This week’s Guest Star is Nick Hanover. He’ll be covering for SF/F Editor Keith Allison, who took one last big job despite our pleas. Keith will be back next month.
“I’m not grieving. I’m gestating.” – Prevenge
Patriarchal western society has long had a hypocritical view of pregnancy, allowing men to react with revulsion and horror at the thought of a human “parasite” growing inside a partner while condemning women who speak of pregnancy as anything other than a sacred duty. So while film has a number of works that explore fears of pregnancy, the bulk of them are centered on that hypocritical patriarchal perspective, usually through horror and sci-fi featuring either monstrous women desperately seeking impregnation (Species) or parasites that kill their hosts during the “birthing” process. The latter example is so connected to the male perspective that the name of the actor most connected to it, John Hurt for his iconic death scene in Alien, has even become shorthand for the male view of birth.
This makes the few films that attempt to convey pregnancy fears from a feminist perspective all the more important and subversive. Alice Lowe’s new horror comedy Prevenge is rightfully receiving acclaim for tackling this issue head on, from the pointed pun of its title to its narrative centered around an exhausted pregnant woman encouraged by her murderous unborn child to violently lash out at men who attempt to harass or annoy her. Vulture’s Emily Yoshida celebrated the film for “perversely prodding at all that we take for granted about pregnancy” and digging into “a woman’s loss of control over her body and mind, pulled between forces of life and death” while carrying a baby to term.
Lowe told Nerdist’s Kristy Puchko that she wanted to “tell a narrative that’s about the sorts of parts that we don’t usually see, hear about, or read, or get offered,” seemingly referring to both the poor representation of women in film but also the elements of pregnancy that aren’t spoken about in public and mothers’ fears of their babies “erasing” the mothers’ identities. Though Lowe wasn’t at all shying away from her pregnant status, she was also frustrated that “suddenly when you’re having a baby, you’ve got to be a part of this club, with other women who are also in the same stage of pregnancy as you. It doesn’t matter if you have anything in common with them. It’s like, ‘You’re going to forget your previous identity. You’re all going to become Stepford Wives. You’re only going to hang out with each other.’”
Puchko succinctly describes the driving fear of Lowe’s protagonist Ruth as a societal pressure demanding that “all mothers must be sacrificed to baby.” Lowe makes this literal by having Ruth’s fetus command her to do bad things, comically juxtaposing well-meaning advice from other women to “just listen to the baby” with the unhinged demands of that baby and Ruth’s concession to those demands out of motherly obligation. It’s in this shift away from the concept of a uterine “parasite” as a figure that will kill its host in favor of the development of a relationship between mother and fetus that isn’t symbiotic but is at the very least a begrudging partnership that Prevenge also directly connects to its notable if obscure predecessor, Alain Robak’s 1989 film Baby Blood.
Unlike Prevenge, Baby Blood makes it clear from the start that what’s growing inside of its protagonist Yanka (Emmanuelle Escourrou) is in fact a literal parasite. The parasite (curiously voiced by Gary Oldman in the English dub) bonds with Yanka after leaving and killing its previous host, a tiger. The parasite psychically communicates with Yanka and urges her to bring it blood to consume so it can fulfill its destiny as the being that will eradicate mankind–as perhaps a nod to Little Shop of Horrors–and uses cramps to get its way when Yanka rebels.
Yanka might be reluctant to give her parasite what it wants at first, but the parasite picks up on and encourages her distrust and frustration with men. Her first victim is the circus owner who employed and preyed on her and this kill scene is notably the most explosive and passionate sequence in the film, shot from the victim’s perspective as Yanka hacks and slashes, her body ultimately ending up almost completely covered in blood and viscera, foreshadowing both the blood she will consume to feed what’s inside her and her worst fears about what her body will go through to deliver the parasite.
As the pregnancy continues and Yanka becomes more connected to the parasite and more accustomed to its desires, she also becomes more willing to kill men for “normal” bad male behavior, whether it’s adultery or catcalling. Prevenge follows this structure more quickly, but Baby Blood seems to connect Yanka’s growing comfort with blood with the inevitable violence of childbirth. It also seems to be a commentary on society’s belief that a mother is justified in doing anything to protect her child, unborn or born, and the more explicitly problematic belief that her own health and safety should be considered secondary to the safety of the life she’s carrying.
Though Yanka becomes more used to the parasite, it’s important to clarify that she never truly accepts it as a child. She continues to fear it and what it can do to her body, with one of the film’s most harrowing scenes showing a nightmare she has about what’s really inside her and how it will get out, the closest the film comes to recognizing the John Hurt moment:
Yanka never comes to love the parasite, she merely acknowledges that it is her fate to deliver it one way or another. This puts Baby Blood in a completely different camp than its French successor Inside, which pits a widowed expectant mother up against a home invader who desperately wants a baby by any means possible. Inside explores our notions of who “deserves” children, violently reimagining the usually unspoken rift between women who are expecting and women who have failed to deliver a child and are still grieving. The antagonist of Inside would likely view both Prevenge and Baby Blood’s protagonists with even more hostility, since they resent the lives they carry inside them and how those lives will impact their identities.
But Prevenge and Baby Blood bond over their refusal to give their protagonists traditional motivations. Inside, directed by two men, can’t resist the impulse to immaculately detail the reasons for its villain’s actions, reasons which happen to conveniently fit the male fear of “baby fever.” Because women are expected to carry pregnancy with grace and selflessness, society refuses to view any frustration with pregnancy as inherently selfish, a sign that a woman must be flawed or broken in some way, while also telling women they’re crazy for desiring the burden of motherhood.
Prevenge and Baby Blood seek to put viewers in the middle of that impossible situation, letting them hear the frenzied, incessant demands of these unborn lives and also the internal deliberation of the women, who fight to maintain their personal identities while servicing those demands
In the reviews men write about films like Prevenge you can see the struggle to empathize with that internal conflict as they pick apart character motivation and demand answers for the characters’ behavior. Even positive reviews indulge in this; Scott Weinberg, for instance, positively reviewed the film at SXSW this year (and compared it to Inside) but nonetheless stated, “Lowe plays a seemingly aimless and quietly unhinged pregnant woman who is plainly intent on killing a bunch of people… but why? Is she out for revenge? Why is she so angry? What has become of her baby’s father? Perhaps she’s just suffering from a severe post-natal depression a few months early.”
Weinberg is shocked at the very concept of a murderously angry pregnant woman and yet in his review of the brutal thriller Carnage Park he manages to never ask why the film’s deranged sniper villain is so angry. Perhaps he was just suffering from a bad breakup.
Unsurprisingly, Lowe is so used to this criticism that she preemptively brought it up to Puchko, asking “why can’t we see a female character who’s just untethered?” And untethered is a perfect word for what Yanka and Ruth are in a societal sense as well as what they desire. They do horrible things in service to the creatures inside them and operate outside the rules of society but they also seek to be untethered as in without obligations to the lives they’ve been forced to protect.
Male fears of the John Hurt moment are not only overdone but they’re far less complex than this exploration of tethering, rooted as they are in a selfish desire for women’s bodies to be pristine and smooth and erotic and never gross or functional. But Prevenge and Baby Blood are far more complicated, portraying women as violent, messy, rude, selfless, passionate, lusty all at once, allowing women to rebel against and ultimately accept being tethered on their own terms while still boldly expressing their frustrations. These films may explore motherhood in unexpected, crass and violent ways, but by doing so they’re able to break through the standard expectations of what it means to show struggles with feminine identity in film and that makes them far more potent than any post-Alien m-preg work could ever hope to be.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover