Rosemary’s Baby: Progressive Horror Meets Cancel Culture

Roman Polanski and the unholy union of art and artist

Dustin T. Cox
Oct 24, 2020 · 9 min read
Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, 1968. (Public Domain)

here has never been a tale told in Hollywood that is at once so intriguing, so tragic, and so sordid as the real-life story of director Roman Polanski. Polanski is an Academy Award winner for 2002’s The Pianist, and, much more incredibly, he is a survivor of both the Holocaust and the Manson Family. He is also the subject of an Interpol red notice stemming from crimes he committed in the U.S. over forty years ago. More on that later.

Additionally, Polanski directed one of Hollywood’s most celebrated horror films: Rosemary’s Baby. Adapted from Ira Levinson’s 1967 novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby is a blunt metaphor for the horrors of patriarchy in America.

Because of that central theme, Rosemary’s Baby is a distinctly progressive film in a genre frequently characterized by uncritical sexual objectification and punishment of women. It is, therefore, a welcome subversion of the virgin/harlot binary terms that underpin so many film horror narratives.

At the same time, because of Polanski’s monstrous history, his entire film oeuvre is being stricken from the record by the social phenomenon we call “cancel culture.”

As we shall see, the recurring motif of male dominion as horror in Rosemary’s Baby runs directly counter to the perverse justifications for rape espoused by its director. The film, therefore, presents a unique challenge to cancel culture in that it upholds the very values that cancellation is meant to protect.

Synopsis

In 1965, Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband — Guy — move into a large Gothic apartment building in New York. Before they can settle-in, they are befriended by their eccentric new neighbors, the Castevets. They give Rosemary a “good luck” charm filled with a foul-smelling herb called “tannis-root” and encourage her to wear it at all times.

While Guy finds the Castevets charming, Rosemary swiftly tires of their banter and nosiness. To her chagrin, Guy persistently allows the couple to interrupt Rosemary’s domestic desires.

Meanwhile, Guy, who has been struggling to find work as a stage actor, catches a break when a rival actor is mysteriously stricken blind and is forced to forfeit his part in a large production. Guy thereby wins the role by default, and in his euphoria, promises Rosemary a baby — something she has greatly desired. For the next few nights, Rosemary is beset by disturbing dreams. On “baby night,” after eating a dessert prepared by Mrs. Castevets, she falls ill and is haunted by nightmares of a demon who rapes her.

Upon waking, Guy confides to her that he had sex with her while she slept, and excuses his behavior by commenting that he didn’t want to “miss their night.” While Guy has been controlling, moody, and dismissive of Rosemary throughout, his behavior here veers into the criminal; he, it seems, is the demon rapist of Rosemary’s dreams. Rosemary is justifiably incensed, but Guy just laughs her off. Later, Rosemary learns that she is pregnant, and Guy cajoles her into seeing his physician of choice — Dr. Sapirstein — rather than her regular obstetrician.

Polanski’s theme in the first act is clear: Rosemary’s body and reproductive capacities are under the strict control of her husband, and his every demand harbors fresh misery and dread for Rosemary.

Soon, Rosemary is put on a daily regimen of herbal shakes by her meddlesome neighbors and she quickly develops acute abdominal pains. She loses weight and color, which disturbs her close friends. Dr. Sapirstein is no help, but when Rosemary insists on seeing a different doctor, Guy throws a tantrum. Miraculously, as they argue, Rosemary’s pain stops, and she feels the baby kick at long last.

Later, Rosemary’s trusted confidante — Hutch — suddenly dies after arranging to meet her with an urgent message the following day. Rosemary discovers that he intended to give her a book on witchcraft with notes that implicate the Castevets in bizarre Satanic rituals. Rosemary then ditches the Castevets tannis root charm as well as the “vitamin-rich” concoctions they bring her daily.

Terrified for herself and her child, Rosemary finally visits her personal physician, but he betrays her into the hands of Guy and Dr. Sapirstein. Back in their apartment, Guy and a coterie of strange neighbors bind and sedate Rosemary, who gives birth in her mania.

The next day, Guy informs her that the baby did not survive, but assures her that they will try again. Still suspicious of the Castevets, Rosemary sneaks into their apartment and discovers that Guy, the Castevets, and the rest of the neighbors are keeping watch over her baby, who is indeed alive and resting in a bassinet adorned in pure black. The baby is not human, however, and Rosemary recoils from it in fear.

Finally, Mr. Castevets informs Rosemary that he and all the rest are Satanists, that they have drugged her and used her to summon the Antichrist, that Guy’s acting success is due to black magic, and that the father of her son is not Guy, but the Devil.

Initially overwhelmed by this ghastly news, Rosemary soon composes herself, and, in the film’s final frames, she gently rocks her child’s cradle, and an expression both sinister and serene replaces her previously harried countenance.

Life Imitates Art

Everywhere Rosemary turns, she is coerced by men into choices that cede to them control of her reproductive rights and leave her body racked with pain. Her seeming conversion at film’s end suggests that in the patriarchal order, women are forced to cooperate or die, which explains why all the female characters in the film assist in Rosemary’s torture. They, too, we can surmise, have been subjected to a similar program of conversion torment.

What truly frightens in Rosemary’s Baby, however, aren’t the immediate shocks of the film, but the way it foreshadows the crimes of its director, Roman Polanski.

In 1977, Polanski was arrested for the rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. In her complaint, Gailey stated that Polanski had drugged her, trapped her, and violated her in short order following a photo-shoot at the home of Jack Nicholson, who was away at the time. Polanski subsequently copped a plea, but upon learning that the judge in the case intended to invalidate the deal, he fled the country and has remained primarily in France ever since.

