates
have changed shape in response. Nonetheless, what was at stake in the 1960s
and what presently continues to be at stake in the high profile pubHc debates
on abortion is the status of women as legitimate political and legal subjects.
Thus, Rosemary's Baby continues to resonate as a cautionary tale relevant to
the historical present. As the discourse on generation mutates, so do the
meanings that can be read into and out of this narrative.
Gothic Pregnancy

During the 1960s, a women's movement growing in momentum argued

for repeal of abortion laws on the grounds of a w^oman's right to self-determination, while a less radical movement among some medical and legal professionals called for reform of abortion codes (Baehr 1990,3; Ginsburgl989,
35-42; Petcheskyl984,128-29). Both groups objected to abortion laws at
odds with actual practice since women terminated pregnancies despite the
law, and both objected to the dangerous circumstances created by such laws,
which made an otherwise simple medical procedure extremely risky for
women seeking abortions illegally. The American Law Institute proposed a
model penal code (drafted in 1959 and published in 1962) that provided for
legal, therapeutic abortion in cases where pregnancy resulted from rape or
incest, or where continuing a pregnancy would jeopardize the physical or
mental health of the woman or would result in a physically or mentally disabled child. Feminist activists, on the other hand, sought to seize control of
the means of reproduction from a medical profession they considered to be
elitist and patriarchal. They broke the law, organizing underground referral
services to connect women who needed abortions with physicians who
would provide them in safe, clean conditions, and they established women's
health collectives to deliver woman-centered (as opposed to physician-centered) medical care, with some collectives eventually offering abortion services themselves (Baehr 1990, 25).
Two events helped to build mainstream public support for abortion
reform during the period that informs Levin's novel and Polanski's film. In
1963-64 a rubella or "German measles" epidemic produced congenital
abnormalities in over 20,000 infants in the United States (Lader 1966, 37).
Two years prior to that, Sherri Finkbine, a local television personality, was
prevented from obtaining a legal abortion in Arizona, and her highly publicized experience with thalidomide, institutional medicine, and Arizona state
law instigated a national public debate on reforming restrictive abortion laws


College Literature 32.3 [Summer 2005]

(Ginsburg 1 9 8 9 , 3 5 - 3 6 ; Lader 1966,10-16). Finkbine was pregnant w h e n she
read about the teratogenic effects of thalidomide, a tranquilizer she had
recently taken, and became alarmed. She approached her physician w h o reco m m e n d e d and arranged for an abortion at her local hospital. In order to
w a r n other w o m e n of the dangers of thalidomide, Finkbine told her story to
the local press, and the newspaper carried it o n the front page the day her
abortion was scheduled. In response, the hospital cancelled the procedure for
fear of prosecution. W h a t the hospital objected to was not therapeutic or
eugenic abortion, w h i c h they were initially willing to provide, but the p u b licization of their covert practices. Finkbine's doctor, in turn, sought a court
order for the abortion. However, the court side-stepped the issue by dismissing the case but r e c o m m e n d i n g that the hospital allow the procedure. T h e
hospital refused, arguing it needed further legal clarification, and Finkbine
finally went to Sweden where the abortion of a malformed fetus was performed. In her sociological study of the twentieth-century abortion debates,
Faye Ginsburg remarks that Finkbine was "a persuasive and compelling figure to the American public" because she was white, middle class, married,
already a m o t h e r of several children, and believed abortion was justified only
in extenuating circumstances (1989, 36). In other words, Finkbine was
securely positioned within the institutions of marriage and m o t h e r h o o d .
Unlike feminist arguments for legalized abortion as a precondition of sexual
freedom and self-determination for w o m e n , Finkbines abortion of a
deformed fetus did not contest hegemonic social relations.Thus, people w h o
felt threatened by abortion as a feminist platform could nonetheless sympathize with Finkbine.
Rosemary's Baby articulates this charged p u b h c debate o n abortion with
a literary and cinematic tradition of horror.^ T h e result is a m o d e r n - d a y tale
of witchcraft and demonic pregnancy, a Faustian story of destructive a m b i tion, a tribute to Dracula in w h i c h the u n b o r n rather than the undead p e r niciously feed off the living, and a perversion of the Christian narrative of
the Immaculate C o n c e p t i o n in w h i c h Satan impregnates a mortal w o m a n in
order to b e c o m e h u m a n and intervene in world history. This feat is a c c o m phshed in Manhattan in 1965 at the Bramford (as in Bram Stoker), a Gothic
apartment house w i t h a history of witchcraft and cannibahstic Victorian
ladies.4 In exchange for a successful acting career, G u y W o o d h o u s e (John
Cassavetes) secretly agrees to cooperate with the evil plot of his n e x t - d o o r
neighbors, the eccentric and overbearing R o m a n and M i n n i e Castevet
(Sidney Blackmer and R u t h G o r d o n ) , w h o lead a coven of witches. O n the
night R o s e m a r y W o o d h o u s e (Mia Farrow) believes she and her husband
G u y are going to conceive their first child, she is drugged by h i m and transp o r t e d through a false closet connecting their apartment to that of the

