Rosemary’s Body: Reproductive Rights and Diabolical Deeds in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby

In the weeks since the Irish people voted, by an overwhelming majority, to repeal the 8th Amendment to our constitution, I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of bodily autonomy and the supposed inviolability of our corporeal parameters. Inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, the 8th Amendment, which supposedly affords equal protection to the right to life of both the mother and the unborn child, ushered in three decades of callous disregard for the lives of women and all those capable of becoming pregnant, as young girls with crisis pregnancies, rape victims, and couples diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities were forced to travel abroad for basic reproductive healthcare. Beyond its inherent cruelty, the Irish prohibition against abortion has always been disturbing to me because of the manner in which it facilitates the intrusion of religious ideologies and conservative political agendas onto the individual human body. It seems like a small demand to ask that something as fundamental as our bodies, our corporeality, be our own. While the broader trajectory of our lives – career, relationships, family – may be vulnerable to external control and manipulation, surely our interiority, our deepest selfhood, is protected; surely the boundaries of our bodies represent some sort of perimeter beyond which we alone exercise power and agency. Nevertheless, here in Ireland, the invasive power of patriarchal authority and Catholic dogma have long since inhabited and taken root deep within the bodies of women. There was never safety or comfort, never a place of warmth or retreat, to be found in one’s own body; there was only shame, alienation and a cold, distant law imposed from without.

Repeal mural in Dublin

There’s a horror to this, a terror inherent in losing control over one’s body, one’s protected core of interiority. It’s a horror that has been plaguing me in interesting ways over the last few days as I mulled over the shifting Irish attitude towards reproductive rights while re-reading Ira Levin’s 1967 thriller Rosemary’s Baby. I’m planning to include it on a course about witchcraft in film and literature, which I will teach next semester, and the recent sunny weather really lends itself to reading late ‘60s popular fiction in the garden. Although the novel is best known for being the basis of Roman Polanski’s iconic 1968 adaptation, I wanted to move the conversation away from the film version and consider Levin as a feminist writer. Until recently, when asked to name a male genre-creator with an explicitly feminist perspective on the fantastic, most people – especially those who grew up in the 1990s – would probably offer Joss Whedon as the archetypal male feminist auteur. While recent controversies may have complicated this view, I have long felt that Ira Levin infuses his work with an overtly feminist rhetoric that rivals anything produced by more contemporary genre-creators. Indeed, based on their initial reading of Levin’s other major contribution to popular culture, The Stepford Wives (1972), many of my students often assume that the author of such an explicitly feminist book must be female. (Also, Ira’s not a common name in Ireland, so many students first read the book unaware that the author was a man.) Throughout his work, Levin explores the burgeoning second-wave feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the broader struggle for gender equality, the growing urgency of women’s demand for reproductive rights, and the conflict between family and career that plagued so many women in the median decades of the twentieth century. However, perhaps more interestingly, he also explores the brutal patriarchal backlash unleashed in the wake of the women’s liberation movement, toxic forms of masculinity and the insecurities of men unable to parse the shifting socio-political landscape of post-war America. One aspect of his work that has consistently horrified my students is how so many of Levin’s male characters start out as loving, supportive husbands, ostensibly respectful of their wives and committed to gender equality, before ultimately transforming into callous, oppressive abusers. Significantly, in Levin’s work, male characters invariably regress to this state of monstrosity out of a desire for some signifier of conventional masculine dominance. In The Stepford Wives, Walter is entranced by the possibility of trading in his liberated, tomboyish wife for a simulacra of the archetypal subservient ‘50s housewife. In Rosemary’s Baby, Guy relinquishes his wife’s freedom to the machinations of a satanic coven in exchange for a successful acting career. Constructing the desire for the accoutrements of hegemonic masculinity as inherently corrupting, Levin’s work repeatedly underscores how the demands of patriarchy, and the attendant requirement that men adhere to dominant notions of masculinity, can damage men as well as women.

Ira Levin and his awesome satanic goatee

Lately, however, with the repeal of the 8th Amendment firmly in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Levin represents bodily autonomy. In The Stepford Wives, the erosion of female agency is embodied by the synthetic android wives who are implied to have replaced the real women of Stepford. While, in the case of Rosemary’s Baby, it’s hard not to view the supernatural horror of a woman impregnated with the spawn of Satan by a malevolent cult of next-door neighbours as anything other than a fantastic allegory of the battle for reproductive rights and the terror of surrendering one’s corporeal agency to the will of sinister external forces.

Levin explicitly locates his novel within the social and political tumult of the late 1960s. As W. Scott Poole observes in his article “Rosemary’s Baby and the Politics of Women’s Bodies,”

“Enovid became the first FDA approved birth control pill in 1960. However, as late as 1965, the Supreme Court case Griswold vs. Connecticut proved necessary to end state laws that restricted access to ‘the pill.’ [The film adaptation of] Rosemary’s Baby appeared in theatres around the time Pope Paul VI released his infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the Church’s traditional position against birth control. A few years later, in 1973, the high court crafted Roe v. Wade [, effectively legalising abortion in the United States].”

