John Lee’s False Positive offers up thin layers of horrors around pregnancy but never actually explores them in the film. Gabe talks about the missed opportunities and many lackluster scenes that left her wanting more. Kat talks about the real-world cases that are represented in the film's ending. She also discusses the misinformation around childbirth and women, the patriarchal shift of childbirth, and how to decolonize it.
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False Positive (2021) Director: John Lee
Summary by IMDB: As if getting pregnant weren't complicated enough, Lucy sets out to uncover the unsettling truth about her fertility doctor.
False Positive: Dabbling in the Horrors of Pregnancy
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexism, Medical violence, Systemic oppression, white supremacy, abuse against women
John Lee’s False Positive is a slow, anticlimactic thriller dressed up as several other films with none of their charm. It was marketed as being a new, millennial vision for Rosemary’s Baby with modern pregnancy horrors featuring IVF treatments. The story follows a couple, Lucy (played by Illana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux), as they navigate the world of IVF treatment after years of failed attempts at pregnancy. False Positive wants you to fear pregnancy but not for any of the appropriate reasons. Comparing this film to Rosemary’s Baby is a disservice to not only the film but the horror genre. Rosemary’s Baby was as much a scary film about Satan as it was about the lack of bodily autonomy for women in our medical systems. It was a social horror whose commentary blends the genre with its message quite flawlessly. False Positive wants you to think it's a smart film about women’s empowerment while also reaffirming the same narratives that bind them. We on the Ghouls have covered horror films about pregnancy previously. The strength of those others (Good Manners & Lyle) was that they didn’t lean into the “pregnancy is terrifying” premise. Though it certainly can be terrifying and risky, there is no end to what horror media could make from the very real horrors of creating and birthing a human being. People have died giving birth or have had their bodies drastically impacted by the process. There is so much to be said about the horrifying ways in which women’s bodies are controlled, manipulated, and stolen by our patriarchal society. We could discuss abortion, genetic manipulation, rape, postpartum depression - the list goes on. False Positive tees up opportunities to explore these themes but never dives in, leaving you confused and dissatisfied. Maybe even angry.
There’s one line in particular said in the beginning of the film that immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Lucy and Adrian are discussing the decision to switch to IVF after years of trying the “old-fashioned” way. Lucy is feeling sad about her supposed failure as a woman for not being able to do this one thing. Which is totally valid and for any people attempting to get pregnant for years with no luck, it wears you down and can do a number on your emotional health for sure. But Lucy says something along the lines of, “I’m not able to do the one thing women are supposed to do.” which is incredibly false. Women can do many things, all things. And not all women can have children or want them - that doesn’t make them any less of a woman. And though it is an inward and sad remark towards Lucy herself, Adrian doesn’t push back and there is no revelation in the end that that is not the case. Lucy and every other character in this film have a specific vision for women and what they’re supposed to be. The aggravating thing about this film is that that isn’t the commentary being made.
In an article on Vulture, Hulu's False Positive Isn't Horror But It Will Freak You Out by Helen Shaw, they say, “Yet at various points in the movie, some seemingly feminist guy — a boss, a husband, a doctor — will let his pretense slip. Which one will be the monster? The movie hints that, in some way … they all are.” Even the women in this film were anti-feminist, dismissing Lucy’s concerns as mommy-brain or working to uphold the patriarchal, white supremacist, and eugenic-ideological beliefs held by Dr. John. I would go even farther in saying that Lucy too is a monster. For all their performative feminism; the husband who gives Lucy the illusion of control; the Doctor who acknowledges the strength of women but diminishes their worth by insinuating they exist to produce more men; the boss who “values” her female input but uses her pregnancy to garter sympathy while continuing to have her place the lunch orders; Lucy isn’t any better. I didn’t like or trust Lucy throughout this film any more than the men. She came off as fake and just as Stepford Wives-y as the pink outfitted nurses at Dr. John’s. She didn’t see the injustice of how she was treated as being a bigger issue within the patriarchy but was simply upset that she was suffering.
This film is attempting to be many things and accomplishing none of it. Kate Erbland on IndieWire in their article, ‘False Positive’ Review: Ilana Glazer’s Pregnancy Thriller Isn’t a Bad ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Riff, It’s Worse, starts the piece out with some hurtful truths, “John Lee's aimless feature isn't dark enough to be scary, funny enough to be a comedy, or smart enough to say anything about the many topics it seems to want to tackle.” This film is trying so hard, it tells more than it shows and in the end, what is there to learn? I left the movie questioning what I was supposed to have left with.
