WIHM – The Smothering of Motherhood in 1973’s ‘The Baby’

Artwork by Courtney Cheshire

How far can a woman go to take care of the one she loves most? Ted Post’s bizarre horror The Baby shows a woman can go farther than most can imagine. The Baby opens with Ann (Anjanette Comer), a social worker, calling upon the Wadsworths. She meets Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) along with adult daughters Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor). The female members of the Wadsworth clan are not Ann’s reason for dropping in; she is here to see the titular Baby (David Mooney). Baby is Mrs. Wadsworth’s youngest child, doted on and treated like an infant. A social worker calling in on an infant is routine, but Baby is no infant; he is a grown man whom the Wadsworth’s claim have the mental capacity of a baby.

What ensues the rest of the film has the audience believing that Ann wants to save poor Baby, who is being abused and forced into remaining a child as revenge against all the men who have wronged the Wadsworth women. Ann, lonely after the seeming death of her loving husband, puts all her time into trying to help Baby escape abuse and even test his mental range. By the end, Ann has “rescued” Baby, keeping him at her house with her mother in law, sending photos to the Wadsworths of him standing up in a suit, taunting them. The Wadsworth’s then attempt to rescue Baby back from Ann’s house where they are murdered by the social worker and her mother in law. As the movie reaches its conclusion, the true horror is revealed: Ann’s loving husband Roger isn’t dead; his accident left him with the mental capacity of a baby and she treats him as such. She kidnapped Baby so her darling Roger would have a playmate.

Image: Scotia International

There’s a lot about The Baby that just does not fly in 2020. It treats people with special needs as the butt of the joke and it can be rather uncomfortable to watch. Once – and if – the viewer can get past this dated view, The Baby has interesting takes on how women care for those who depend on them. On the first watch of The Baby Ann seems like the kindly hero and the Wadsworth women the evil abusers. Once it is made clear that Ann was scoping out the Wadsworths to form an alliance or simply take Baby as she ends up doing, Ann’s motivations are blatantly sinister. She visits Baby so often her boss orders her to stop, accusing her of ignoring her other clients. She puts pressure on the Wadsworth’s to enrol Baby in a special school, which would transfer the control of him from his family to Ann; perhaps allowing her to run off with him so he can entertain Roger.

There are moments when Ann first meets the Wadsworth’s that it seems as if she is looking for reasons not to justify treating Roger like an infant, but slowly as she spends more time with Baby her maternal nature takes over. Ann, now unable to have biological children, would rather dote over the two grown men than help rehabilitate them. Towards the end, once Ann introduces Baby to Roger, her mother in law asks if she’s worried they’ll be like the Wadsworth’s. Ann reassures her that they could never be like them, alluding that the two women won’t physically abuse Baby and Roger the way the Wadsworth women did. This shows that Ann doesn’t view her treatment of Baby and Roger as abuse, despite the fact that it most certainly is. Roger should be in a medical facility due to his accident and Baby, a capable adult, should be in therapy undoing the damage done by his family. Ann is still enforcing the concept that Baby is an infant onto the man, just with smothering love rather than beatings.

Image: Scotia International

Though Ann is no saint, The Wadsworth’s are truly tyrannical.  Mrs. Wadsworth is a tough, severe woman who has a distaste for men; each of her children have different fathers, the worst being Baby’s dad who ran out right as he was born. She teaches her daughters that men cannot be trusted and the three of them keep Baby in an infantile state to control him and prevent him from growing up into a wicked man. Each of the Wadsworth women punish Baby in a different way. Mrs. Wadsworth provides a similar form of abuse as Ann, mothering him into remaining a baby. Her overbearing affection isn’t as kind and supportive as Ann, she reminds him how stupid he is and then hugs him.

Alba has a penchant for violence and takes any chance she can get to harm Baby physically. Germaine scolds her for this, allowing the viewer to think perhaps she is the kindest to Baby when she happens to be the worst of all. Likely unbeknownst to her mother and sister, Germaine sexually abuses Baby. Each of these forms of abuse allow the abuser to believe they are in control, which isolates the Wadsworth women from each other. Instead of uniting as a team they fight over who should maintain control. This is a key reason why Ann wins out in the end. Ann and her mother in law work tandem to protect Roger and secure him his playmate. 

Image: Scotia International

While The Baby is off putting due to its bizarre plot and outdated view on disabled people, it reveals a lot about the mindset of maternal abusers in a way that is realistic rather than cartoonish; something few of the film’s peers can boast. The presentation of a woman with good intentions as an abuser is controversial, but rings truer than most Hollywood depictions of evil mothers who only inflict blatant pain. 

by Courtney Cheshire

Courtney is a Metro-Detroit native. Her favorite films are The Last Temptation of Christ, The Blair Witch Project, and First Reformed. She’s a up and coming designer and has been able to fuse her passion for design with her love of film by working closely with British production company Rianne Pictures making posters and promotional art since 2015. She is obsessed with ducks, religion (despite her agnosticism!), and Ethan Hawke. You can see her work at courtneymcheshire.com

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