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Marlies Janssens discusses Julia Kristeva’s theory of the “abject” female character, and how it relates to Roman Polanski’s classic horror-thriller “Rosemary’s Baby”. 

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This month’s issue is dedicated to women, but we don’t always play the noble or powerful role. In horror productions, the female lead can either stay alive as ‘the final girl’ or can be portrayed as some kind of monster. The latter characterization ties in with Julia Kristeva’s famous concept of ‘the abject’, the idea that anything that deviates from the ordinary or threatens common life – in this case, a woman in the eyes of a man – can be regarded as ‘abject’, or repugnant.

Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born French philosopher, first wrote about the ‘abject’ in the 80s. What makes a woman ‘abject’ is the patriarchal association of the feminine with blood and other body fluids (i.e., menstruation blood), that make her different from her male counterpart and turn her into ‘the other’. This idea and the horror genre are closely related, partly because of some striking social changes since the 60’s, such as the rise of feminism and the rejection of patriarchal power. 

As Robin Wood says in Barbara Creed’s book Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine, “one might say that the true subject of the horror is the struggle for recognition of all that our society represses or oppresses.”

A film to which this concept fits perfectly is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, released in 1968. Based on the bestseller by Ira Levin, the film was Paramount Pictures’ first horror blockbuster, and won multiple awards including a Golden Globe for lead actress Mia Farrow. 

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In the film, housewife Rosemary (Farrow) and her husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), an actor on the verge of a breakthrough, buy themselves an apartment in The Bramford, New York. They befriend their rather eccentric neighbours Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), who look innocent but soon reveal themselves to be a meddlesome couple who want to control every aspect of Rosemary’s life.

It is when Rosemary decides she wants to have a baby that aspects of Kristeva’s abject “monstrous-feminine”start coming into play. On the night which Rosemary and Guy have chosen to conceive, Rosemary faints after eating an unpleasant chocolate mousse given to her by Minnie. We then witness a dream sequence in which Rosemary is raped by a demon with fiery eyes. Although this is a dream, Rosemary nonetheless wakes up again with scratches on her back, after which Guy confesses to have had sex with her while unconscious so that they could conceive. 

Rosemary then suffers a particularly gruesome pregnancy, which brings the perceived horror of the female experience to life. Kristeva’s reasoning that the female figure herself – known as ‘the other’– is seen as different from her male counterpart is embodied in Rosemary’s pregnancy. Her deteriorating health is used to disgust the audience; she loses weight, feels serious pain and even craves raw meat. 

Rosemary’s unusual suffering leads her to confide in her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans), who gives her a book about witchcraft. In this book, Rosemary finds out that Roman Castevet is an anagram for Steven Marcato, a former Satanist who lived in The Bramford. Rosemary suspects her dear neighbours, and her own Guy, to be part of a religious sect who are trying to take her baby as a trophy.

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When the audience learns this, Rosemary no longer seems much of a “monstrous-feminine”at all. Instead of being repulsed by Rosemary, the viewer experiences her pain as their own. One can clearly imagine her fear for the satanic conspiracy against herself and her offspring. 

Despite this, the idea of the abject remains relevant to the film’s themes, as it’s not only the woman who is considered to be ‘the other’– her unborn child also serves as a threat, because as Kristeva would argue, pregnancy is something ‘alien’to men. This alienness is accentuated by the fantasy elements that drive her difficult pregnancy, such as the strange drinks and the necklace with tannis root that Minnie gives her. But although Rosemary’s complaints result from supernatural powers, they still resemble how some women experience pregnancy in reality. 

By the end of the film, Rosemary’s presumptions are only confirmed, when she is disgusted by her newborn son Adrian’s physical appearance and the fact that he is the seed of Satan. Eventually her mother instinct conquers all repugnancy and she accepts her role as a caring mother for Adrian as long as she does not have to become part of the Castevets’ religious sect. 

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This is an example of Rosemary’s autonomy against the patriarchal oppression; throughout the film, Rosemary is the one who makes decisions for herself, although she first seems to subject herself to the established norms and values (‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’) and consciously seems to opt for the life as a housewife. She constantly seems in want of Guy’s permission, although she eventually does as she pleases, such as cutting her hair, calling a doctor for a second opinion, and so on. 

Rosemary’s Baby seems to confirm and simultaneously deny any possible similarities between the feministic ideology and its envisioned female rights of self-determination, by Rosemary’s choice to still be a loving mother for her demon son. On one hand, she seems to accept the patriarchal norms and values of our western society by accepting the nurturing role, but on the other hand she is an autonomous – and therefore powerful – woman by staying away from the ritual activities of the sect in which her husband is involved. 

It is by the above analysis of Rosemary’s maternal behavior, which is not deviant from what is regarded as natural, that I cannot fully reject nor confirm Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject monstrous feminine. Multiple aspects of her theory can be applied to the film, such as the demon baby and her unusual physical suffering, but the surrounding negative atmosphere can easily be countered by her maternal instinct and autonomy.

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Marlies Janssens

After graduating with an MA in Linguistics, I am currently completing an MA in Film Studies & Visual Culture at The University of Antwerp, Belgium. I have lived in Berlin for half a year and love to travel the world and meet new people. Beyond that ,culture is my biggest passion, ranging from film to music, photography, literature and theater. I have spent my entire youth on a stage: acting and dancing. In my spare time, I am always looking for new hotspots and checking out new films!

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Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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