Amazingly, Polanski doesn’t deny his ‘involvement’ with Gailey. Instead, he insists that their ‘relationship’ was consensual as though that were even possible between a 44-year-old-man and a 13-year-old-girl. Furthermore, in a 1979 interview with Martin Amis, Polanski impugned his accusers in the media and the culture at large with hypocrisy:

“If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But… f — ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f — young girls. Juries want to f — young girls. Everyone wants to f — young girls.”

In other words, Polanski views his behavior as normal and believes that the journalists, judges, and public who hold him accountable are merely jealous of his success with underage girls. In that light, Rosemary’s Baby looks less like progressive culture and more like sick fantasy. Polanski is the Devil who drugs and rapes his victims and then expects the world to revere him for it.

Rosemary and Samantha Gailey

Polanski, however, isn’t the only person who has lived out the plot of Rosemary’s Baby. Sadly, Samantha Gailey’s experiences mirror those of Polanski’s protagonist.

Just as Rosemary, if she is to survive, must accept the governance of a Satanic coven and the men at its center, Gailey described being so afraid of Polanski that after some resistance, she felt like she had to give in, and was reduced to a feeble hope that her compliance would see her safely home thereafter. Additionally, 40 years’ worth of attention in the press has proved traumatic for Gailey. She has called for forgiveness for Polanski and wishes she could put the whole ordeal behind her. Like Rosemary, she’s had to search for peace without the comfort of justice.

With these considerations in mind, one understands completely the impulse to cancel Polanski.

Why We Should Save Rosemary’s Baby

While I wouldn’t dare bang the drum for Polanski, and any proposed defense of his film catalog is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to make the case that Rosemary’s Baby is a vital film for precisely the reasons I’ve so far discussed.

Rosemary’s plight is the same as Samantha Gailey’s and countless other women who are assaulted, silenced, and finally made to feel that cooperation with their violators is the only available means to survival and relative peace. Rosemary’s story, therefore, documents the real experiences of women everywhere despite its supernatural trappings.

Additionally, in the era of #MeToo, we are learning just how rampant sexual assault is. Thus informed, we are beginning to understand that Polanski, who asserted that his desires were no different than those of his detractors, was perhaps far closer to the truth than any of us would care to admit.

Because of the horrifying similarity between Polanski and the villains of Rosemary’s Baby, and because Rosemary is a stand-in for all sexual assault survivors, especially Gailey, comparative study of the lives of Gailey, Polanski, and the narrative of the film can prompt necessary discussions about how patriarchy fosters male sexual aggression and thereby leaves women broken and men damned.

It can also remind us that the devils among us frequently appear as friends and mentors, just as the Castevets did to Rosemary, and just as Roman Polanski did to Samantha Gailey.

Polanski’s Faux-Cancellation in Hollywood

In 2018, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revoked Polanski’s membership. However, Paramount Pictures, Focus Features, and the rest of Polanski’s studio sponsors have yet to cancel his films on Amazon, Comcast, Netflix, or any film festivals that might select Polanski’s movies for honors. At the same time, a long list of Hollywood elites has petitioned the state of California on Polanski’s behalf, including convicted sex-offender Harvey Weinstein.

Of course, that can’t stop us from boycotting whomever we choose, and many consumers have elected to cancel Polanski. While I think Rosemary’s Baby is worth keeping, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight for it if pressed; thoughtful consideration can rarely match public outrage, and when push comes to shove, we really can do without Rosemary’s Baby.

Mia Farrow and #MeToo

Mia Farrow, who played Rosemary, factors into this story, too. Her ex-husband, Woody Allen, infamously left her for her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn in 1992. Later that same year, Dylan Farrow, age 7, accused Allen of touching her private areas.

While that story can’t be covered fully here, I bring it up to illustrate that whenever a woman speaks up about sexual assault, another woman in the very same room will inevitably raise her hand and say, “Me, too.” Rosemary and the actor who played her both fell prey to sexual predators, and the man who brought Rosemary to life through Farrow later lived out his cruel fantasies in the sickening flesh.

These facts are powerful testimonials to the basic assertions #MeToo; they constitute a small part of the growing body of evidence that sexual violence is routine in our society.

Where to Now?

Cancel culture forces us to examine the thorny entanglement of messenger and message, art and artist. That is important work; we have to decide who will speak for us, and we must choose worthy representatives, be they politicians, priests, labor unions, lobbyists, or, in this case, filmmakers.

We should also consider, however, what’s at risk. If we follow the logic of cancellation to its end, if we smash every idol in the name of purity, then we may well be left with nothing and no one at all to appreciate.

There is a middle-ground, of course — for surely, not everyone is as loathsome as Polanski, right? Surely, we don’t have to cancel everything…right?

Let’s hope not. But while we trust that most sinners are minor offenders compared to Polanski, the specter of his observations about male desire nevertheless haunt our conscience, and, like Rosemary, we must worry that lovely demons might already lay beside us.

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Dustin T. Cox

Written by

I write about movies, books, culture, politics, and the intersection between them. MA in English, words in The Ascent, PSILU, The Writing Cooperative, and more.

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring all heart-touching and thought provoking writings under one roof to make an impact.

Dustin T. Cox

Written by

I write about movies, books, culture, politics, and the intersection between them. MA in English, words in The Ascent, PSILU, The Writing Cooperative, and more.

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring all heart-touching and thought provoking writings under one roof to make an impact.

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