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False Positive and the Maternal Horror Film

I was eager to watch False Positive after reading a promising NYTimes discussion, expecting a film that critiques the ways in which the medical maternal experience is defined and controlled by men.

 

After reading Dina Gachman’s discussion of False Positive in the New York Times, I was eager to watch the new film (currently streaming on Hulu). Both written and starring Ilana Glazer (from the lovingly crafted and joyfully hilarious Broad City), Gachman hails the film as “the rare Hollywood production that portrays the struggles to conceive as women actually experience them.” Gachman discusses her own grueling fertility trials and describes the ways these treatments can make women feel “aloneness, shame, and fear.”

Maternal horror most often deals with “bad” mothers (Hereditary, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carrie), “bad” or inherently evil children (The Bad Seed, The Omen), and heroic moms who attempt to save their children from some outside terrible force (Rosemary’s Baby, The Babadook).


Not too many of these films critique patriarchy—they focus more on the mental instability of mothers, without identifying the source of that instability, and the supernatural. I was excited by the prospect of a film that critiques the ways in which the medical maternal experience is defined and controlled by men.


So one night last week, I settled happily on the sofa, chocolate chip cookies in hand, to watch a maternal horror film written by an accomplished woman, a fierce feminist who was actually pregnant during the making of the film. I expected a film that would replicate the actual experiences of actual women who live under the actual patriarchy.

 

I had read reviews, some of which were mixed but most of which agreed that it was a nifty little thriller/horror film. (Almost no one, including me, liked the ending—but no spoilers.)

Lucy Martin (Glazer) is a thirty-something accomplished “genius” marketing brander who is happily married to Adrian (Justin Theroux), a low-energy, slouchy surgeon. But wait! He is either working out or doing something dastardly on his computer, never goes near an office or hospital, and he needs to watch a woman being violently choked in order to produce a sperm sample. Otherwise, he is sweetly tender to Lucy, and enthusiastically agrees with her that the only missing ingredient in their ideal but oddly joyless New York City upwardly- mobile lives is—a child. (He wants a boy; she wants a girl so she can name her Wendy after maternal Wendy in Peter Pan.) He understands Lucy’s lament that she has failed at “being a woman” and is missing her real purpose and destiny. She is desperate “to have it all”; she actually uses that phrase.


They’ve been trying for two years, so he conveniently makes an appointment with his old professor, a rock star fertility doctor who has invented some incomprehensible new zygote-implantation technique. The good doctor is played by a smarmy, slimy Pierce Brosnan. His character will resonate with every woman who has been treated by a male gynecologist: “You’ll feel a little sting, a little discomfort, a little cramp, but it won’t hurt.”

After her first examination, Lucy joyfully leaps off the exam table to hug the smug Doctor Hindle when he assures her that she will soon be pregnant. But there are bumps along the way. When she becomes pregnant with triplets, Lucy must undergo a “selective” reduction, twin boys or a girl. Over her husband’s and the doctor’s objections, she chooses the girl, her Wendy, over “the lost boys.” (I’m not exactly sure how Peter Pan works in the film.)

Lucy begins to have strange dreams; these dream sequences are not always clear, so, along with Lucy, I begin to wonder, “Oh that’s a dream—no that huge pool of blood is real—or whaatt?” Oh, I see, “When the uterus expands, it bleeds—really, I never knew that.”


In another dream, she sees her husband and the doctor having extremely unsettling sex. Hmm, maybe those two are in a conspiracy to harm her Wendy. I’ll leave the rest of the plot to those of you who watch the film—but here are some of my thoughts:

 

The film contains many parallels with Rosemary’s Baby which is a far more nuanced and subtle critique of the ways motherhood is systemically defined and controlled by men. On the other hand, False Positive takes on the fertility industry and speaks to many women who have undergone this incredibly difficult and expensive process which encourages women to feel like failures unless they successfully conceive.

“Mommy brain” is a phrase that I have begun to see in many motherhood memoirs. It is repeated throughout the film and successfully satirizes the idea that women are at the mercy of their hormones and cannot be trusted to recognize reality.


I’ve never had fertility treatments, but I have had many pelvic exams. For me, the most chilling scenes were these interminable exams, watching Lucy’s face—how does one compose oneself while the grinning doctor chatters on? I watched the film with closed captions which meant I both heard and saw “the click of the speculum” over and over.

And if you’ve seen Broad City, you will wish throughout that the passive and mostly silent Lucy still had ferocious and loyal Abbi by her side. None of this would have happened.

 

SERIOUS TRIGGER WARNINGS

Imminent harm to infants

Violent sexuality

Graphic and blood-soaked childbirth scene

A gruesome and grotesque scene with a fetus

 

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