Toil and Trouble: The Repression of Women in the American Dream and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby
(Author’s Note: This was my final paper for my Film and Dream class.)
Looking over Manhattan almost with a glare, the lavish apartment complex that Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) tour is the stuff that dreams are made of. He’s a somewhat struggling actor, she’s… what is she? Rosemary is Guy’s wife. And as he begins to ascend into fame, and she is left with little more to do than take care of their as yet unborn child and fend off the nosey neighbors, an anxiety oozes into her mind that seems not to concern her husband. They may have finally made it, they may have finally achieved the American Dream, but that dream, as represented in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, is regressive, serves only to benefit men, to repress women, and uphold a restrictive familial ideal. It’s really just another nightmare.
Given that horror functions as many things, not least of all as a door into repression and a mode of confrontation, it makes sense, therefore, that Polanski’s first Hollywood film, released in 1967, would confront such ideas as the evolving nuclear family. The presence of the Vietnam War in every home was dividing families, a new age of kids were off into college, and the New Hollywood Wave that would explode in the late ‘60s into the ‘70s would be an artistic response to these issues. As Mark Harris argues in Pictures at a Revolution, it’s 1967 that ignited this revolution in artistic reaction to the culture: with films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate challenging norms both sexually and violently, Rosemary’s Baby, though technically atypical of the aforementioned films (as it was not nominated for Best Picture that year) nonetheless fits snugly as a cynical response to an old guard whose watchful eye looked over every facet of popular culture.
Particularly, what all three films address, though only Baby is explicitly horror, is what is most repressed in our culture: sexuality. Robin Wood, writing in The American Nightmare, expounds, “First, sexual energy itself, together with its possible successful sublimation in non-sexual creativity – sexuality being the source of creative energy in general. The ‘ideal’ inhabitant of our culture will be the individual whose sexuality is sufficiently fulfilled by the monogamous heterosexual union necessary for the reproduction of future ‘ideal’ inhabitants…” (Wood 8). Though Bonnie and Clyde works primarily in metaphor and semiotics (look at all those guns!), all three are exceptionally forthright in attacking this particular point of view that Wood suggests that the dominant culture has. However, both Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate relegate this perspective primarily through a male lens, though the former attempts to bifurcate it equally between its titular characters. Rosemary’s Baby’s success is contingent on its ability to articulate the anxiety catalyzed by this particular cultural viewpoint.
The American Dream, even as expressed through literature such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, fantasizes economic stability, first and foremost, and familial stability in the form of, as Wood addresses, a heterosexual union. Rosemary and Guy Wodehouse fit into that archetype, moving into a very impressive apartment in Manhattan. What’s striking about this detail, that the film is set in New York City, is its atypicality with regard to how the American Dream is generally presented on screen. It is often illustrated in a “grass is always greener” suburban neighborhood, with a white picket fence, and Sirkian strokes of color. Even in films that attempt to subvert those ideals, which would later be recognized as “Reagan-esque”, set them in small towns, like Blue Velvet and American Beauty. Thus, the placement of Rosemary’s Baby in Manhattan indicates a kind of chaos, a distinct lack of control. Unlike the suburban settings of the Lynch and Mendes films, there is no mistaking any kind of illusion of control, or even consent, for that matter. The move is logistical, as Guy is an up and coming actor, but it represents the metaphorical lack of control that Rosemary will have in her coupling and family making. Because not only is Manhattan a city of chaos, but it’s one where the iconography is distinctly male: phallic skyscrapers, looking down on its people.
Yet, though the story has been transplanted into a metropolitan area, the expectations are still the same. It is in this way that Rosemary’s Baby reveals itself as a metaphor for the repression of women. Despite the fact that Rosemary, within the relationship, seems to have little to no autonomy, her primary role is as wife and soon to be mother. She repeats her husband’s resume as if she’s memorized it the way his agent would have, each time losing enthusiasm. “He was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross, and a lot of television plays and commercials,” she says about three times during the film. No one thinks to ask what she does, what role she has, what her interests are, what her desires are. Even in small arguments with her husband, she only seems to operate, to him, as a nagging wife, each of her wants and needs pretty much disregarded by him, from a conversation about dinner at the neighbors to how she wants to take care of her pregnancy. Not even Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon) pays much actual attention to her; it’s an illusory idea of freedom, and an illusory notion of choice. All the while, her husband’s career is finally taking off, leaving him both famous and unusually and inexplicably bitter.