The novel’s protagonist, Rosemary Woodhouse, is introduced as a product of this rapidly changing culture. Born Rosemary Reilly in Omaha, Nebraska, our heroine has rejected the Catholicism and rural values of her conservative family, moved to New York City and embraced the cosmopolitanism of both the big city and her actor husband, Guy. She reads the Kinsey Report recreationally and appears largely uninhibited about matters of sexuality. Although there is a hint of discord, she and Guy seem to have carefully planned both their future and their family based on open discourse and mutual respect. Yet, once Guy agrees to allow his wife to be used as a conduit for the birth of the Antichrist, Rosemary’s autonomy is gradually undermined and eroded, as it becomes increasingly clear that her body is not her own but rather a vessel to be primed, manipulated and constrained. On the night Guy offers Rosemary up to be raped by the Devil, this act of violation is facilitated by drugged chocolate mousse provided by garish, geriatric Satanist Minnie Castevet. When Rosemary refuses the dessert, stating that it has a “chalky undertaste,” Guy essentially gaslights her, attempting to convince her that the dessert is fine, and any peculiarity is a product of her imagination. Already, Rosemary’s autonomy, her capacity to make decisions for herself and her ability to trust her own body, is undermined. Guy assumes an authoritarian role, dictating what she should eat, and later telling her what she can drink. When the drugs take effect, and Rosemary, in a semi-conscious state, is raped by the Devil, or possibly by Guy channelling the Devil, the assault in minimised in a way that highlights the disturbing ubiquity and normalisation of marital rape: Rosemary simply observes that Guy had “gotten drunk and grabbed her without saying ‘May I?’” (99). The trivialisation of sexual assault evidenced here and the flippant suggestion that such a violation is a minor infraction on the part of a husband who is, by default, entitled to access his wife’s body at any time reinforces the notion that Rosemary’s body is not her own, that she does not have the power to prevent the transgression of her corporeal boundaries.

When Rosemary becomes pregnant, her capacity to exert any form of control over either her body or her life is radically curtailed. The neighbouring Satanists encourage her to stay at home, offering to do her shopping for her and co-opting her antenatal care by forcefully insisting that she be treated by fellow coven-member Dr Sapirstein. Between them, they ply her with herbal concoctions, monitor her physical condition and curtail her access to information on reproductive health. Rosemary is isolated, cut off from her friends and forced to remain in ignorance about the workings of her own body. As her pregnancy progresses, her body is constantly scrutinised by both her husband and the satanic cabal of neighbours. When she loses weight early in her pregnancy and expresses concern at her gaunt appearance, the head Satanist, Roman Castevet, observes that “Later on she’ll gain – probably far too much” (125). Here, the female body – its fluctuations, its internal and external changes, its intimate processes – become the subject of (mostly) male surveillance and control. Not only is Rosemary’s body observed and constrained, the reference to her weight suggests that it is also monitored in relation to its adherence to broader standards of female beauty. This notion that Rosemary’s body is subject to external control not only in terms of her reproductive functions, but also in terms of her compliance with larger feminine ideals is explicitly alluded to earlier in the text when Rosemary opts to get a stylish Vidal Sassoon haircut. As sported by Mia Farrow in the film adaptation, the haircut is short and boyish, aesthetically removed from the lengthy tresses that are generally held up as the apotheosis of feminine beauty. Her husband berates her decision to have her hair cut, dismissing one of her few attempts to exert control over her physicality by stating that her new hairstyle looks awful and spitefully describing it as “the biggest mistake you ever made in your whole life” (119).

Still from film adaptation
Rosemary’s boyish haircut in the 1968 film adaptation

Throughout the novel, Rosemary battles for control over her own body. Whether attempting to avoid the daily herbal elixirs administered by Minnie Castevet or fighting to access a doctor who will not dismiss her excruciating pain as a normal component of pregnancy, Rosemary struggles for sovereignty over her own body, struggles to be allowed to make decisions about her health and well-being, struggles to determine what is best for her and her child. Yet, at every turn, she finds her bodily autonomy curtailed: her avowedly progressive husband reverts to an avatar of patriarchal oppression, her healthcare is overseen by a shady cabal of nefarious figures, she is forbidden from reading books about pregnancy or speaking to her friends about their experiences. As well as being symptomatic of abuse, the manner in which Rosemary’s body is monitored and regulated by external power structures is a nightmarish reflection of the struggle many women face when attempting to take control of their reproductive health. Forced to consume mysterious potions and adorned with a sinister, diabolical talisman, the boundaries of Rosemary’s corporeality are repeatedly violated and her interiority is infiltrated by the machinations of an archaic and esoteric organisation. She loses control of that most prized, most fundamental component of human nature: her own inviolable selfhood. Her body no longer represents a protected core of interiority, her corporeal boundaries no longer delineate the parameters of an autonomous selfhood. More than any vague notions of the demonic, it is this violation of the individual body and the attendant loss of autonomy that renders Levin’s novel so frightening.

