By Johanna Isaacson
With the visceral connection it makes between forced pregnancy and military-sanctioned torture, the 2016 psychedelic body horror film Antibirth reframes our understanding of the current war against pregnant people’s bodily autonomy. This assault is not just a lack of individual choice. It is a form of theft built into capitalism, called by Nancy Fraser “expropriation.” Governed by an endless hunger to devour human freedom and possibility, capitalism converts every shred of life and potential life into profit-generating desperation as poor people are coerced into undesirable low-waged work, debt, imprisonment, and other lucrative (for capitalism) forms of suffering. The horror genre makes palpable this system’s voracious parasitism on the compulsorily pregnant body.
Through the generic tropes of body horror, Antibirth provides an alternative narrative to that of liberal, sanitized “pro-choice” campaigns. With appeasing tactics, mainstream pro-choice activists depict abortion as a rare and heart-wrenching phenomena, rather than a sound method to control one’s life. Middle class white women are chosen as the faces of pro-abortion messaging and these representations distort our vision of what is happening, who it’s happening to, and what is to be done.
The film follows Lou after she blacks out at a party and finds herself pregnant. It’s clear that the pregnancy is abnormal but as a marginalized, underemployed addict with no health insurance, she can do nothing. Lorna, a mysterious stranger who has also been damaged by unknown forces, helps Lou unravel the enigma of her rapidly growing stomach, which seems to condense three trimesters of gestation into a week. This atypical pregnancy turns out to be the outcome of a secret military experiment designed to create strong and pliant workers who can weather the toxicity of outer space. As Lou undergoes labor, Isaac, the scientist in charge of the program, charges in to seize her progeny. But the creature that emerges from Lou’s dying, caved-in body turns on Isaac and his men, destroying them as well.
When Lou first discovers her pregnancy, she is unsentimental about her options. As she says, “I can barely take care of myself let alone some weird immaculate conception shit.” She has no access to medical care and, it is hinted, distrusts medical professionals for good reasons. Out of options, she half-jokingly suggests that her best bet is to pay someone to push her down some stairs. Drinking and drugs, it seems, are her only means to escape the mental and physical pain of this pregnancy. But she is not depicted as an abject victim, rather as a funny, tough survivor.
Forced to remain pregnant, Lou becomes the unwilling carrier of a super-exploitable worker. This violation is not shown as the will of a theocratic minority, but as a more vague, conspiratorial effort to steal her reproductive capacities. In this, Antibirth hints that the current outrages against bodily autonomy are not just due to religious fundamentalists, but to an entire system that enabled Roe to be overturned with barely any friction. Nancy Fraser makes the case that this expropriation—the process of “confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into capital’s circuits of self-expansion”— is a structural feature of capitalism.[i] Her examples of things expropriated by capitalism consist of unwaged, racialized labor and resources considered “natural.” But this process also confiscates and conscripts gestational labor, childbirth, and childcare, forcibly creating immiserated populations to produce both profit and coercive fear.
This is shown in the story of Sadie, Lou’s ostensive best friend who is responsible for giving her the drugs that render her unconsensually pregnant. Rather than getting their hands dirty, the military puts “surplus” people like Sadie to work, using their desperation as motivation. The same system that forces Lou into pregnancy subjects Sadie to the deprivations and heartbreak of unaffordable motherhood. Sadie will do anything to save up enough money to see her estranged child, even though, as she is reminded by her pimp/boyfriend Gabriel, she is unlikely to achieve normative motherhood. As a drug user and sex worker she will always be banned from this intimacy. Even if she does find her kid, Gabriel warns, he probably won’t want to see her. And yet, the hopeless condition of unsupported motherhood forces Sadie into working against Lou, her only ally.
Lack of abortion access has been proven to keep both pregnant people and children in poverty, as well as deny them higher education and secure employment. This, as well as the devastating health risks of forced pregnancy, will disproportionately impact Black pregnant people, supporting Sarika Chandra and Chris Chen’s implication that the production of “surplus populations” or “wageless life” is an ongoing, structurally racialized form of expulsion that lasts far beyond the period of formal slavery.[ii] Against the common liberal notion that unwanted pregnancies lead to lost opportunities, and therefore are bad for the economy, pregnant people’s immiseration is a bonanza for capitalism. In Antibirth, this profit-motive is brought to the surface when Isaac tells Lou, “With your body we can create a new race that will allow us to supply an everlasting demand for submission.” This makes clear that forced pregnancy is key to supplying both low-waged and unwaged vulnerable workers.
