How and why birth and reproduction are frequently represented as monstrous or repellent in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘Alien’
At the height of the women’s movement in the 1960s through the 1980s, many American films expressed the ideas of abjection. These films transgressed the borders of order and disrupted the rules established by an overruling patriarchy to evoke the female fear of reproduction. In James Cameron’s Alien (1986) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), these ideas are highly prevalent. Examining the gender politics in the 1960s and the 1980s will reveal the deviation of conventional female roles played in films. These considerations are important to truly understand why birth and reproduction are represented as monstrous in films. Accordingly, these films encourage women to abandon popular, stereotypical roles enforced by the prevailing patriarchal society of the time. Through the use of mise-en-scène, the directors create a gothic, monstrous and repellent view of birth to embody the feminist ideologies present during these periods. During the 1980s, American feminists developed ‘Liberal Feminism’ which focused on a woman’s ability to maintain equality by urging women to make their own choices. Applying this feminist concept to Alien, it can be argued that Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, represents the ideal woman in ‘Liberal Feminism.’ She exemplifies this feminist agenda by exhibiting power, ignoring the patriarchy and making her own choices. Specifically, her strength is demonstrated when she violently grabs Gorman after he witnesses the massacre of his marines. To extend the significance of this scene, Cameron uses mise-en-scène, placing Ripley between Gorman and Burke, in order to suggest that the men are in a position of authority. This choice was imperative to illustrate the male dominance in society at this time. Despite the frame being visually overpowered by men, Ripley displays power by superseding Gorman’s authoritative role and making a choice to personally save the remaining marines. Evidently, Ripley is disrupting the traditional borders of order by breaking the rules society placed upon women. Cameron emphasised this to help shift society’s view away from women being represented as weak and sexualised. Conversely, some may argue that Vasquez is the epitome of the feminist agenda. Cameron intentionally uses close-up camera shots of her muscular arms and other visual indicators to represent Vasquez as a strong, masculine character. Her physique, tattoos, clothing and candid personality distinguish her character from other females in the film. Additionally, her physical strength is reinforced as she carries a M56 smart gun. To solidify her masculine portrayal, Hudson asks Vasquez whether she has ever been mistaken for a man. These initial impressions may lead to her being viewed as a feminist symbol; however, Vasquez’s lack of interaction with Newt suggests that she has no maternal instincts or interest in reproduction. Since birth is inherently female, maternal instincts and the interest in reproduction are essential to the feminist agenda because ‘birth is centrally related to motherhood.’ As Ripley oversees Newt’s care, her motherly qualities are unveiled. Ultimately, Ripley is risking her body, and by association, her ability to reproduce in order to protect Newt. Even though Vasquez is a masculine character, Ripley more closely symbolises the feminist agenda by displaying masculine traits while retaining her feminine identity. Considering motherhood as an essential part of the female identity, the first chestburster scene draws on the female nightmare of birth. Even with humanity’s advanced medical knowledge and technology, women still fear complications during childbirth. One study found that ‘over 20% of pregnant women report fear and 6% describe a fear that is disabling.’ Respectively, the same study found that a woman may altogether refuse her right to reproduce based on fear as ‘…13% of non-gravid women report fear of childbirth sufficient to postpone or avoid pregnancy.’ Cameron exploited this fear by choosing to symbolise birth 4 as an unnatural endurance, rather than a momentous and special occasion. When the Xenomorph bursts through the female’s chest, it signifies the tearing and wounding of a woman’s cervix during labour. The Xenomorph is abject, emulating a gruesome and grim view of birth. Per Daniel D, Synder, it begins with ‘it’s birth – a forced exit – would [be] violent, bursting forth from the host’s chest cavity, inextricably linking its life to the death of another creature.’ The terrifying manner in which the Xenomorph emerges projects 5 childbirth as unfavorable to women. The woman’s body is left ravaged and desecrated by a foreign object. Undoubtedly, Cameron and Snyder conceived these ideas to construct birth and reproduction anxieties. Hence, the chestburster scene parallels cynical reflections on birth, demonstrating that it can bring trauma, pain and death. This seems to conceptualise birth as a horrifying violation of the female body, leading to a monstrous and repellent view on reproduction. Furthermore, Cameron conceptualises birth and reproduction as monstrous and repellent through the use of setting. The womb-like corridors and feminine imagery of the dripping surfaces and the grime are abject to the audience and undermines the paternal structure. The space is suffocating, dark and the vaginal entryways of the interiors can essentially lead to death of characters. Characters like Burke who struggle to navigate through the passageways. When Hudson says that the Xenomorphs are coming out of the walls, it gives the impression that the space is consuming the characters and Cameron is creating a claustrophobic setting. This contrasts to the clinical space of the ship that consists of hypersleep pods. It