Karyn Valerius 119

Castevets. There the coven performs a ceremony to summon the devil, and
Rosemary is raped and impregnated by Satan. During the malevolent pregnancy that follows, Rosemary endures excruciating pain, but she does not
discover the preternatural constitution of her offspring until the horrifying
last scene. Until this final revelation, Rosemary's misplaced fears for the well
being of her much-desired first born compel her to piece together the conspiracy against her, and she suspects the coven is waiting for her infant to be
born in order to steal it for a sacrificial ritual.
The film elicits horror from its audience through Rosemary's violation
and the spectacle of her pregnant body, which harbors a monster. Although
it exploits pregnancy as abject embodiment, I do not understand this as a
misogynist repudiation of the maternal body or "the monstrous feminine,"
which Barbara Creed has identified as characteristic of cinematic horror.^
Rather, Rosemary's Baby turns horror to feminist ends. As Judith Halberstam
explains in her study of the horror genre, Gothic is "a narrative technique, a
generic spin that transforms the lovely and the beautiful into the abhorrent,"
and when this transformation of the sentimental into the grotesque "disrupts
dominant culture's representations of family, heterosexuality, ethnicity and
class politics," it can be particularly amenable to feminist and queer readings
(1995, 22-23). I argue that the gothicization of bourgeois, white pregnancy
enacted by Rosemary's Baby contests the essentiahst conflation of women
with maternity and the paternalistic medical and legal restrictions on
women's access to abortion prior to Roe v. Wade (1973), which enforced that
conflation in practice.
When Rosemary's Baby is located historically in relation to the criminalization of abortion and the idealization of maternity for married, middle
class, white women, this story of a firightening pregnancy evokes feminist
arguments for sexual and reproductive freedom. For one, a woman forced to
carry an unwanted pregnancy to term because abortion is illegal may feel
betrayed by the reproductive capacity of her body and find the bodily transformations accompanying pregnancy profoundly alienating. Even for a
woman who welcomes pregnancy, as Rosemary does, the experience may
produce anxiety, fear, and ambivalence towards her own body, particularly if
she is worried about the outcome of her pregnancy due to iU health. Indeed,
both when Rosemary recognizes her sickly reflection in a shop window and
when she is repulsed by the sight of herself devouring raw chicken liver, she
becomes frightened and suspects that something might be wrong with her.
Furthermore, although it is Rosemary's abject, pregnant body that horrifies
the audience, the film nonetheless invites our identification with her and
provokes our fear on her behalf. Finally, Rosemary's exploitation by her husband and the coven, who coldly pursue their own interests in her future child


College Literature 32.3 [Summer 2005]

w i t h o u t regard for her desires or well being, might be read as an indictment
of the m o r e routine ways sexist social relations expropriate women's reproductive labor. For Rosemary, as for w o m e n facing u n w a n t e d pregnancies
w h e n abortion is illegal, coercive social relations make pregnancy a terrifying experience.


As Sharon Marcus points out in "Placing Rosemary's Baby," Rosemary is

initially vulnerable to the coven's plot because she is not suspicious enough
(1993,132). Yet, more than one reviewer of the film dismissed Rosemary as
delusional and classified the plot as a paranoid fantasy (Marcus 1993,147).To
attribute Rosemary's fears and suspicions to psychosis is to refuse a political
interpretation of the narrative by failing to recognize the sexist social relations that conspire against her and, indeed, by failing to recognize any meaningful relation between the narrative and historical reality. Rather than
pathologize Rosemary, Marcus locates paranoia in social relations of the
1960s, which are both represented by the narrative and the site of its initial
reception. Specifically, she explicates an anxious discourse on privacy
prompted by electronic surveillance technologies as well as what she defines
as a paranoid discourse of pregnancy (132-44). According to Marcus, this
paranoid discourse circulated during the 1960s in popular manuals for pregnant women, which associated pregnancy with fear precisely through habitual reassurances that their readers had nothing to fear about pregnancy (133).
It also materialized in new fetal visualization technologies like ultra sound,
which extended medical surveillance of pregnancy, and in revised medical
knowledge about the placenta that positioned pregnant women as potentially toxic environments for fetuses (134-41). Finally, the legal prohibition
against abortion except in circumstances that endangered a pregnant
woman's life or mental health meant that in practice, abortions could be
legally obtained only on the paranoid grounds of "fetal perniciousness and
women's susceptibility to insanity" (134).
In Rosemary's Baby this pervasive, paranoid discourse on pregnancy
becomes horrific. The antagonistic relationship between pregnant women
and fetuses formulated by medical and legal discourses takes an aggravated
form in the satanic fetus and the toxic effects of the pregnancy on
Rosemary's body, while commonplace characterizations of pregnant women
as needlessly fearful and even prone to insanity undermine Rosemary's credibility and put her in jeopardy. Both Guy and Sapirstein, her obstetrician,
assume a paternalistic authority that enables them to easily discredit her as
psychotic, and later Guy unsuccessfully attempts to convince Rosemary that
she has suffered a psychotic episode brought on by "prepartum syndrome."