Antibirth’s matter-of-fact attitude toward unwanted pregnancy is an anomaly. As Pamela Thoma notes, the theme of abortion is depicted in inoculating, post-feminist films like Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up, as something to consider and reject.[iii] In these movies reluctant would-be mothers gradually transform into figures of normative pro-natalism. In contrast, Lou doesn’t really decide not to get an abortion, rather her poverty and lack of opportunity make this “choice” impossible. And unlike the post-feminist films explored by Thoma, Lou’s pregnancy is never redeemed.
Antibirth instead makes revolting use of body horror imagery to flesh out the terrors of having one’s body occupied against one’s will. In nightmarish flashes, Lou sees her scarred and mutilated body probed by bushy creatures with jagged teeth and hollowed eyes. Side effects to her pregnancy include a huge, hideous blister covering half the sole of her foot that, lacking health care, she must operate on herself, extracting gelatinous pus. Later we will see that her “baby bump” becomes a veiny, pulsating orb that seems to have a life of its own. These are the staples of body horror, showing twisted, grotesque, permeable bodies beyond our understanding that force us “to confront the border between the human and the monstrous.”[iv]
This is also what Barbara Creed calls the “monstrous feminine,” the seeping fluids, fleshy fissures, and viscous substances that mark pregnant people and their reproductive functions as abjected “other.” Yet, while the horror films that Creed explores as “monstrous feminine” such as The Brood, Alien, and The Fly serve to express and represent repulsion at pregnancy and childbirth from a distance, Antibirth dwells on Lou’s experience of her own body as it betrays her.[v] Conventional hierarchical dichotomies between the civilized, masculine, intact mind and the animalistic, feminine, ruptured body are disrupted by Lou’s dual experience of being internal and external to her reproductive functions. Rather than view her through patriarchal fears which typify the source of uncanny pregnancy in many horror films, as Erin Harrington argues, we share Lou’s shock and disbelief that her autonomy has been so thoroughly violated.[vi]
Lou’s humorous reaction to her body’s revolting transformation counters the unwritten rule that discussions of pregnancy must be sanitized. Dayna Tortorici notes that in his anti-choice ruling Justice Alito talks about fetal development with “precious fastidiousness” and yet neglects to narrate the body horror that can accompany even the most average, wanted pregnancy. She cites Irin Cameron’s thick description of the body’s transformation as a horror show, including swelling, bleeding gums, loosened eroding teeth, warped joints, shattered bones, torn skin and muscles. And this is beside all the ways pregnancy can kill a person, often in extravagantly painful and gory ways.[vii]
Antibirth’s body horror also illustrates how people must be labeled as abject and polluted to make them easier to manipulate and neglect. This is literalized in the government’s rationale for choosing Lou as their experimental subject. When Isaac finally confronts Lou he reveals that it is her drug-riddled, abused body that made her the ideal carrier for this new race, which must be bred to weather the toxic atmosphere of outer space. In typical “negging” fashion, Isaac tries to convince Lou to give herself over to the task of permanent gestation by degrading her. He intimates that her life is a meaningless waste, but that by giving herself to the nation-building task of birthing super-exploitable workers she can redeem herself. What saves Lou from this fate of becoming a living necropolitical womb is her slacker, anti-work sensibility. Instead of capitulating to Isaac’s confident assertion of the work ethic, Lou stages her own “great resignation” with a bong hit and a shrug. Isaac’s insistence that Lou is worth nothing if she doesn’t birth this mutant “child” makes it clear that gestation, as Sophie Lewis has argued, is work, and potentially deadly work at that.[viii] Lou’s resistance shows the figure of the slacker pregnant person as a hero of work refusal.
Lou’s story follows a well-worn path in capitalist history. The first step to tame and domesticate unruly people is to force them into poverty and abjection, then threaten them with violence. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Silvia Federici argues, it was necessary to wage a war on women by limiting them to reproductive labor just as that labor was being devalued. This confinement to non-waged labor led women to a generalized condition of “chronic poverty, economic dependence, and invisibility as workers.”[ix] Labeled witches, women engaging in or facilitating non-reproductive sexuality were literally demonized and accused of sacrificing children to the devil.[x] Male doctors replaced midwives and other healers and began a medical regime that valued the life of the fetus over the mother.[xi] During this “historic defeat” women became enslaved as procreation was “directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation.”[xii]
All of the women in Antibirth suffer the aftermath of this “historic defeat,” as they are deprived of bodily autonomy and the ability to freely reproduce their own lives. Not only is Sadie denied the means to support her child, but it turns out that the same “them” who impregnated Lou are responsible for Lorna’s condition. In her former life in the military Lorna claims to have encountered an alien that somehow implanted her with an unidentifiable lump. Unlike Lou, she wanted to keep this “pregnancy” but instead it was forcibly cut out of her and she was abandoned to a life of dysphoria.
