The Gothic State of Pregnancy
Note: Spoilers abound for Titane, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Fly, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1
As I was exiting the theater last Friday night, having just watched the gruesome-but-weirdly-hopeful denouement of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning sophomore feature Titane, two thoughts kept turning through my mind:
- “Holy shit. Wow. Um… wow. Yeah, Joey wasn’t kidding with this one.”
- “Why were the scenes focusing on Alexia’s pregnancy the hardest for me to watch?”
For those of you who have not seen the movie yet, first of all, stop reading this article right now. I’m serious; just come back to it later after you have.
Now, the rest of you know one of Titane’ssurprises kept hidden from its promotional materials is how our anti-hero Alexia, played by the admirably game newcomer Agathe Rousselle, dramatically changes a little over a third of the way in; not only in her physical appearance, but also in her demeanor and primary motivation. The glammed-up, confident, sexy murderess we’re introduced to does not stay that way for long, and soon subjects her pregnant body to a number of horrific corporeal abuses in order to adequately disguise herself as ‘Roided-Up Daddy Vincent Lindon’s long-lost son. What made me squirm and wince and yelp the most in my seat were the number of times she so tightly binds her breasts and pregnant belly with coban that you can see the marks on her body when she removes them later. Not the brutal murder scenes, not the “Macarena” wellness check gone wrong, not Lindon’s painful physical reactions to his hormone injections. In fact, the most consistently discomfiting scenes had to do with her cramps, corroding skin, and lactations, and I had to ask… why?
I’m a cisgender man. One of the life experiences that no cis man outside of the niche corners of omegaverse fanfiction will ever experience is pregnancy. I will never know what it’s like to conceive a baby, feel one gestating inside me for several months, and give birth. You would think scenes of Alexia trying to keep it together while her metallic child is kicking around inside her belly wouldn’t make my own stomach turn… and yet it did.
This isn’t me trying to present myself as some White Knight Empath Who Truly Feels Women’s Pain, either. A lot of men seem to intuitively understand how scary this biological process is. When you think of the words “pregnant woman horror movie,” what’s the first one that pops into your head? Probably Rosemary’s Baby, right? Roman Polanski is no one’s idea of a gentleman to the opposite sex, and yet he somehow managed to write and direct a movie that captured the deepest fears of a generation of women, almost all of whom likely weren’t worried about giving birth to The Literal Devil… but as we’ve discussed before, were probably reacting to something Rosemary’s Baby accurately reflected on a deeper level – not having control over their pregnancies or their bodies, their legitimate fears being dismissed as feminine hysteria, being kept in the dark about what was going on with them medically by uncaring men in positions of authority.
Richard Donner, who was thankfully a better man than Polanski in his personal life, paired up with writer David Seltzer and producer Harvey Bernhard to deliver a similar “Oh No My Baby Is Satan!” horror movie in The Omen a few years later, and just like Rosemary’s Baby it also sets up as its inciting incident a man betraying his wife and constantly deceiving her about the circumstances of their demon son’s conception. It’s really striking to me just how monstrous the husbands of both films are, though Robert in the latter perhaps more unwittingly than Guy in the former. Still, though, it’s pretty telling that there were two popular, Oscar-winning demon child horror movies written, directed, and produced by men, that present the men’s blatant lies being taken on faith as true by almost every other character, while the women who accurately sense the threats to their safety are constantly written off as delusional.
But those movies about conceiving and giving birth to a child were largely fixated on psychological terrors. Men tapping into the “body horror” aspect of pregnancy and childbirth aren’t as common, but they do exist. Remember the nightmare sequence in David Cronenberg’s The Fly? Yeah, you knew his name would come up eventually:
Every now and then there will be more recent pregnancy-related horror movies like Grace (about a woman who decides to carry her stillborn child to term and magically wills it to life… with not-super-nice-results) and À l’intérieur (a hyper-violent French thriller that highlights how vulnerable pregnant women are in the face of physical danger), but interestingly, the most popular example of pregnancy as pure body horror that I can recall is… Twilight. Specifically Breaking Dawn – Part I.
In hindsight, it is truly amazing how Stephenie Meyer, a pretty obviously sexually-repressed Mormon housewife who cracked open and poured the unexamined fantasies of her id into a best-selling YA supernatural romance series, is hilariously chaste and demure when portraying every even slightly intense event in her books except for when Bella is pregnant with Edward’s child. Fight scenes, deaths, anything resembling sexuality; she shies away from depicting any of this, resulting in just the most boring goddamned bestselling books and later movies that collectively grossed $3.5 billion worldwide. But then their marriage is consummated, and both the book and the movie shows, in unflinching detail, Bella’s body being ravaged by her gestating vampire-human hybrid fetus, leading to a deeply painful, bloody, bone-breaking childbirth sequence that ends with Edward performing a c-section on her with his teeth.
This was the one part of her book series that Meyer, who once admitted in an interview that the mere mention of blood makes her nauseous, decided to go Grand Guignol: her blank, personality-free heroine’s pregnancy. And this is a storyteller who isn’t super-honest about her wants and fears. When you give someone like Ducournau the opportunity to explore the darker side of human fertility, the training wheels come off and stay off, to a degree that even a cis dude like myself can’t help but watch Alexia’s
water motor oil break between my fingers.
And I don’t think I’m alone among guys on this, either. I think, deep down, men intuitively know (even if they can’t actually understand) the scary physical realities of pregnancy. You see it in the bills that male politicians write trying to regulate reproductive autonomy that fall apart under even the slightest scientific scrutiny. You see it in the visible discomfort male actors feel when taking on characters who deal with things like reproductive anatomy (dozens of actors passed on the lead role[s] of Dead Ringers as soon as they learnedElliot and Beverly Mantle were gynecologists).
Men are reliably able to highlight and tap into the terror of duplicitous husbands and the deeply-ingrained sexism of the medical establishment. Because, let’s be honest, we can’t really pretend those things don’t exist. We couldn’t even do it fifty years ago. But it seems women are more reliably able to truly make audiences feel an experience described by most mothers as simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, profound and disturbing. And maybe more of those confrontational depictions will lead to more appreciation and humility from the men who see those experiences on film.
So I guess… be nice to pregnant women, is what I’m saying.