Rosemary’s Baby and the Feminine Mystique

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Rosemary’s Baby,  released just after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, is an accidental portrait of women’s changing roles in America in the 1960s–a portrait which is every bit as terrifying as the main plot of the film (which involves witches’ covens and children of the devil). Mrs. Rosemary Woodhouse (a stunning Mia Farrow) is a housewife married to a frustrated actor whose Broadway ambitions clash with his TV commercial reality. The move to their new apartment on the Upper West Side, which we are given to understand is slightly above what they can really afford, precipitates a career crisis. He really now has to make it big on Broadway to be able to afford the rent and to support Rosemary, who wants to have a child. As he dangerously and furiously sacrifices his wife to the devil to attain fame and fortune, he increases his public visibility and moves further and further outside the home. She, becoming pregnant with what she thinks is her husband’s baby, retreats further and further into their home, as though to counter-balance his increasing importance in the outside world. Her energy and time is increasingly devoted to the interior – her interior life (everyone but one tries to convince her she’s losing her mind), the interior of their apartment, and, most of all, the interior of her being, which the people around her are manipulating for foul ends. Farrow captures the transition of the American female from the 1950s to the 1960s. As Friedan wrote, “in a sense that goes beyond any woman’s life, I think this is a crisis of women growing up— a turning point from an immaturity that has been called femininity to full human identity.” On one hand are the dinner parties with nosy neighbors, her homemaking, her reliance on male doctors, her deference to her husband. On the other hand is her increasing sense of independence – she cuts her hair, tries to go to her own doctor, and seeks help from those who genuinely want the best for her, including friends from before she was married. The realization that others are trying to literally control her body is terrifying and ably communicated.  Viewed through the lens of today’s ongoing debate on women’s rights, this film is startlingly (and depressingly) contemporary and relevant.

Rosemary’s Baby, dir. Roman Polanski, 136 min. Paramount Pictures et al., 1968. Based on the novel by Ira Levin.