Karyn Valerius 121

The narrative substantiates Rosemary's claim that there is a plot against her,
but as she becomes acutely aware, no one will believe her. Those interpretations of Rosemary's Baby that dismiss Rosemary as delusional assume the
authority of this paranoid discourse on pregnancy, despite the work the narrative does to expose its pernicious effects. By contrast, Marcus follows
Naomi Schor's reading of Freud, which appropriates "female paranoia" as a
model for feminist theorizing, and affirms Rosemary's justified suspicions as
an oppositional form of paranoia advocated by the narrative.^ This feminist
paranoia leads Rosemary to the devastating recognition that her most intimate
relationships have been the site of her exploitation (Marcus 1993,146-47).
Marcus is right to value feminist paranoia as a form of oppositional
thinking, but she misidentifies feminist paranoia with a defensive stance
against invasions of privacy. Her analysis assumes the legal framework which
positions the individual's right to privacy as a protection against state intervention, whether in the form of wiretaps, video surveillance, or laws prohibiting abortion. This is, of course, the legal basis for Roe v. Wade, which
affirms the right to privacy in reproductive decision-making within the context of doctor-patient relationships. However, Rosemary's story would seem
to expose the limitations of privacy as a protection against violence or coercion. As the feminist slogan "the personal is political" maintains, sexist power
relations operate in and through the private spaces of the home, domestic
relationships, and the bodies and psyches of individual men and women.
Since Rosemary's exploitation occurs precisely within the privacy of her
doctor-patient relationship, her home, her marriage, her body, and even her
desires, her privacy is less a sanctuary which is violated than a trap which
ensnares her. In these terms, privacy is not an alternative to exploitation since
protecting a woman's privacy will not ensure her safety from violence.
Neither will it secure her access to an abortion as court cases subsequent to
Roe V. Wade have proved by upholding the right to privacy while eroding
abortion rights (Petchesky 1984, xxiii).This is not to overlook the importance of the right to privacy, which provided a means to defend women's
reproductive decision-making from state intervention in principle and thereby cleared the way for legalized abortion in the United States. However,
insisting on the right to privacy cannot address the myriad manifestations of
sexism, racism, and class domination in private relationships, nor can it
address the socially determined constraints on what private choices are available to women in the first place. For instance, the right to privacy does nothing to make the choices of poor women realizable because it does not ensure
them either access to abortion or adequate material support necessary to
carry a pregnancy to term.


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For Marcus, "the moral that Rosemary's Baby holds for women is pure
NewYork: trust no-one, not even your own husband; don't talk to strangers,
even if they do live next door; and rememberthere's no such thing as too
much paranoia" (1993,149).This may be good advice.To be sure, Rosemary's
misgivings about her husband's culpable behavior and her suspicions of an
evil conspiracy are legitimate assessments of her situation. Nonetheless, the
conclusion "trust no-one" seems to recommend isolation over collective
feminist action and short-circuits the more politically efficacious insight to
be gained from Marcus's historical explication of Rosemary's Baby. What is
crucially significant about feminist paranoia is its insistence that exploitation
is real. As a power-sensitive analysis of one's experience, feminist paranoia
takes fear and suspicion seriously as rational responses to exploitative circumstances. What is at stake is less privacy than credibility (which is a privilege produced in the first place by asymmetrical power relations), both for
Rosemary as she confronts the authority of her husband and obstetrician and
for the feminist critic who would claim a meaningful relation between
Rosemary's story and reality.
This is really happening!

Against dismissive readings of the film as paranoid delusion, Rosemary's

Baby theorizes a permeable relation between fantasy and reality in which
language serves as a placenta-hke conduit for circulation between them. For
instance, early on in the narrative, Rosemary hears the Castevets through her
bedroom wall as she faUs asleep. The dream sequence that follows is a memory from Rosemary's Catholic-schoolgirl childhood, but the sound of
Minnie Castevet castigating her husband has penetrated Rosemary's dream,
and Minnie's real-time polemic is delivered within the dream by a nun scolding Rosemary. Here fantasy and reality are not carbon copies of one another, but they are in close communication.
Similarly, a terrifying and instructive moment occurs during the rape
scene when Rosemary's lucid perceptions interrupt her drug-induced
dreams and she recognizes for a panicked instant that she has confused rape
by someone inhuman with a pleasurable dream of sex with her husband. As
fear replaces her previously passive, voyeuristic interest in those dreams,
Rosemary protests "This is no dream! This is really happening^ before she is

sedated. Her protest simultaneously asserts a distinction between fantasy and

reality and acknowledges how closely intertwined they are. However, in the
morning, despite the scratches on her body that provide evidence to the contrary, Rosemary mistakenly attributes all of her unsettling memories of the
previous night to a strange dream. In part because what happened was so
bizarre that it resembled a dream, and in part because she does not yet believe

Karyn Valerius 123

in witches, covens, or the devil, Rosemary fails to recognize her experience

as real. Although Rosemary does confuse fantasy and reality, and although
paranoia is commonly understood precisely as an inability to differentiate
between fantasy and reality, this is not paranoid delusion, where imaginary
fears and suspicions are projected out into the real world, but its inverse.
Rosemary mistakes her real experience for fantasy and dismisses it. This category confusion is harmful to her because it provides a cover that allows the
coven to operate w^ith Rosemary's unwitting cooperation, while later on it
is her developing sense of feminist paranoia that allows Rosemary to entertain her suspicions and begin to resist the plot against her.
Rather than dismiss outright what she misidentifies as her dreams (a dismissal that assumes that fantasy and reality are mutually exclusive), both
Rosemary and the audience need to cultivate an adequate understanding of
the intimate relation between her dreams and real life in order to sort out
what is real. As Rosemary floats in and out of consciousness during the rape,
her vivid fantasies are punctuated by the detached observations she makes
about her sensations and physical surroundings, as well as the conversations
of the coven as they prepare to summon the devil. This is achieved in the film
through alternating camera angles, which produce the effect of shifts in perspective, moving between Rosemary's dreams and a third-party view of Guy
and the coven's activities. As Guy undresses her, Rosemary dreams she is on
a yacht with her friend Hutch and John and Jackie Kennedyalternately
self-conscious that she is nude and wearing a bathing suit. When the coven
transports her on a gurney through the linen closet joining the two apartments, she notices the gingham contact paper covering a shelf as she is passed
under it. Then she dreams she is lying on her back on a scaffold, looking at
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel firom Michelangelo's perspective. Her
dreams register her sensory experience, combine it with memory, emotion
and the material of her subconscious, and transform it into fantasy.
As her dreams digest real events and transform them into fantasy,
Rosemary consumes her dreams, which in turn ehcit real responses from her.
This communication between fantasy and reality suggests by extension that
between the fictional narrative itself and the audience. For instance, following the terror of Rosemary's lucid moment during the rape, she dreams she
has an interview with the Pope. In the novel, but not exphcitly in the film,
Rosemary is concerned to conceal from him that she has just had an orgasm
(Levin 1967,117).While this revelation is disturbing for the reader who recognizes the relation of Rosemary's pleasurable dream to the actual violation
in progress, her orgasm demonstrates that dreams and fantasy can have real
effects. Rosemary's alternating responses of fear and pleasure suggest the fear
and pleasure experienced by the reader, which are real effects produced by


