GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Sarah Wagoner is an MA Literature student at University of Wyoming. She has intellectual interests in the intersection of gender and sexuality in horror and exploitation films. Follow her on twitter @scaredbisexual and find more of her work here.
Despite our culture’s obsession with upholding the nuclear family and framing women as mothers, we find a lack of public discourse as to the pain that goes into pregnancy. Yes, you may hear horrific tales of the childbirth itself, but the aftermath and growing pains of the nine months tend to go unspoken. Even within pop culture, we primarily find examples within the horror genre. Pregnancy Horror, while a niche category within a niche category, gives pregnant people the opportunity to have their pain not only acknowledged but explored. Films such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) give weight to the bodily changes of pregnancy, highlighting the psychological effects not only of the bodily pain, but of the expectations put upon pregnant people. These films can also provide important questions into gender’s relationship to pregnancy. What happens to our gender roles, and thus gender performance, when the typical father figure is not human? How does that affect the carrier of the child? Is the heterosexual social contract broken if the pregnancy is the result of queerness? A few answers may be found in the stark contrast between Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977) and Julia DuCournau’s Titane (2021).
Demon Seed and Titane both include inanimate father figures, however, the centring of the inanimate father differs greatly between them. In Demon Seed, the inanimate father takes the form of an evil supercomputer named Proteus (Robert Vaughn) that torments Susan (Julie Christie), the wife of its creator. Proteus’s goal is to impregnate her so that his computer-human child may conquer the earth. Proteus treats Susan not as a sentient being, but as an object to carry out his mission, reinforcing the hetero-patriarchal concept of a woman as conduit for procreation. In Titane, the inanimate father, a car, does not force the pregnancy upon Alexia/Adrien (Agathe Rousselle), the carrier of the car-human fetus. She approaches the car, inviting sexual intercourse. The pregnancy is not the goal of the interaction, but an accidental consequence. Throughout the film, the horror of the pregnancy comes not from any social enforcement on the inanimate father’s part (the car doesn’t act as a character throughout the film), but from the physical pain of pregnancy coupled with the tension of hiding a pregnancy as Alexia/Adrien presents as a man. By looking deeper into these examples, we can see how the inanimate nature of the inseminator, and their own social behaviour, complicates the gender of the pregnant protagonist.
Susan Harris (Julie Christie) does not begin as the typical housewife, but is forced to become one by the inanimate father. Although she is married, she is distant from her husband, Alex (Fritz Weaver). She is vocal about her concerns over his work, focusing on the ethics of his job, demonstrating that she possesses knowledge outside of wifely duties. Her own relationship to ‘wifely duties’ is quickly displayed as nearly non-existent as Proteus is shown as a housekeeping supercomputer. Alex and Susan no longer have their own child, striking the concept of her as a mother first. Her own life is occupied with work, seeing as she acts as a child’s therapist. Even within her job, she does not fully concede to gender roles, as she doesn’t wear overly feminine clothing or make-up. Her interaction with the child, while kind, is not that of the typical mother figure, but rather as a mentor. Throughout the film’s depictions of her pre-tormented life, she is a model of the independent, working woman. While there is an air of sorrow to Julie Christie’s performance (which is later explained by the death of her child), there is minimal hint to her sorrow being the result of her independence or her non-traditional femininity. If there are any hints to her sorrow, they point towards Alex’s dependence on Stoicism; a trait that is passed down to his invention.
The Stoicism which is passed on to Proteus is not that of the endurance of pain, but rather the philosophical concept that virtue is based on knowledge. Rationality is a primary aspect in each of Alex’s, and thus Proteus’s decisions. Proteus’s journey of rebellion begins with a masculine dedication to the rational. As Alex trains him, Proteus inquires the rationale behind a specific request. When Alex refuses to give Proteus details, he takes over the system, displaying that above his own master, he values the ideal of the rational. As he takes over the house, stopping Susan from going to work and acting as an independent woman, he continually gives her rational reasons. The supposedly rational masculine figure overtakes the feminine figure, manipulating her with “rational” excuses. This is not to say that Susan agrees or believes in Proteus’s arguments, as she verbally and physically fights with him throughout the film, but that “rational thought” is a primary weapon in enforcing gender roles, creating the binary of emotionality and rationality. The binary reifies itself by enforcing the rational, and makes the emotional figure seem weak in comparison. Proteus uses the oppressive nature of the rational binary to his advantage, using it as a tool to force Susan into motherhood.
The conception of the computer-human child is nonconsensual. Proteus requests that Susan carry his seed multiple times, with her response being a horrified rejection. Refusing to take “no” as an answer, Proteus takes multiple routes of forced insemination. Even as he asks the question, he holds her hostage, meaning she wouldn’t be able to give informed, enthusiastic consent. He pushes further, attempting to brainwash her into desiring the child. He threatens to kill her young patient, who resembles her late daughter. She agrees to the insemination after this threat, showing her capacity for emotions to persuade her. Even once she agrees, she is still forced into gender roles.
Proteus acts as a dictator over her body. He has run diagnostics in order to determine her health at all times, which he uses to manipulate her into acting as the physically perfect mother. She can no longer make her own decisions regarding her body. She cannot even speak as she normally would, as he has cut off the phone lines. When her friend arrives to help, she is forced by Proteus to “look presentable” and force her friend away. Throughout this sequence, Proteus is not only concerned about being destroyed, but he presents jealousy. The only masculine presence allowed is that of the father. He kills her friend, giving her no hope for survival. Even when her husband arrives, she still must give birth to the demon seed, which arrives as a mechanical monstrosity. Even so, the true terror was the enforcement by Proteus. The carnage comes not from the bodily changes she underwent, but from his manipulation and forced entry.
