During my high school Women’s Studies class, we studied the 1975 film The Stepford Wives. We discussed how and why the husbands in Stepford conspired to turn their flawed human wives into blank, submissive shells of themselves. I kept playing those discussions over and over as I listened to Rosemary’s Baby, also written by the author of The Stepford Wives. That story was a haunting portrait of gender norms taken to the extreme, while Rosemary’s Baby is a creepy story of Satanism possibly living next door. Or perhaps something more…
Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy have signed a lease in a New York apartment building with a haunted reputation. Ignoring their friend Hutch’s warnings and fears, they move into the apartment, planning their new life together. They meet their older neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castavet, who soon integrate into their lives. When Rosemary gets pregnant, Minnie starts giving Rosemary eccentric pregnancy advice and sending her to a strange obstetrician. Rosemary begins to suspect something strange is going on, but she soon finds herself backed into a corner when she learns the truth behind Roman and Minnie’s intentions for her baby.
I’m surprised that my class did not cover Rosemary’s Baby alongside The Stepford Wives. Both are stories about women who find themselves conspired against and their individual wishes are denied or threatened. In Rosemary’s case, her wishes for her pregnancy are ignored and people like Guy, Roman, and Minnie convince her that they know better. They, especially Guy, tell Rosemary that she is an ungrateful quack for ignoring Roman and Minnie’s advice when they were so kind to give it.
The horror of Rosemary’s Baby is not the possibility of a Satanic cult coming after, well, Rosemary’s baby. It’s how everyone around Rosemary gaslights and infantilizes her. They make her question her own agency and opinions about how to carry out her pregnancy. Guy is a moody and manipulative man already, nursing his own selfish pride about his stagnant acting career. When Rosemary’s friends advise her to refuse the Castevets’ pregnancy advice, he calls them bitches and shouts that they don’t know as much about a good pregnancy as the Castavets do.
Not even when Rosemary requests to see her old obstetrician and take modern pregnancy medicine does Guy support her. I convulsively cried “Fuck you, Guy!” when he denied Rosemary’s simple wish. Guy only supports Rosemary when her goals match up with his. He grooms her by apologizing with affection and favors after he gets pissy with her, and is really only happy when his career is furthered.
In a dreamy, but horrifying sequence, Rosemary thinks she sees the Castevets and their neighbors standing naked around her while Guy strips her and has sex with her. Rosemary is drugged, so she cannot consciously consent to the act. Even more horrifying is the moment when Rosemary fully realizes what is happening…only when it’s too late.
Guy even has the gall to blame Rosemary’s paranoia on pre-partum depression. Oh, how annoying it is when men blame women’s emotions on sickness or disease. Worse yet when men give women grief for even having or showing emotions! Just because men have been socially conditioned to suppress their emotions, they make women feel lesser just because they are more “emotional” creatures, when in fact, research shows that men and women are equally—
Excuse the tangent. I hardly have a chance to discuss gender norms on this blog. The point is that Guy is not a model for how to treat women, much less a pregnant one. Any man who makes a woman feel lesser for showing strong emotion—especially men who tell women to put aside their emotions for the convenience of others—needs to look in the mirror.
In fact, Guy sounds eerily similar to Walter in The Stepford Wives: a selfish, lowly man who conspires against his wife to further his own selfish goals. While Walter conspired to have a perfect, submissive housewife and sex toy, Guy conspired to magically further his stagnant career, completely disregarding his wife’s wishes.
For a long time, I assumed Ira Levin, the author of these two stories, was a woman. Turns out it’s Mr. Levin, not Ms. Levin. How refreshing for a male author to make such a clever statement about such vileness committed against women.
Rosemary’s pregnancy is an isolating experience for her. Minnie’s quacky obstetrician gives Rosemary medicine that causes her to feel excruciating pain. She is in so much pain that she has no energy to find out more about her pregnancy, and so Roman, Minnie, and Guy groom her to believe that all this weird stuff is normal. That isolation works to terrifying effect to make us feel just as paranoid as Rosemary.
Similar to William Peter Blatty, Ira Levin is an author to learn from. It most certainly makes me want to read The Stepford Wives. Stories like these are ripe for discussion, not only for the horrifying magical events, but also for the portraits they paint of violence against women.