College Literature 32.3 [Summer 20051

the narrative. Likewise, Rosemary's protest "This is no dream ..." penetrates

a permeable fiction/reality boundary even as it distinguishes between
Rosemary's dreams and real life. Her protest is delivered into the camera and
makes a direct address that acknowledges the presence of the audience and
therefore implicates us as voyeurs who watch as the coven members do. The
direct address is also a warning to the audience not to mistake Rosemary's
violation for fantasy as she will do the following morning. This warning both
acknowledges the role of the audience in interpretation and seeks to enroll
us as witnesses of her rape and potential allies.
Gothic History

Like Rosemary's dreams, then, Rosemary's Baby does not mimetically

represent reality but is closely intertwined with it, both through the responses it provokes in the audience which consumes it and through its parasitical
relation to the historical events and discourses it digests and rematerializes as
Gothic horror. The story establishes a cHmate of fear and danger by invoking
the coercive and sometimes deadly reality created by a conservative sexual
morality in combination with the criminalization of abortion, where infanticide, suicide, and dangerous back alley abortions were the last resort of desperate women. When Rosemary's friend Hutch cautions the couple against
taking the apartment at the Bramford because of its history of cannibalism
and witchcraft, he mentions that a dead infant wrapped in newspaper was
found in the basement there in 1959. Rosemary and Terry, the young,
unmarried woman the Castevets rescue from life on the streets, later discuss
the creepiness of the Bramford's basement. Soon after, Terry commits suicide.
Both the audience and Rosemary come to understand why Terry killed herself as Rosemary's investigation of the coven's conspiracy unfolds. Those who
listen closely to Minnie's voice during Rosemary's first dream sequence
(which immediately follows Terry's suicide) know that Terry was the first
woman the coven plotted to have impregnated by Satan. Rosemary overhears but does not comprehend as Minnie berates Roman for letting Terry
in on their plan, an indication that Terry discovered she was pregnant and was
informed by Roman of the coven's role in this. Rather than comply, as
Roman assumed she would, she jumps out of the window. Terry perceives
death to be the only exit from an intolerable situation, and although the circumstances of her pregnancy are fantastic, the precedent for her self-destruction is a grim history of suicide by young women who reached similar conclusions when faced with the stigma of unwedded pregnancy.
Like infanticide and suicide, abortion was an illicit practice associated
historically with the scandalous sexual activity of unmarried women. By
contrast, Rosemary is married and looks forward to pregnancy and to start-

Karyn Valerius 125

ing a family. Unlike Terry's situation but like Finkbine's, Rosemary's story
embodies what was considered, according to the conventional morality of
the time, the unfortunate but more respectable circumstances addressed by
abortion reform. Her pregnancy hyperbolically involves not one but all three
of the circumstances in which the American Law Institute's model penal
code provided for legal abortion: not only was she was raped, but pregnancy
compromises her physical health, while the third circumstancepotential
birth defectsis established through anachronism. That is, until the twentieth century, "monster" was a term used to refer to people born with congenital deformities, and copulation with the devil was one traditional explanation for the cause of monstrous births. Rosemary's pregnancy synchronizes
this historical tradition of monstrosity with contemporary anxieties about
thalidomide provoked by Finkbine's experience. At Dr. Hill's ofBce when
Rosemary takes prescription pills out of her purse and repeats the word
"monsters" as she looks at the pills, the association between monstrosity and
pharmaceutically induced birth defects is further secured. Of course,
Rosemary carries her pregnancy to term, although Finkbine did not, and it
is precisely the satanic contamination of white, bourgeois maternity that elicits horror in Rosemary's Baby.
As Finkbine's story did, Rosemary's Baby addresses itself to an audience
invested in the sentimental ideal of motherhood, exploits that investment to
produce a horrified response, and thereby makes abortion compelling. At the
same time that Rosemary is a figure of sympathetic identification for the
audience, and her wasted physical appearance creates fear on her behalf, dramatic irony renders grotesque her nurturing, emotional investments in her
pregnancy as she goes about her preparations for the baby's arrival. While
Rosemary's status as a married woman initially establishes her respectability
and ensures the sympathy of a wide audience, as the narrative progresses such
conventional moral distinctions between the sexually respectable Rosemary
and the streetwise Terry become irrelevant. The willingness of Rosemary's
husband to subject her to violence and his appropriation of her body as a
medium of exchange in a transaction for worldly success position Rosemary
as a victim of exploitation who needs to reassert control over her own body
by some means. When Rosemary protests "I won't have an abortion!" to
friends worried about her health, she simultaneously proposes and refuses an
alternative to the horrible course of events underway. In the next scene,
Rosemary's pain suddenly ceases, and for a moment she believes her fetus has
died, but then she feels it move for the first time. As Guy recoils in horror,
Rosemary joyfully yells "Its alive!" Given the circumstances of her pregnancy, this unmistakable reference to James Whale's 1931-film version of