The repressiveness of the American Dream continues to exert control over Rosemary as she continually battles this boxing up of her character: she is essentially objectified, treated with as an object interchangeable with any other woman. Rosemary’s Baby allows itself to present the toxicity of sexuality in this form in as revealing a manner as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and other films of the New American Wave, but Rosemary’s Baby’s perspective specifically challenges a patriarchal dominance that exists both in the culture she/we live in secularly, sexually, and religiously. Her doctors are male, she’s “man”-handled and raped by Satan, the men in her life, even the helpful ones, are dismissive and sexist. She explicitly tells her husband she of the dream where she is raped by the Devil, her hands roving over inexplicable claw marks, and he ignores her. Even when she arrives with her boyish haircut, that she dares to even marginally transgress an imaginary line of femininity into more supposed masculine territory rings as worthy of contempt of everyone she meets.
It is increasingly problematic and irksome that Rosemary should be relegated to a role, against her will, as someone without much of a voice. But it seems to reflect the ‘ideal’ inhabitant, as Wood mentions. The anxiety that constantly trickles into her mind, seeps into it like a poison, is literally the fear that her child is going to be harmed. Subtextually, however, it’s the pressure to create a stable, nuclear family. The only voice that Rosemary, or as this film posits, most women are given in the archetypal American Dream is that of a Nurturer. There could easily be a sly sexist position taken by Guy, and in conjunction, Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer), that actually reveals itself at the end of the film: when Rosemary discovers that she has indeed given birth to Satan’s spawn, the room, peppered with people, look at her, half with praise and half with disdain. It’s the praise which is covertly sexist, the crowd congratulating her for birthing the son of Satan. The issue, though, is that any praise she receives is predicated on the existence of a male child, thus directing the praise back to him.
This kind of repression isn’t limited to Rosemary; Minnie Castevet also is subject to this nightmare, albeit in a less obvious way. Though Mrs. Castevet is the one peddling many of the drugs that are supposed to help (or hurt?) Rosemary’s pregnancy period, it is at the behest of her husband, whose real name is Steven Marcato, son of an infamous Satan worshipper. Interestingly, during Rosemary’s research on the topic of witchcraft, despite the invocation of the word “witch”, the examples provided to her (and us) in the film are all male. The film is surprisingly devoid of even the most basic renderings of female witches, black hat and cauldron, instead opting for a more patriarchal point of view, precisely to present that toxic dominance.
There is an interesting irony to Rosemary’s character, however; though everything she does is made out to be mawkishly feminine – her clothes, her infantilized voice, her deep submissiveness throughout most of the first act or so – she is, when pushed to her limits, able to channel a compassion and strength that the men in the film, and in a larger sense, in the society want to rob her of. It is on her own initiative that she finally sees a different doctor, and it is of her own volition she begins heavy research into the occult. She seems almost prototypical of the Final Girl, an archetype that exists in slasher films where the last female victim, representative of the purity those who were punished and killed before her lacked, takes on a marginally more masculine attributes. But to attribute her self-sufficiency in the film to masculinity seems, to the film’s point, reductive and inaccurate. Rosemary desires protection for both herself and her baby.
Though the American Dream, as it exists as a fantastical achievement for mostly white, upper class, heterosexual people resigns women to a one dimensional role, Rosemary’s Baby does a number of things in response to this: it examines the repression of women in that dream, it examines that the American Dream exists primarily for the ascension of men, it basically snarls in the face of Rape Culture, and it reveals that the American Dream functions to pressure women into creating a family. But with regard to that last point, it doesn’t condemn the role of the mother either. Rosemary is portrayed with sympathy, the pathos imbued in her by Farrow incomparable. We don’t fault her for wanting to take care of her child. But we do fault the society that’s created this American Nightmare.