Lorna’s role in the film can be seen as an acknowledgement that we can’t address people’s subjection to forced pregnancy without simultaneously looking at racialized, eugenically motivated population control. The solidaristic relationship between Lorna and Lou shows how forced pregnancy and forced abortion or sterilization are two sides of the same coin, and that those of us struggling for abortion access must never forget all of the ways people’s reproductive capacities have been confiscated and conscripted, abused and controlled.
This includes, as Dorothy Roberts argues, the criminalization of Black women for their reproductive choices, the reduction of benefits for single mothers, the medical neglect of Black women who suffer extreme maternal and infant mortality rates, the separation of incarcerated women from their children, and discriminatory racism in the country’s child welfare system. The “choice” framework of middle class, white-dominated reproductive rights movements “doesn’t take into account social structures, power arrangements of race, class, gender, heterosexism, immigration status, religion – all of which shape one’s ability to have reproductive autonomy.”
Neither can we lose sight of the fact that the struggle for abortion access is just one battle against a system that thrives on the production and control of immiserated populations. It is no accident that both mentally ill, unemployed Lorna and addicted, precariously employed Lou fit the mold of what Michael Denning calls “wageless life,” that is the “bare life, wasted life, disposable life, precarious life, superfluous life,” that typify a current reality where so many suffer from the only thing worse than being exploited at work, that is being cast out of work and the social supports that come with it.[xiii]
Lorna and Lou are not simply victims, they also show a way forward. Lorna doesn’t wish to deny or flee from the possibility of alien encounter, she wants Lou to “take control of [her] experience.” Embodying the role of rebellious, “crazy” crone or witch, Lorna uses her traumatic experience to heal Lou’s wounds and to serve as her impromptu midwife. After Lou gives birth, Lorna cradles the progeny’s scarred, steaming, detached head as if it were an adorable baby. And indeed the “monster” is an ally to the women. Its body emerges from Lou with its hand outstretched, ready to throttle Gabriel and Isaac, the men who would have remade Lou’s body into a gestation machine.
Out of this nightmare of forced pregnancy, then, a queer collective emerges. Even in death, the fish-headed monster, schizophrenic crone, and slacker addict together stand against a merciless army of what Klaus Theweleit calls “soldier males”—hyper masculine and militarized types—who would control them. This leaky, viscous trio of “monsters” are not sanitized poster-women for the pro-choice movement. They don’t aspire to use their reproductive capacities to “plan parenthood” of a conventional family. In this sense, they point to a broadened horizon for the pro-choice movement, what Sophie Lewis calls “full surrogacy.” That is, we can read Antibirth as a call for abortion and more, a wholly transformed imagination of reproduction.
Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. Her book Stepford Daughters: Tools for Feminists in Contemporary Horror is forthcoming from Common Notions Press. She is the author of The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books, has published widely in academic and popular journals, and runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.
[i] Fraser, Nancy. “Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson.” Critical Historical Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 2016.
[ii] Chandra, Sarika and Chris Chen. “Remapping the Race/Class Problematic.” Totality Inside Out: Rethinking Crisis and Conflict under Capital, edited by Kevin Floyd, Jen Hedler Phillis, and Sarika Chandra, Fordham University Press, 2022, 155.
[iii] Thoma, Pamela. “Buying up baby: Modern feminine subjectivity, assertions of “choice,” and the repudiation of reproductive justice in postfeminist unwanted pregnancy films.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, Nov 2009.
[iv] Stopenski, Carina. “Exploring Mutilation: Women, Affect, and the Body Horror Genre.” (Un)common Horrors, no. 12, 2022, 1.
[v] Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1993.
[vi] Harrington, Erin. Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, Routledge, 2019.
[vii] Tortorici, Dayna. “My Body, My Choice: The movement to criminalize abortion.” n+1, vol. 43, 2022.
[viii] Lewis, Sophie. Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, Verso, 2019.
[ix] Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, 2004, 74.
[x] Federici 88.
[xi] Federici 89.
[xii] Federici 89.
[xiii] Denning, Michael. “Wageless Life.” New Left Review, vol. 66, 2010.