Long Seventies Conspiracies: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975)

By Johanna Isaacson |

This is part of a Blind Field series on Long Seventies Conspiracy Cinema.

A standard periodization of conspiracy cinema goes this way: after the death of a euphoric sixties counterculture there then came the birth of paranoid conspiracy.  And yet it can also be argued that these two genres arose simultaneously.  At least in the realm of culture, the beginning was, in some senses, the end. Is there a more paranoid movie than the iconic counterculture film Easy Rider, which ends in the immolation of all insurrectionary hope? And can we help but see continuity between the free-spirited iconoclastic figures populating hippie-themed films and the model workers of today’s “creative class”?  The 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby seems to predict this coincidence, as we witness the sacrifice of the Sixties “new woman” in the name of her creative young husband’s success. At the same time, the film helps us disentangle the utopian and reified aspects of Sixties counterculture. Paranoia in the Sixties is not evidence of the inevitable failure of revolutionary impulses. Rather, the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking at this moment points to the failure of Sixties movements to go far enough in fighting their own inertia. This bad faith manifested in patriarchal and entrepreneurial formations. Paranoid cinema can be traced to its primal origin, the Oedipal myth in which a protagonist blinds himself to his own complicity in a seemingly external evil. By decentering the male paranoiac, Rosemary’s Baby points to a feminist intervention in this genre. As Madeline Lane-McKinley argues, the act of “marking the unmarked [white, male] body,” changes the political valence of paranoid cinema, exposing the ways political critique is displaced and depoliticized. [1]

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While political criticism of Rosemary’s Baby is generally focused on themes that imply a critique of motherhood, a step back shows how these themes are enfolded in a larger paranoia about the ways that inchoate forms of feminism and counterculture would be recuperated to feed a nefarious late capitalist logic and its infernal, parasitical relationship to cultural innovation. In the new regime of the creative class, where all social experience is seen as what Sarah Brouillette describes as “a factory in which the universal inclination toward creative play and invention become a laboratory from which new products emerge,” the appearance of subjective freedom masks the structural forces which yolk creativity to the expansion of capital. [2] In this light, we can see the central trajectory of the film to be that of Guy, a young, struggling actor who makes a Faustian pact, agreeing, in exchange for upward mobility, to subordinate his wife to the project of ushering in a new satanic logic of capitalist totality.  (One wonders if Peter Coyote—sixties anarchist turned movie star with a detour into the profession of stock broker—made such a pact).

Rosemary’s body is the medium through which this transference will take place and she will remain split, with one part of her fighting against this incorporation and another so invested in her maternal role and her own psychic integrity, that she will ultimately nurture the rebirth of Satan in his new guise.  In the film, newlyweds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) move into the Bramford, a building notorious for its gruesome history and former opulence. The couple are aggressively befriended by Minnie and Roman Castevets (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), an older couple who soon begin to monopolize Guy’s time and attention.  Rosemary becomes pregnant but as the gestation of her child progresses so does her suspicion that something is amiss with her husband and her health.  Guy’s professional ambitions are furthered as he gets a coveted acting role at the expense of the first choice for the part, who is unexpectedly blinded, and gradually Rosemary begins to suspect he was offered a Faustian deal in exchange for their child.

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Throughout her troubled pregnancy, Rosemary is cheerfully hounded by Minnie, who insists that she take natural herbs to care for the baby rather than pills (marking the absorption of counterculture aspirations to “health” and “nature”). Rosemary’s skepticism grows stronger and she takes steps to free herself from her isolation and ignorance about the nature of the pregnancy.  However, by the time she is able to make a serious effort at escape, it is too late as she sees that her husband, neighbors, and doctors—“All of them.  All of them. All of them witches. All of them in it together”– are in on the conspiracy to force her to carry to term what turns out to be a satanic messiah.

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Unlike many conspiracy films of the “long seventies,” with their focus on the state, finance and technology, here the conspiratorial constellation surrounds the institutions of marriage, culture, medicine, and patriarchal inheritance. The scene in which the Woodhouses move into the Bramford underscores these themes. As the realtor shows them around, Guy expresses his aspirations by talking up his legitimacy as an actor, and Rosemary does all she can to support his primary (and her supplementary) positions as proto-members of a new ruling class.  As the couple ascend to the apartment they are eyed warily and suspiciously by an African American elevator operator and a repair man, demonstrating their antagonism toward proletarianized and racially-marginalized figures. Although the apartment is beyond their means and they are aware of its morbid but elite genealogy, the couple rent it, and for the rest of the film Rosemary is trapped in this space, as she is within the isolating couple-form.  Her only outlet is redecorating the antiquated apartment, transforming the space to fit the aesthetics and tonalities of a new dominant class.

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Guy and Rosemary’s passage into a solipsistic individualism, a folie au deux that is the break with collectivist aspirations of the sixties, is subtly offset by the one scene in which they are reunited with old friends. Rosemary’s single successful act of rebellion against her incubatory role is to throw a party.  There, she is finally able to break out of her isolation and speak about the difficulties of her pregnancy.  Her female friends lock themselves in the kitchen with Rosemary, protecting her from Guy, and hold what resembles an impromptu consciousness-raising group. However, this fleeting possibility is foiled by a wave of extreme pregnancy-related pain. In another truncated trajectory we see Rosemary becoming more and more assertive in contradicting the advice of her husband and doctor. But this ends up being attributed to “pre-partum hysteria.” In the end, it is intimated that Rosemary will be unable to resist maternal instinct and will willingly participate in the conspiracy to bring up her baby. As she begins to nurture her satanic spawn, a coven of old, rich, gleeful devil worshippers cheer her on and toast a new era.  This early moment in the “long seventies” registers the new demonic life that will spring forth as revolutionary energies wane and the feminist possibilities of the plot are encompassed by passive maternal duty. This reflects Sianne Ngai’s notion of “bad timing,” the problem of coming into one’s voice in a moment where the only discourse available is one of complicity. [3]  

The theme of conspiracy is foregrounded in the film.  Although Rosemary is mostly confined to her oppressive apartment, when she is finally able to get out in the world she finds that the paranoid totality she faces extends to this urban context, with her doctors forming a solidaristic front against female “hysteria.” Here, the home provides no shelter from the world and the world provides no escape from the home.  This points to the new prominence of the feminized sphere as a metonymy for an encompassing capitalist totality.  The home, the place where care work, emotional work, reproductive work takes place, is now fully colonized, rationalized, and utilized by capital.