College Literature 32.3 (Summer 2005]

Frankenstein portentously suggests that it would be in Rosemary's best interest if it were not.
Rosemary trusts in modern medicine to navigate her safely through
pregnancy (an expectation that marks her class privilege since prenatal care
was and is a privilege not afForded to everyone).To her dismay this trust is
repeatedly betrayed. Here, too, Rosemary's story bears some resemblance to
Finkbine's in that both women seek medical intervention to resolve the
problems they face but encounter obstacles: Finkbine read about thalidomide
and sought a hospital abortion, while Rosemary reads about witchcraft and
goes to her obstetrician for safe haven. She learns too late that her deference
to Sapirstein's expertise has put her in danger. The success of the coven's plot
depencis on Sapirstein maintaining his position as Rosemary's sole source of
information, and he instructs her not to read books or heed the advice of
family and friends. Indeed, the experiential knowledge shared by the women
at Rosemary's cocktail party threatens to undermine him when Rosemary's
friends question his competency and encourage her to seek a second opinion from another doctor. Once she discovers that he is implicated in the plot,
she flees to Dr. HiU, the obstetrician Sapirstein replaced at the insistence of
Guy and the Castevets. HiU is not a coven member, but he fails to protect
Rosemary. Instead of checking her into the hospital as she asks, he placates
her and phones Sapirstein out of professional courtesy. What Rosemary
wants is security from the coven for herself and the infant she is about to
deliver, but her flight from one doctor to the next, her fear that she will be
intercepted, and her desperation as she pleads for help with an unreceptive
doctor who will not grant her access to the hospital reverberates with the
experience of women seeking illegal abortions.
This double betrayal by Sapirstein and then Hill is consistent with feminist criticisms of institutional medicine; historically, a male-dominated medical profession has colluded with sexist social relations generally, and its covert
administration of abortion is one particular form this collusion has taken
(Baehr 1990, 23-24; Petchesky 1984, 78-84). Sapirstein's benevolent paternalism is exposed as self-interested, fraudulent, and manipulative, and while
allegiance to one's colleagues is not conspiracy, HiU's disinterested professionalism contributes to Rosemary's coercion just the same. However, health
care delivered to women by women and rooted in women's traditional
knowledge about childbearing does not provide Rosemary with an affirming, feminist alternative to the abuses of the medical establishment either.
Minnie, who Lucy Fischer identifies as "an ersatz modern midwife, shrouded in misogyny" (1992, 7-8), is instrumental to the coven's plot, administering herbal concoctions to Rosemary and monitoring her contact with the
outside world. In the harrowing delivery scene, Rosemary suffers the worst

Karyn Valerius 127

of both worlds: her traumatic home delivery is not the positive experience
proposed by a homeopathic health movement as a corrective to the overmedicalization of childbirth in hospitals, and she enjoys none of the benefits
of a hospital delivery but is nevertheless medicated and unconscious for the
delivery of her baby and entirely alienated from the experience of childbirth.
As Sapirstein injects an unconsenting, screaming Rosemary with a sedative
to prevent her from fighting him during labor, she objects "It was supposed
to be Doctor's Hospital. Doctor's Hospital. With everything clean and sterile." For Rosemary (and for many women) a hospital delivery promises sterile conditions and skilled care, and historically, these have been important
advantages given the risks of infection and hemorrhaging connected both
with childbirth and with back alley abortions. It is these risks that inform
both Rosemary's desire for a hospital delivery and Finkbine's desire for a hospital abortion.
The issue is defined here as one of access to the positive benefits of modern medical care. Since physicians act as gatekeepers controlling that access,
privacy within the context of a doctor-patient relationship is no guarantee
for pregnant women, who want and need access to skilled medical care when
they carry their pregnancies to term and when they do not, because that
relationship can itself be the site of coercion. In Rosemary's Baby both
Sapirstein and Hill betray Rosemary's trust. Sapirstein's alliance with the
coven, a group of religious fanatics who seek "To avenge the inequities visited by the God worshippers on [Satan's] never-doubting followers," and his
misuse of his medical authority to further the coven's agenda are especially
objectionable. By resuscitating the accusation of witchcraft to which midwives had once been particularly vulnerable, Rosemary's Baby criticizes the
modern medical establishment for its failure to be sufficiently modern.
Victorian pro-natalism, represented by the old crones, persists due to the professional cronyism of medical doctors: Sapirstein's unprofessional but characteristically witch-like mixture of religion and medicine goes unchecked
because HiU's own strong sense of professionalism prevents him from questioning Sapirstein's motives or practice. HiU trusts Sapirstein's reputation over
Rosemary's claim that she is in danger, despite corroborating physical evidence provided by a strange test result that had puzzled him early in her
pregnancy. As Rosemary's traumatic home delivery attests, this combination
of professional cronyism with a self-righteous mixture of medicine, rehgion,
and politics endangers the weU being of pregnant women.
If Rosemary's exploitation by her husband, doctor, and neighbors and
the ensuing pernicious pregnancy contribute to a sense that, in her particular circumstances, maternity is not in Rosemary's best interest, the unease
elicited by the last scene confirms this. In this ambiguous scene, the impulse


