Just finished listening to the latest podcast by Black Mass Appeal all about the 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby and the eponymous 1967 novel by Ira Levin on which it was based. I was surprised to hear no one during the discussion really treat what I’ve always regarded as the single most likely and most readily apparent interpretation of the film: as a social satire dealing with intergenerational conflict over power, control, and one’s place in society.
The Castevets represent the older generations whose hold on social power is absolute and ruthless. They have made a literal Faustian bargain in exchange for total dominance. Their power network spreads far and wide, involving all sorts of powerbrokers. However, they need young blood and available wombs to bear future generations of willing minions. So they corrupt the struggling would-be actor Guy Woodhouse. By conforming to the old guard’s continued Social Darwinian plan for domination, Guy’s own career now soars, while his competition is crushed before him. Now Guy works to subvert Rosemary’s own desire to start a family with the expectation that she and her husband will raise their own child on their own terms. Instead, Guy ensures that Rosemary is little more than a vessel for the demonic offspring of the old guard. By the end of the film, when Rosemary realizes that her only hope at continued access as mother to her child lies in capitulation to the relentless and unscrupulous program of the older generation, she in fact gives in and accepts her abhorrent role in their plan for continued world domination.
I think these themes really resonate with the current state of society in modern-day America, where members of older generations maintain a stranglehold on both political and social power and control, whether from the highly conservative or neoliberal sides of the political spectrum. Either way, their power is deep, entrenched, and seemingly unwilling to cede any ground at all to new ideas or approaches. It affects not just state policy and political concerns, but also how individuals behave sexually, the reproductive options they have and choices they make, their family structures, and other deeply personal areas of life. Up-and-comers must “play ball” according to older, corrupted ways simply that they may prosper, ways that can, for females, entail even farming out ownership over their own bodies and reproductive choices and capacities to others’ ends.
Casting about online, I was heartened to find at least one doctoral dissertation that seems to emphasize the role generational conflict plays in Rosemary’s Baby, coming at a time in mid-twentieth century America where, for the bulk of that decade, a conflict drawn largely on generational lines played out over individual liberty versus state control, over what choices younger individuals could make to govern their own lives versus what duties they owed to their own parents and to the state, those parents writ large. And by making the Castevets and their inner circle of fellow Satanic covenists out to be almost caricaturish in their Satanism yet nonetheless successful in achieving their ends, Levin managed to make the old guard in power both risibly buffoonish (think: Trump) and utterly terrifying (also think: Trump) in that, despite how obvious and crass they are in their Social Darwinian pursuit and exercise of power, they nonetheless really do manage to gain and hold that power absolutely, even to the physical detriment of those they use to attain their goals.
In this context, it’s no surprise that the entire plot of Rosemary’s Baby gets kicked off when Guy and Rosemary move into the Castevets old turf, despite the warning of their trusted friend and confidante that the Bramford had long been associated with a rumored history of terrible practices. If we younger folks still on the outside of power structures can find any solace in the story, it’s in this one simple fact alone: only when we try to fit into the places in the world the older generation have made for us do we open ourselves up most fully to their corrupting influence. Rosemary and Guy had almost given up hope of getting a unit in that building, despite having been on the waiting list since their wedding. Perhaps they should have abandoned that particular dream after all.
For more on this theme, I have a lovely piece on fictive parricide here.