There’s a fun line towards the end when Midwife Grace, played by Zainab Jah, says, “I am not your magical negress.” after hearing Lucy recall her office being more tribal or traditionally African. Lucy had fantasized an entire persona for Grace. This part was surprisingly funny (surprising as so much of the film was deadpan and lifeless), but it read the way the rest of the film and the characters felt. It's as if John Lee is trying to say, “Look! See! I get it! Men are trash and white people be like that sometimes, yeah?” During a, perhaps hallucinated, advertisement video for Grace’s midwife service, Grace explains how women have been giving birth since the dawn of time and only now, with men in charge of the medical fields, have they felt so vulnerable. She’s not wrong and it was a part of the film I appreciated. But that message wasn’t ingrained in the film but rather a passing thought. Another attempt at guilting women who need assistance and can’t do things the “natural way.” In the end, despite using Grace’s natural services, Lucy still ends up at the hospital. Why? What does that mean for all that talk about not needing men and their medical knowledge to only end up with him back between her legs. Lee is trying so hard to say how much he is an ally that he misses out on actually being one.
*Now entering SPOILER TOWN*
The end reveal gave me the same feeling that the film, Catfish did. In Catfish, it's revealed (surprise!) that the woman he had been speaking to was not who she said she was. That he had been catfished. It was a twist that would’ve been earth-shaking during the earlier years of the internet but in 2010 was lackluster and uninteresting. We’d already lived so much of our lives online. I grew up knowing internet stranger danger and that people lied. So to see that be the big reveal of a documentary advertised to be a “Bizarre and completely unpredictable mystery.” - IndieWire, it was very mundane and incredibly predictable.
This film was also that. In the final moments, it's revealed that Dr. John has been inseminating women with his own sperm. A real thing that’s happened to women and is horrible. Kat will discuss this in her section. Dr. John is as gross as he’s ever been, he is a white supremacist who believes it's his destiny to populate the world with his perfect seed. “You raped me,” Lucy says with no drive and almost like a question - as if John Lee were afraid to make that statement fact. Because she’s right, he did. And that was the real horror of this story. He murdered her daughter and lied to her, keeping her sons. (We’ve covered population control in the past so if you want more on this gross decision to keep males to carry on the family name, check out that episode.) But even her reaction is dulled, muted, and has no triumphancy. In the end, she hallucinates “releasing” the boys by dropping them out of her too-high storied window (which was always bizarrely lacking a screen). It was revolting. Those boys had nothing to do with what happened to her. They are innocent parties. And had this scene not been in the final 10 minutes, and we were allowed to unpack we could have had real conversations about the trauma of giving birth to a child out of rape. But like everything else in this film we are offered up the thin layer of horrors around pregnancy but never allowed to actually talk about it. It’s almost as if John Lee doesn’t actually want us to think about the issues he poses but instead, wants us to think that he thinks about them.
Here’s a tip: don’t use women’s issues as a button for horror without actually exploring and respecting those realities.
If you want modern day Rosemary’s Baby twists and turns that stress you out but also empower you watch Lyle. We covered this during our Queer Horror series and were absolutely delighted with this short (1HR RT) film. You could also check out Good Manners which we covered then as well which features pregnancy and werewolves!
Patriarchy and White Supremacy’s Impact on Childbirth in Western Medicine
by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexism, Medical violence, Systemic oppression, white supremacy, abuse against women
As you know by now, whenever we watch a thing we try to figure out the many things it could be saying and then try to educate on the overarching theme in reference to how the horror of the film relates to the horrors of the real world. This film gave two glaring messages to take away. One being that the process of pregnancy has a lot of traumatic elements, which extends to the health risks associated with pregnancy, as well as just the societal pressure on women to be mothers. The second being the violent and life threatening way the patriarchy shapes the medical field in relation to how pregnancy is handled in western medicine. Some might ask, when is it not the patriarchy, racism, or capitalism? And to that I say, when something is systemic it is drenched in every facet of society, more often than not, we are going to end up talking about at least one of them and in the case for today, all of them.