College Literature 32.3 [Summer 2005]

to nurture the infant overpowers Rosemary's revulsion, and she apparently
consents to mother the satanic baby. For Marcus, the ending betrays the feminist implications of the narrative "in favor of an image of sacred motherhood
that neutralizes Rosemary's [feminist]'paranoia'" (1993,144). But Rosemary's
seduction by motherhood is a profane parody of sacred maternity that is horrifying for the extreme self-sacrifice it implies. Within the terms of the film,
Rosemary's assent to nurture the baby entails eternal damnation. Rather than
sanctifying Rosemary's maternity, the narrative pursues the logic of "prolife" arguments against abortion to grotesque conclusions. The trajectory of
Rosemary's story closely resembles the pro-life narratives described in
Ginsburg's study:
In all the stories of pregnancy and birth told by right-to-life women, the
ambivalence of the speaker toward that condition is invoked and then overcome, either through reference to her own or her mother's experience.
Frequently, the narrative resolution of problematic pregnancy is managed
through the protagonist's acceptance of the responsibilities of nurturance
despite problematic circumstances. Sometimes the conquest of the difficulties of and doubts about pregnancy and birth seem almost heroic. In this
way, nurturant qualities and behavior appropriate to female identity are
something to be won through effort. (Ginsburg 1989,172)
I would argue that Rosemary's Baby offers a critical rather than heroic view
of the self-sacrifice demanded of Rosemary, who is a woman pregnant in
problematic circumstances, and who accepts the nurturing behavior appropriate to female identity.
Rosemary's internal dialogue, which is provided by the novel but absent
in the film, contributes to this reading of her acceptance of the infant.
Rosemary briefly considers killing both herself and the infant by jumping
out of the window (Levin 1967,302). Like Terry, she faces an intolerable situation, and the insufficiency of her options, suicide and infanticide or raising
the devil's son, demonstrates how terrible this predicament is. Nonetheless,
Rosemary reasons that she may use her position as mother to subvert the
coven's evil intentions from within by nurturing the good in the infant (306).
This is a heroic gesture, in Ginsburg's terms, which entails self-sacrifice and
"acceptance of the responsibilities of nurturance despite pTohlematic circumstances." Rosemary's logic for choosing maternity can be understood as a
rejection of victimhood and even potentially a radical act, but this is a limited agency fraught with ambivalence.^ An argument for the subversive implications of the ending offered from a rather different perspective makes this
clear. Robert Lima understands Rosemary's acceptance of the infant to signal her return to Catholicism: "She accepts her grotesque motherhood as a
divinely instituted mission. Like Mary, mother of Jesus, she will crush the

Karyn Valerius 129

head of the serpent. The Satanic rape of Catholicism has had a salutary end"
(1974, 220). Salutary for whom? Certainly not for Rosemary.
Even if the ending does indicate a return to Catholicism on Rosemary's
part or initiate a subsequent, feminist story of subversive parenting, the narrative has not prepared the audience to accept Rosemary's self-sacrifice for a
satanic infant. Rather, to this point it has fostered a desire for Rosemary to
prevail. For an audience invested in Rosemary's transformation fi-om naive
victim to critical, investigative agent, Rosemary's seduction by or consent to
motherhood compromises a subjectivity she has achieved at great cost, as
Marcus's argument points out. However, this is not necessarily a rejection of
feminism by the narrative but can be read as feminist provocation: by gothicizing bourgeois, white pregnancy, it renders maternal self-sacrifice as a
horrific resolution to a pregnancy engendered by violence and misappropriation. The drama of fetal perniciousness performed by Rosemary's Baby
makes abortion a compelling alternative to the exploitation that defines
Rosemary's predicament.
Fetal Subjects

Thirty-two years after Roe u Wade, abortion remains a contested issue. In

response to its legalization, an anti-abortion movement has emerged and
reframed the debate, asserting the legal and political rights of the unborn in
opposition to the rights of women. These claims gain substance and credibility from visual images of an autonomous fetus circulating through the
public sphere. As Rosalind Petchesky observes, "The 'pubHc' presentation of
the fetus has become ubiquitous; its disembodied form, propped up by medical authority and technological rationality, now permeates mass culture. We
are all, on some level, susceptible to its coded meanings" (1987, 281). This
two-dimensional icon, which feminists have named "the public fetus" to distinguish it from fetuses carried by flesh-and-blood pregnant women, is the
historically recent product of Lennart Nilsson's famous photos, medical visualization technologies, the visual and rhetorical strategies of anti-abortion
activism, legal discourse, and advertising (Ginsburg 1989,105; Hartouni 1997,
6, 67; Newman 1996,15-17; Petchesky 1987, 268; Taylor 71-72). It is not a
simple, mimetic representation of a real-life fetus, although it works most effectively for pro-life ends when read in this way. Rather, fetal images and pro-life
claims for the rights of fetuses are performative discursive practices in that they
produce what they claim merely to represent, a fetal subject.^ This discourse
suppresses pregnant women's bodies as the condition of possibility for fetuses,
making an independent fetal subject with interests and rights of its own imaginable at the expense of pregnant women who are rendered invisible.