might be said that the hypersleep pods mirror a woman’s womb. The pods protect the crew on board the ship and keep them in a state of peace. This is similar to a baby inside it’s mother’s womb. It is in a sleep-like state and depends on its mother to protect it from the outside world and by showing this Cameron is foreshadowing the maternal instinct that Ripley will have over Newt. This also directly links to the end of the film where Ripley puts Newt in the pod to sleep. Resembling a mother putting her child to bed at night, she is placing Newt in the hands of the technological ship to protect her. This supports Ripley’s motherly role by showing what any mother would do to make her child safe. While Ripley is a strong character that has patriarchal qualities, she still keeps her feminine identity by using her motherly instincts to make her own choice to be the mother to Newt and this makes her a stronger character because she is recognising what qualities the female has to offer and embracing them. In the 1960s there was a rise in Second-wave Feminism. Females could now attend some universities and had the opportunity to aspire to be something other than a mother or a wife. This is significant to consider as Polanski is representing pregnancy and reproduction as monstrous in Rosemary’s Baby in order to support Second-wave Feminism. Polanski chooses to show the similarity between a baby and a parasite in which both leech on a woman’s nutrition and her strength. It weakens a female’s reproductive capability, changes her hormones and can, in some cases, destroy her physical and emotional ability to have children. It is said that a woman’s sole purpose in life is reproduction and that her female identity is based upon whether she can have children as a ‘woman knows that physically,physiologically, psychologically, she is adapted primarily for the perfection of womanhood, which is, according to the law of nature, reproduction.’ Considering this, it is 6 indisputable that Polanski is embodying the feminist ideology and presenting reproduction as repellent to support the free and independent woman that does not conform to the overruling patriarchy and law of nature. Polanski uses Rosemary to show the tragic ending of an oppressed female. At the beginning of the film, Rosemary characterises the ideal female that is pure, innocent and untouched like the Virgin Mary. Her well-kept hair, yellow dresses and her ability to take care of the home and her husband, mirror her natural beauty and femininity. It shows that she has been groomed by society so that she is prepared for motherhood. Polanski is suggesting that she is the cliche housewife that has no choice but to obey society’s rules. Nevertheless, Rosemary does attempt to de-feminise herself and disrupt the borders of order, stepping away from the expected role. She does this by cutting her hair short and disposing of her bright coloured dressed, although she is mocked and belittled for this. Like when she visits Dr, Hill for help, which ultimately fails as he gives her up Guy, it signifies her willingness to break the rules and the power that she has if she utilises it. However, Rosemary is not the epitome of a feminists ideal woman. Instead of keeping up her fight, she becomes passive and commits to her motherly duty and her role as a wife. It might be said that her pregnancy has taken away her strength and so she is too exhausted to fight the overruling patriarchy. More importantly, her reproductive freedom is taken away from her and that alone is monstrous. The birth control contraceptive pill was not legal in all American states in the 1960s and many argued that it was immoral, that it would promote prostitution and is more or less the same as abortion. Also, marital rape in New York remained legal until 1984. Polanski puts Rosemary as the victim of this when she is drugged and raped by Satan. She has no control over her reproductive capability and is forced to allow something ‘other’ inhabit her body. It is not only her reproductive capability that is taken away, but also her capability of having a better future. Guy pulls her away from her friends, forces her to stop reading and objectifies her throughout most of the film, yet he is the only one that Rosemary has to rely on. The film is structured around his male gaze and it is known that whoever controls the gaze, controls the film. His selfish and arrogant attitude drives the narrative and he causes Rosemary’s pregnancy to be a lonely experience. Pregnancy alone can been described as a lonely time as you are unable to do the things that you used to do prior to becoming pregnant. It isolates women and confines them to the home as they prepare it for their expected newborn. He is presenting the idea that once women become pregnant, they lose all of their independent attributes and give up all of their rights to opportunities that are available to them. With the interest to read, Rosemary could have gone to University, but she allows Guy to put his own needs first and take away her voice. Rosemary therefore, is oppressed. Her rape-induced pregnancy does not let her escape this oppression as it continues to destroys her body due its monstrous elements. Polanski emphasises these monstrous elements by showing Rosemary’s change in character. She suffers from horrific pain, loses weight, sweats, becomes pale and craves raw meat; a zoomorphic representation of how pregnancy changes the shape of a woman’s mental state of mind, causing her to do things that would have previously been repellent to her. Polanski is dramatising the physical effect that reproduction has on the female body and he shows this by transforming Rosemary from a beautiful and elegant woman, to a fragile, paranoid and sickly woman. She becomes the embodiment of psychological body horror and it makes pregnancy appear to be exhausting and damaging to the female body and mind. IT makes women question what they once were capable of and gives them no choice but to aspire to be a good mother and wife to the family. Further to this, Polanski is presenting birth and reproduction as monstrous and something that women should avoid or delay until they are ready. A feminist audience would be disappointed in Rosemary because she does not defend herself against Guy or the Coven. At the pinnacle point in the film where Rosemary confronts the Coven while holding a kitchen knife, she is finally in a position of power. For a brief moment, the motherly instinct that she once had, has disappeared. After examining her baby in the cradle, she looks terrified and refers to her baby as ‘it’, questioning what the coven had done to it and its eyes. The abnormal defect of her baby is commenting on a mother’s fear of giving birth to a deformed baby and whether he or she will be healthy. This became a real fear after Sherri Finkine, an actress in the 1960s, took six pills that contained Thalidomide which caused fetal deformities to her baby that were so severed that doctors could not identify the gender. Grisez Germain stated that ‘the consideration of monsters therefore can bring us to the conclusion that not everything coming from the womb should be considered a human being.’ Rosemary refuses to see her baby as innocent and harmless. 7 Instead she thinks it is monstrous and is repellent to even touch the baby that she herself had given birth to. This can relate to postnatal depression, a common problem that makes it difficult for mothers to form a bond with their baby and sometimes causes a mother to be fearful of the baby, or in worst cases, causes women to want to hurt their baby. Not only does Polanski want us to see a monstrous pregnancy and birth, but he also wants us to understand the monstrous thoughts that might consume a mother after birth. Having said that, Rosemary is quick to abandon her power when her motherly instinct takes over her and at the end of the film, she is rocking the cradle to calm the newborn’s cry, once again representing an ideal mother. Finally, she has gotten what she wanted; a baby. However, she must now live with Satan’s spawn for her baby, raise him and be complicit with him being a monster. She will no longer have the opportunity to study, work, read and her body will not regain its strength or health. Throughout the whole film, her experience of pregnancy and giving birth is nothing but frightful with a terrifying thought of what her baby is going to become in the future. Polanski is showing a woman whom is isolated from society, frozen and unable to change her mistakes. He is presenting birth and reproduction as monstrous in this film to show women the tragic ending that they might bring upon themselves if they continue to conform to the overruling patriarchy.
In comparing both Alien and Rosemary’s Baby, it is significantly evident that Ripley is the character who truly embodies the feminist ideology. While she is tough and stands her ground, she doesn’t lose her female identity and with embracing those feminine qualities she becomes the hero in the film. Ultimately, she is the only character that can save Newt and continue to protect her. If Ripley had attributed Rosemary’s weak characteristics, then Ripley would not have been successful in rescuing Newt from the Queen alien. Ripley represents the good woman and it can be argued that she is a postmodern final girl in her ability to survive even after breaking the rules and displacing mens authority. Rosemary, on the other hand does not embody the feminist ideology at all. While she still did survive childbirth and is still standing, she did not displace mens authority once and at the end of the film, she is still a passive woman. Polanski is using Rosemary’s tragic ending as a warning to women who may have been thinking about pregnancy during its time of release. Perhaps Polanski was trying to put women off the thought of becoming a mother and proofing to us the pain that it can bring to us and the life that it can take away from us.
It is evident that Cameron and Polanski use Alien and Rosemary’s Baby to embody feminist ideologies, evoke the female fear of pregnancy, and represent birth and reproduction as monstrous and repellent. Taking into account the gender politics of the 1960s and the 1980s, they both reveal the deviation of conventional female roles and encourage women to abandon popular, stereotypical roles enforced by the patriarchy. Ripley plays the ideal woman of ‘Liberal Feminism’, presenting us with a character that Cameron wants the female audience to aspire to. Whereas, Rosemary is playing the part of the fallen woman who has become isolated and powerless. Polanski presents us with a passive character that he encourages women not to be like. Therefore, by representing both birth and reproduction as monstrous and repellent, it motivates women to be independent, strong, to make their own choice and build their own life. Bibliography Alien, dir. By James Cameron (20th Century Fox, 1986) Berenstein, Rhona, ‘Mommie dearest: “Aliens, Rosemary’s Baby” and Mothering’, Journal of popular culture, (1990), 8-9 Dick-Read, Grantly, childbirth without fear: the principles and practices of natural childbirth (London: Heinemann medical books, 1942), p1 Grisez, Germain, Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970) Hofberg, K, ‘Fear of Pregnancy and childbirth,’ postgraduate medical journal <https://pmj.bmj.com/content/79/935/505> [accessed 10 December 2018] Rosemary’s Baby, dir. by Roman Polanski (Paramount Pictures, 1968) Snyder, Daniel D., ‘The horrible philosophy behind the star of Alien, H.R. Giger’s xenomorph’, social justice < https://psmag.com/social-justice/horrible-philosophy-behind-star-alien-h-r-gigers-xenomorph -81641> [accessed 28 November 2018]
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