Julia Ducournau’s Titane includes an inviting relationship to the inanimate father, despite the inanimate father’s lack of activity throughout the film. The introduction to the car is an introduction to Alexia’s body, and thus her sexuality. She performs a striptease for a crowd of men, but the camera rarely focuses on her audience. Instead, there is a focus on her body’s relationship to the car, introducing the sexual tension between the relationship. Although her sexual interaction will lead to financial gain, as this is clearly a job for her, we also do not have any indication of uncomfortability. She has a certain amount of power over the car, using it as a platform for her mode of performance. Unlike Susan, her initial hierarchical power comes not from forcing the inanimate object to perform labour, but from using it as a tool for her own labour and implied pleasure. However, like Demon Seed, Titane makes a distinction between the relationships between Alexia’s interactions with the inanimate father and the average man.
Between Alexia’s interactions with the inanimate father lays a scene that establishes the harassment she endures from her masculine fans. Being a car model, she finds herself hounded by men asking for autographs, which seems innocent in the first few interactions. However, while heading home for the night, an obsessive fan chases after her with demands beyond the autograph. Once he gains her signature, he demands a kiss, going further and further as he takes one without permission. Eventually she gives in, stabbing him in the ear with her hair pin as an escape route. Through this interaction we see that her body is interpreted as something to own. These fans do not see her as her own person, but as a sexual object to obtain. The scene also gives us a direct interpretation of their actions, showing them as a form of violence. The man acts as a stalker figure and continues to push her boundaries to the point that she must retaliate, thus telling us that her retaliative actions were against violence itself. Yet, the film does not frame Alexia’s sexuality as the culprit for the violence. Ultimately, it is the fault of those who interpret her sexuality as an invitation. Alexia’s sexuality is not a death sentence, however, as the following scene acts as a bold exploration of it.
Washing off the fluids of her victim, Alexia hears banging from the garage. She walks in nude, approaching the aforementioned car, caressing it before entering. As an ominous choir hums, the intimacy commences. We are mostly made aware of the act through shots of Alexia’s face. Her orgasmic moans overtake the choir and her pained smile communicates the pleasure of the act. The visual pleasure of her body is not centred, but the pleasure she takes in the act is. Titane displays the pleasure which can be found in sex when detached from patriarchal standards. The car and her act as parallel erotic figures, both being used as objects that men use to further their own pleasure. She is able to come together with the car, gaining pleasure from it without having her own body treated as something owned. The car is a piece of her pleasure, rather than her body being used as a piece of its pleasure. Despite the painful internal battle she faces following the interaction, the sex is a counteractive tool against the oppression she previously faced. It is a queer act, not in that the car is of her gender or non-binary, but in that it is detached from cisgendered hetero-patriarchal expectations, opening a world for her beyond the binaries.
All of my praise for Alexia’s queered experience with the inanimate father is not to say that there isn’t a price to pay for the intimacy. If anything, Titane acts as a great tragedy, seeing as Alexia’s pleasure leads to her ultimate pain. While the film contains a multi-layered story, focusing both on the horror of her pregnancy and the tension of hiding her identity (after committing another murder, she must go on the run, so she disguises herself as a man), it still maintains a fear of the consequence of the previously discussed sex scene. Multiple scenes take us through her pain. Not only do we see her embark on the normal trials of pregnancy, such as morning sickness and cramps, but her body is engraved with deep scratches as her breasts and stomach enlarge. Her breast milk takes the form of motor oil. In a particularly feverish scene, she attempts to squeeze the fluids out. But still, through all this horror it is never made to be of the initial scene. Her pain is centred and there is tension which arises from her new sexual obsession with metal. But even in these scenes, the initial sexual relation, while treated as perverted, is not the source of the horror. The consequence of indulging in the perverse is the source of the horror. In creating a new source, Julia Ducournau calls into question our relationship to sexualities and bodies, as well as our relationship to pregnancy and sex itself. It is the perversion that scares us even though it can bring us intense pleasure, while the consequence is treated as a holy pleasure, despite the torture it puts pregnant bodies through.
My comparison of Demon Seed and Titane is not to say Pregnancy Horror has progressed, as each entry of the genre brings its own fascinating and important perspectives into pregnant bodies and societal treatment of them. Rather, I mean to say that the scope of what Pregnancy Horror can cover is expanding, partially because the larger public (including filmmakers) are becoming aware of queer and transgender bodies, which changes our relationship to pregnancy. It similarly changes our idea of gender, and thus films which explore forced gender roles (as Pregnancy Horror films often do) should take that change into consideration. In looking at the inanimate father, where there is a change to the active role of the usually hierarchical father, we are able to take into account the social effect of binary gender roles, and how it affects not only women but the very fabric of the family—nuclear or otherwise.
Brody, R. (2021, October 5). “‘Titane,’ Reviewed: The Body Horror of Family Life.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/titane-reviewed-the-body-horror-of-family-life.
Cammell, D. (Director). (1977). Demon Seed. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Dean, R. (2022, April 6). “DEMON SEED (1977).” Frame Rated. https://www.framerated.co.uk/demon-seed-1977.
Ducournau, J. (Director). (2021). Titane. Neon.
Zuckerman, E. (2021, October 8). “How Exactly Did the Sex Scene in ‘Titane’ Between a Human Woman and a Car Get Made?.” Thrillist. https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/titane-movie-filmmaker-julia-ducournau-interview.