College Literature 32.3 [Summer 2005]

The autonomous fetus is an efficacious fiction with material consequences for flesh-and-blood pregnant women. Its purpose is to marginalize
women who would have abortions, and it does. In effect the pro-life fetal
subject also disempowers pregnant women who intend to carry a pregnancy
to term. For instance, the Bush administration has revised the Children's
Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a joint federal/state program, to extend
government health benefits to what it insists on calling "unborn children"
(NARAL 2002). In doing so, it prioritizes fetuses as patients rather than
uninsured pregnant women, demonstrating a profound disregard for the
social, political, and legal status of these women, whom it reduces to environments for fetal subjects.^ Existing programs could be used to extend
health benefits to uninsured pregnant women, making medical care accessible to these women and therefore also to their fetuses (NARAL 2002).
Instead, under the guise of doing something beneficial for the poor, this
politically motivated policy seeks to undermine the legitimacy of abortion
rights by establishing fetuses as beneficiaries of government programs and
therefore as social subjects in practice, if not formally according to law. As a
consequence, this simultaneously pro-natal and anti-maternal policy disenfiranchises pregnant women both as patients and as social subjects deserving
pohtical and legal consideration.
Like Rosemary Woodhouse, then, the public has unwittingly been invaded by a pernicious fetal presence, and this has been accomphshed through the
efforts of the Religious Right, which, like the coven, is a religious minority
seeking to subvert the status quo. The challenge now faced by feminist theory and practice is how to contest effectively a powerful public discourse that
displaces fetuses from the bodies and lives of pregnant women and how best
to insist on women^pregnant, or not, or pregnant-but-not-wanting-tobeas legitimate social, political, and legal subjects. This is a complex task.
To oppose the pro-life fetal subject with the specificity of pregnant embodiment by returning women to the scene of pregnancy is a risky affair given
the historical conflation of "woman" with "mother," since this conflation is
precisely what opponents of abortion want to enforce in practice. As a feminist confronting this double bind, I find Rosemary's Baby instructive.^*^ It
continues to reveal the Gothic story lurking inside the idealization of maternity as the fulfillment of a woman's destiny as it did in 1967-68, but presently this frightening story of a parasitic fetus has acquired added significance
given the emergence of the pro-life fetal subject.
First, the preoccupation of Rosemary's Baby with pregnancy as abject
embodiment makes present without idealizing what the pro-life fetal subject
obscures: the pregnant woman's body and subjectivity. As the Gothic spectacle at the center of the film, Rosemary's pregnant body is objectified by the

Karyn Valerius 131

camera, but her visibility on-screen and her narrative presence enable the
audience to identify with her subjective experience of pregnancy, just as ultra
sound images and pro-life discourse encourage identification with a fetal
subject. We encounter Rosemary as a subject whose body and whose hopes
for the future have been exploited. Although Rosemary has been objectified
as a fetal environment by her husband and the coven, it is her experience of
alienation that Rosemary's Baby brings into focus. This is an important shift
of perspective given the effacement of pregnant women in the current
regime of the fetal subject. If according to a historical reading Rosemary s
frightening pregnancy makes legalized abortion compelling, at the present
moment Rosemary's terrifying experience also suggests the dangerous effects
of anti-maternal, pro-natal public discourse and social policy for pregnant
women who wish to carry a pregnancy to term. Rosemary embraces pregnancy only to find her health jeopardized and her status as a legitimate social,
political, and legal subject negated by others pursuing their own interests in
her gestating fetus.
Second, in contrast to the highly visible, autonomous, and paradigmatically innocent fetal subject of pro-life discourse, the gestating fetus in
Rosemary's Baby is invisible, dependent, and satanic. Like pro-life discourse,
Rosemary's Baby has much to say about the unborn, but whereas pro-life discourse produces the fetal subject as rights-bearing individual, Rosemary's Baby
elaborates the liminal ontological status of fetuses. The debilitating effects of
pregnancy on Rosemary's body call attention to the parasitic physiological
relation between every fetus and a pregnant woman. As Petchesky comments:
On the level of "biology alone," the dependence is one waythe fetus is a
parasite. Not only is it not part of a woman's body, but it contributes nothing to her sustenance. It only draws from her: nutrients, immunological
defenses, hormonal secretions, blood, digestive functions, energy. (Petchesky
1984, 350)
Rosemary's Baby gothicizes this parasitic relation by casting the fetus in the
role of vampire, the traditional parasite of Hterary and cinematic horror;
instead of the undead, in Rosemary's Baby it is the unborn tbat maliciously
feed off the living. This is underscored in the novel (although the line is
dropped in the film) by Hutch who remarks on Rosemary's deterioration,
"You look as if you've been drained by a vampire. Are you sure there aren't
any puncture marks?" (Levin 1967,156). Of course, both Rosemary's Satanic fetus and the undead are preternatural phenomena while in general the
unborn are not. Nonetheless, like the undead, who continue to inhabit the
world of the living although they are not alive and who cannot be killed
although they are not dead, the unborn are liminal entities. Both the undead
and the unborn exist in a transitional state defined by a threshold that has not


College Literature 32,3 [Summer 2005)