How does patriarchy, racism, capitalism and pregnancy interact within western society? A LOT of ways. Whether it’s race and gender pay inequities, attacks on reproductive rights and care options, the lack of sex education and resources, the lack free healthcare (fun fact: pregnancy is listed as a pre-existing condition for most insurance plans), the wide spread non consensual sterilization/non consensual experiments and procedures done throughout history and still today, or violence and neglect within the literal hospitals, all three are at play and doing a ton of damage. We have touched on these topics in previous episodes, specifically in our population control episode, our episode where we talked about the creation of vaccines, I believe briefly in lovecraft country episode, and in various others. Honestly…I’m sure we’ll talk about it again and again from a new angle in the future. Cause if we know anything about America, it’s that it’s drenched in violence and oppression so there will ALWAYS be something new and upsetting to uncover.
This film was really stressful, and maybe not in the way you’d expect from a horror movie. It was upsetting in the fact that I know this has actually happened to women for real. That there are actual accounts of gross men using their power in the fertility field to essentially rape women and spread their “seed”. That this is a real story. In fact, as a testament to Facebook's all listening ear, I was presented with an article about a doctor in Canada who did exactly what happened in this film, but in real life, and very recently. An article in the Washington Post Families say a fertility doctor used his own sperm to impregnate patients. Now, he must pay them millions., written by Johnathan Edwards on July 30th 2021, speaks to this case. In another article written for BBC news on the same topic it states that Doctor Norman Barwin has a class action suit that includes up to 226 people. “Some couples who were told that the male partner's sperm would be used were unknowingly given random samples, and in some cases, the doctor's own.”
Even more upsetting, this isn’t the only case of a fertility doctor blatantly abusing his power. An article in the Atlantic, Fertility Doctor Donald Cline’s Secret Leads to New Law, written by Sarah Zhang, outlines that this doctor used his own sperm 50 times without consent. In fact after a quick google search, an additional name was listed and his case literally made me feel nauseous. Dr. Cecil B Johnson was found guilty on March 5th 1992 of using his own sperm without consent on up to 75 women in his medical care. The article I found was especially upsetting because it showed quotes from this man and his lawyer. In the New York Times titled Doctor is Found Guilty in Fertility Case. This disgusting man had the audacity to say in court “I'm in shock, I really am," Dr. Jacobson said after the verdict was announced. "I spent my life trying to help women have children. If I felt I was a criminal or broke the law, I would never have done it.”
I didn’t even expect to focus so long on these disgusting men, because I had done extensive historical research on the destruction of midwives in Europe, as a way to force women out of the decision making in their own delivery process. As well as research on how the patriarchy, racism and capitalism all teamed up to hyper medicalize the birthing process as a form of oppression, all while forcing the act of motherhood on women as a societal reinforcement of capitalism. I’ll try to cover that as best I can in the amount of time left.
In an article I found called Patriarchy Constructs Motherhood, written by Caitlin Heavner, they cite Dorothy E. Roberts, a postocolonial American scholar and Black feminist that argues
“that patriarchy is part of the social construction of motherhood and that motherhood plays a critical role in the subordination of women. Motherhood, she says, becomes an identity for women. An identity that many women might not even want...but patriarchy deems motherhood a woman’s rite of passage.” This quote stood out to me because of the line at the beginning of the film, where our main character states something very similar. That this is something society has told her she is supposed to do.
In further research it seemed there was a theme between the societal pressure to become mothers, and doing so as young as possible as a means for establishing dependence on the patriarchal and capitalist structure. Specifically, the information posted by the American Society for reproductive medicine is intentionally skewed to encourage pregnancy before the age of 35. In fact in an article from the Guardian, It is time to reassess our obsession with women’s fertility and the number 35 written by Arwa Mahdawi states that this information is intentionally pulled from 1700s France.
“Take, for example, the oft-cited statistic that one in three women aged 35-39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying. Want to know where that statistic is from? Data from 1700s France. Researchers looked at a bunch of church birth records from people whose life expectancy at the time was around 30, and came up with these statistics…However, since this statistic serves the very useful purpose of shaming and scaring women it was parroted endlessly.” The moral of the story is that it’s all very intentional, and that there is evidence to the contrary that is more optimistic for individuals who want to wait to have kids. A study from the same article listed that in 2004 a study looked at 770 European women found that, with sex at least twice a week, 78% of women aged 35 to 40 conceived within a year, compared with 84% of women aged 20 to 34. The Atlantic notes that these encouraging figures were left out of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s (ASRM) 2008 committee opinion on female age and fertility, which instead relied on “the most-ominous historical data”.