The language and iconography of Rosemary’s Baby will be familiar to many Irish women. Ira Levin, who was not Catholic and did not believe in the Devil, crafted a deeply unsettling tale out of the darkest facets of Catholic lore. The references to papal masses and prohibitions against divorce hint at an oppressive dogma strongly redolent of the votive lights and incense-scented rituals that defined many of our childhoods. However, beyond the direct allusions to Catholic apocrypha, Rosemary’s Baby speaks to many of us because it is a horror story about the loss of bodily autonomy; it is a horror to story about a woman forced to surrender her agency to the will of an archaic, inscrutable organisation to whom she is merely a vessel for the fulfilment of a religious prophecy. As an Irish woman reading Rosemary’s Baby in the weeks after the referendum on the 8th Amendment, the novel spoke to me afresh. The vision of a woman as a vessel to be constrained and manipulated, her bodily autonomy nullified and her freedom subordinated to the will of others strongly recalled how, here in Ireland, women’s bodies have always vulnerable to the intrusive force of external, patriarchal ideologies; our most sacrosanct interiorities have always existed as just another sphere of influence to be overseen by a pervasive theocracy. Rosemary’s terror as the early stages of her pregnancy are blighted by unbearable pain that is ignored and minimised by everyone around her is evocative of the suffering endured by so many women in this country, women whose pain is disregarded in favour of commitment to a vague ideological paradigm. It’s hard not to see Rosemary’s agony and her fear for her unborn child as a horrific parallel to the pain endured by Irish couples suffering from serious antenatal complications or diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities. It’s also hard not to view Rosemary’s rape and the abuse she endures so quietly, so secretly, as reflective of the how Irish rape victims were expected to silently endure their trauma and carry within them reminders of an unimaginable violation. In her isolation, her growing fear and loneliness, we can see reflected the alienation of women trapped in abusive relationships, of teenage girls surreptitiously ordering abortifacients online and taking them alone in bedrooms and bathrooms, of trans men whose reproductive freedoms are limited by the ignorance and prejudice of a medical profession that refuses to accommodate them. As a story about control, fear and violation, Rosemary’s Baby is a novel that resonates strongly with women forced to endure the callous strictures of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion and the attendant curtailment of their reproductive freedoms. It is a novel that resonates with women who in shame and secrecy are forced to covertly flee their country for healthcare that should be available to them at home. Moreover, it resonates with women who are robbed of the freedom to exercise control over their bodies and denied the autonomy to make decisions about their health. Restrictive abortion laws, like those facilitated by the insertion of the 8th Amendment into the Irish Constitution, do not simply curtail freedom by removing access to abortion services, they effectively imprison women within bodies that are alien, Other and subject to the will of a distant, implacable theocracy. This means that not only can women not chose to have a termination if they so wish, but they are also unable to make crucial decisions about HOW to continue their pregnancies. In Ireland, under the auspices of the 8th Amendment, the activities of our national health service have, to date, been guided by a policy which states that “because of the Constitutional provisions on the right to life of the unborn [Article 40.3.3] there is significant legal uncertainty regarding a pregnant woman’s right to [consent]”. Consequently, pregnant women in Ireland often cannot consent to or refuse certain procedures or tests. Even in the case of wanted, cherished pregnancies, the inability to decide on one’s course of care or make important medical decisions renders women little more than vessels, devoid of free will. Likewise, Rosemary’s pregnancy is very much wanted and hoped for. When discussing the physical pain that has marred the first months of her pregnancy, Rosemary is adamant that she does not want an abortion. However, the inability to choose does not just inhibit the ability to terminate, it also prevents women from making informed decisions about their own healthcare, and Rosemary is never allowed exert any control over her reproductive functions; that power rests in the hands of her husband and neighbours.

Although illuminated by the phantasmagoric spectacles of satanic masses and esoteric rites, Rosemary’s Baby deals with a very familiar horror, a horror which until recently was an intimate part of the Irish experience. Re-reading the novel after the vote for repeal has paved the way for a liberalisation of Irish abortion laws, Rosemary’s estrangement from her body, her incarceration within a physicality that is increasingly the province of powerful external forces is a poignant reminder of the terror endured by generations of Irish women and all those capable of conceiving in a nation that views their bodies as chattel. In its horror, the novel is also a reminder that now, following on from the vote to repeal the 8th, we as a nation must do better to provide women and all those capable of conceiving with information, choice and respectful understanding.

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