been crossed, death in one case and birth in the other, and both require living human beings for sustenance.
Importantly, the relationship between pregnant women and fetuses is not
solely physiological. As Petchesky argues, becoming a human person is a
process accomplished within social relationships, beginning with the relationship between pregnant women and fetuses established during gestation
and continuing after birth (1984, 350-351). In Rosemary's Baby, it is through
the ordinary but significant act of choosing a name for her future child that
Rosemary defines her own relationship to the pregnancy in progress and
interpellates her gestating fetus into human social relations. That is,
Rosemary's naming practice initiates her future child's formation as a social
subject by "hailing" or calling it into social existence in the manner famously theorized by Louis Althusser (1971). When Rosemary addresses her gestating fetus, "Don't worry little Andy-or -Jenny, I'll kill them before I let
them hurt you," or "Everything's okay now, Andy-or-Jenny. We're going to
be in a nice clean bed at Mount Sinai Hospital, with no visitors," these are
performative discursive acts that posit a fetal subject, just as pro-life discourse
does. However, what Rosemary's Baby offers instead of the pro-life fetal subject is a provisional, subject-in-the-making specifically constituted by
Rosemary, the pregnant woman, in relation to herself. ^^ As is signaled by the
names Rosemary considers, which change in the course of her pregnancy
from Andrew or Douglas for a boy and Melinda or Susan for a girl to Andy
or Jenny, this is an on-going process the outcome of which remains uncertain. Of course, Rosemary's discourse does not in and of itself determine
what this outcome will be, as we are reminded by the unresolved question
of the future child's sex and the specter of monstrosity that haunts
Rosemary's pregnancy. Nonetheless, in the account of pregnancy given by
Rosemary's Baby, Rosemary is the crucial agent in a physiological and discursive process without which there is no fetus or infant. The coven needs
her to accomplish their evil plot as she certainly does not need them.
To figure pregnancy as a physiological and discursive process, as
Rosemary's Baby does, is to attend to the specificities of the relationship
between a pregnant woman and the fetus she nurtures as the pro-life fetal
subject does not. Pro-life discourse suppresses fetal dependence on pregnant
women and conceals its own productive role in materializing a fetal subject
when it claims to mimetically represent real, material fetuses. Rosemary's
Baby, on the other hand, insists on the unborn as a liminal category, providing a compelling model with which to confiront pro-hfe arguments that from
conception a fetus is a human life and therefore a person endowed with
rights. Recognition that a fetus is a provisional being located inside of and
dependent upon a pregnant woman is necessary for any ethically adequate

Katyn Valerius 133

discussion of what a fetus' moral, political, and legal standing might be. Not
only is a fetus, as a potential person, not equivalent to a pregnant woman,
who is an actually existing person, but it is a woman's physical and emotional investments in her pregnancy that enable and sustain the process of development from fertilized egg to new born infant when a pregnancy is carried
to term. If the physical and other nurturing contributions of pregnant
women to fetal sustenance were generally acknowledged and valued, would
that respect then engender social policy ensuring material support and medical care for pregnant women without negating their civil rights? If gestation
were valued as a physically demanding activity exclusively performed by
pregnant women, would it not also follow that the decision to continue or
terminate a pregnancy ethically belongs to pregnant women themselves?
1 This is not to suggest that generation was not a contested site prior to the second half of the twentieth century. On the contrary, the terms of contemporary disputes over generation are the legacy of nineteenth-century debates over birth control, abortion, and social programs for widows and orphans. Petchesky, in Abortion
and Woman's Choice, Ginsburg, and Gordon include histories of these debates.
2 This is true of the novel as well. According to Sharon Marcus, "the novel
became an instant cultural icon, selling over 5,000,000 copies in less than a year"
3 I am using "articulation" here in the specific sense of cultural studies where it
refers to connections or linkages forged among various discourses, practices, and
social relations, as well as to speech or expression in language. Stuart Hall defines
articulation as "the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different
elements, under certain conditions. It is a Unkage which is not necessary, determined,
absolute, and essential for all time" (Grossberg 1996,141).
"* In her taxonomy of horror film sub-genres Carol Clover locates Rosemary's
Baby with "Terrible Place" and possession movies. For Clover, Rosemary's Baby is an
exception to the "standard schema" in possession films which "puts, or at least seems
to put, the female body on the line in order to put the male psyche on the line"
5 Creed defines the "ideological project" of cinematic horror as "an attempt to
shore up the symbolic order by constructing the feminine as an imaginary 'other'
which must be repressed and controlled in order to secure and protect the social
order. Thus, the horror film stages and re-stages the repudiation of the maternal figure" (1990, 141), Robin Wood offers a contrasting view of horror as "perhaps the
most progressive, [of American Film genres] even in its overt nihilismin a period
of extreme cultural crisis and disintegration which alone offers the possibility of radical change and rebuilding" (1986, 84), Neither source analyzes Rosemary's Baby.
^ Judith Halberstam makes a similar argument for feminist paranoia in her study
of Gothic horror (1995,126-27).


College Literature 32.3 [Summer 2005]

^ In "Is the Gaze Male?" E. Ann Kaplan warns against the potential for essentialism present in such an argument but asserts the radical potential of mothering from
a psychoanalytic perspective: "one could argue that since the law represses mothering, a gap is left through which it may be possible to subvert patriarchy" (1983, 323).
^This is not to deny the material existence of fetuses prior to the emergence of
a pro-life movement or ultra-sound but to insist that fetuses do not exist independently of pregnant women except as they are reified in discourse. See Austin's definition of performative statements (1962, 5-6), Butler on discursive materialization
(1993, 30-31), and Poovey's explanation of a metaphysics of substance, "Despite the
fact, however, that the law seems to recognize something that already exists, it actually creates that which it claims to recognize. The law creates the efFect of a substantive core by "basing" rights on (the fiction of) that core" (1992, 214).
^ See Hartouni (1997) for other instances where medical, legal, and/or media
discourse have rendered pregnant women fetal containers.
^^ My argument here is indebted to Kelly Hurley's The Gothic Body (1996) and
her essay "Reading Like an Alien" (1995).
^' In contrast to the pro-life fetal subject, Susan Squier proposes "the concept
of fetal/maternal relations as a border, a creative space of contestation, both linguistic and experimental" as a "more workable and more accurate" representation of the
fetus, which is also consistent with women's experiences of pregnancy (1991,18). Of
course, for this fetal/maternal relation not to revert to a prescription for maternal
self-sacrifice but to sustain contestation, both terminating and continuing pregnancies must be imaginable, accessible, and supportable options.
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