And yet, because of its feminized and thus marginalized themes, Rosemary’s Baby is not included in the canon of conspiracy films. Rather, canonization is circumscribed by narrow, masculinized conceptions of politics and the economy. Whereas presidential assassination is considered a legitimate public conspiratorial theme, rape and forced pregnancy are seen as  personal issues. To the contrary, a recognition that feminized paranoia belongs to the genre of conspiracy films can help refine our interpretation of the shifts in late capitalist logics. The shift that is ushered in during “the long seventies,” a penetration of the logics of capital into that which once seemed to be an outside or preserve from it, underscores both the reasons that Rosemary’s Baby is excluded from recognition as a conspiracy film and why it is actually at the center of the dynamics of its time.  Such a realignment upsets the debates about postmodernism in which there is a conflation of masculinized totality/totalitarianism/ “master narratives” that are set against feminized particularity/difference/“minor literature.”  The idea that the feminine offers an outside to a bad masculine totality belies the fact that the absorption of feminized forms of labor, emotion, and precarity is at the core of a new configuration of the totality. Fantasies that liberal forms of feminism offer an outside to this totality are integral to the justificatory ideologies of late capitalism.

In this light, we can see Rosemary as more than a martyr to patriarchal culture. Rather, she is a literalization of this new form of capitalism, a conduit from one form of bad totality to another. Having sold their souls, Guy and Rosemary, the new, hip, cultural workers whose lifestyles draw so directly from sixties counterculture, will spend their post-sixties days as wealthy members of the “creative class,” ushering in a satanic new era. As in Vivian Sobchak’s reading of the star child imagery in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, the myth of the child serves as a means to fantasize a new form of dominance freed from the accusations and responsibilities that go along with paternalism. “Both the ‘devil’s spawn’ and the ‘starchild’,” she argues, “condensed the visible sight of cultural difference, social transformation, and historical movement into a single and powerful figure of a child….” [4] This narrative of rebirth, which allows a transformed masculine agent to be “at once patriarchally empowered, paternal, and child–like” ultimately serves to construct a “transformed patriarchy.” [5] This figure will go on to consolidate Richard Florida’s “creative class” in an era where, as Sarah Brouillette has pointed out, “the very definition of innovation becomes inseparable from marketability.” [6]

In its dystopian form, this era will not only include satanic babies but also robot housewives, who symbolize the destruction of female autonomy and creativity, or so implies the great feminist conspiracy film, The Stepford Wives.  This tale, which sets the new post-sixties liberated woman against the mechanized, desubjectified fifties housewife, is so perfectly didactic in its exploration of second wave feminist concerns, that assigning it a subtext could be seen as a stretch. However, even this contestatory narrative of a lone woman struggling against a patriarchal cabal, in league to deprive her of her soul and life, cannot escape absorption into late capitalist logics.  As with the masculinized counterculture, the film shows how the seeds of recuperation were already present in second wave feminism’s inaugural moment. The first clue isn’t minor.  Along with becoming obedient and compliant, one of the signs that a woman has turned into a Step ford wife is that she fires her maid.  The film doesn’t even know to be embarrassed about the idea that the great new era of women’s liberation will be maintained on the backs of poor women of color.

If Stepford is a feminist dystopia in which beautiful creative women are subordinate to homely boring men, the alternative utopia on offer provides no means to critique the structural logic that created this domination. The film instead provides a glimpse of a quasi-feminist utopia that will soon become a reality in a brief scene where the protagonist Joanna meets with a feminist therapist. Here, just as she is on the cusp of being murdered and replaced by her sex-doll clone, Joanna is offered a positive way out and it is, wait for it, Westport Connecticut, a cute suburb that attracts artists and writers.  The second wave therapist’s cure for Joanna’s Stepford syndrome is a regionalized niche retreat into creativity that reflects and predicts the ascendance of the creative class. This is not a rejection of the burgeoning tech industry that surrounds and supports Stepford’s Disneyfication of its women.  Rather, the niche-topia prescribed by the therapist foreshadows the structures that uphold and reproduce the creative class that Rosemary and Guy birthed into existence seven years earlier. In Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, conspiracy shows the promise of second wave feminism only to emphasize the horror of its containment and complicity in new and deepened regimes of capitalist penetration.

 

Thanks to Madeline Lane-McKinley, Kenan Sharpe, and Hunter Bivens for enjoyable help with this essay.  

 

Works Cited

[1] Lane-McKinley, Madeline. “Long Seventies Cinema: An Introduction.” Blind Field. Feb. 2, 2016.

[2] Brouillette, Sarah. Literature and the Creative Economy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014,

[3] Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.

[4] Sobchak, Vivian. “Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange.” Close Encounters: film, feminism, and science fiction. Ed. Constance Penley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1991, p. 3.

[5] Ibid, p. 13.

[6] Brouillette, p. 35.

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