Why would the American Society for Reproductive Medicine skew their stats to be more daunting? Because it is beneficial to the system to have children be born from younger women, who have less financial independence and stability, and who are more likely to become indebted to the medical industry, likely to have more children so they can feed into the lower labor industry, and so on. How else would they continue to maintain the poverty necessary to uphold these billionaires? How else would Jeff Bezos get to fly a penis into space?
In a blog post from Mother Love titled, What Does it Mean to Decolonize Birth, Bentley Porterfield-Finn, a Doula states, Today, many hospitals in the United States follow the technocratic model of birth. According to researcher Robbie Davis-Floyd, the technocratic model of birth views the female body as a machine, regarding the birth of the baby as the most important end product—the mother is a secondary by-product . This model is grounded in Western society's values of science, high technology, and economic profit. In birth contexts, a technocratic approach emphasizes mind-body separation, sees the patient as an object with little personal relationship with the practitioner, is characterized by aggressive intervention, and values standardization of care . Essentially, this model does not prioritize attending to each individual mother's unique emotional needs and approaches birth strictly as a medical event.
Sometimes it can be hard to recognize colonial power structures because they have become so well established. Decolonizing birth is not about getting rid of hospitals or demonizing the medical model of care. In fact, medical interventions and environments can be life-saving for some. Instead, it is about trusting natural, physiological birth and being conscious of how power operates when we do so. It is about making various dimensions of care accessible to all birthing persons, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or class. Decolonizing birth requires an intersectional approach that considers each of these dimensions and ultimately values all birthing traditions.
So the final question I’m asking today is how did we get here? How did this system get established as it is? For that I refer to a paper written in the PHILOSOPHICAL AND ETHICAL ISSUES publication, titled Male appropriation and medicalization of childbirth: an historical analysis, Written by Heather A. Cahill MA BSc RGN RMN RNT Cert EdSenior Lecturer and Programmes Leader, Acute and Critical Care, Department of Health Studies, University of York, York, UK. In this paper they provide an outline on how midwifery was devalued in the 17th and 18th century, essentially as a method of shifting power `from the hands of women to the control of men' (Nettleton 1995, p. 199).
Something that was interesting about this was the intersection between midwifery and witchcraft. For centuries, medicine and religion have systematically devalued assigned female roles and traits and excluded women from power in society through patriarchal ideology and misogynist preoccupations with women's reproductive power, a position clearly reflected in the Christian Church's obsession with witchcraft during the Middle Ages (Aggleton 1990). Ehrenreich and English (1974) identify three central accusations against witches that have remained consistent throughout history: their sexuality, their organization and paradoxically, their healing powers which included attendance at childbirth.
It all stemmed from envy and fear that women would use this as an outlet to organize and ultimately was another area of life that men sought to control. The paper goes on to argue that the pursuit of a health care monopoly was created with the purpose of excluding women from practicing in a public domain as a method of further subjugating women and maintaining control. The shift really took place between the 17th and 18th centuries when men devalued the midwife profession from a “scientific standpoint”. During the shift, many men were not able to deliver babies without using instruments that guaranteed the death of the fetus and oftentimes the mother as well. It was when men entered the ranks of midwives, that they stole parts of their methodology. They used a claim to greater ‘scientific’ knowledge of biology to devalue midwives and systematically sought to dispute their validity, using the demonization of abortion. This furthered a false understanding that ‘formal’ knowledge and training that women were excluded from was more valuable and safer than the experiential knowledge midwives possessed. “So, not only do these events provide a lucid example of the hierarchy of knowledge in which academia assumes superiority over experience, but they also clearly indicate that scientific and factual knowledge is inherently `male', and therefore claiming supremacy over `female' intuitiveness, empathy and caring (Cahill 1999).”
Ultimately the lesson that we end with is that the oppression of women by the hands of men has a long and upsetting history that stems from an intentionality to keep women at a place of subordination and that that manifests itself within society in many harmful and violent ways. We don’t like to end on such sad notes, so if you are looking to educate yourself please see our sources that we used for this episode as well as some organizations that are seeking out positive change. We also strongly encourage anyone who has had a positive experience with an organization making change in these areas to let us know so we can share their info to people who need it.