How 'The Magicians' Addressed Abortion with a Demonic Fetus
In its second season, the SyFy series tackles the complex anxieties surrounding a woman's relationship to her body.
While most of us will never worry that Satan is holding our uterus hostage, the demonic pregnancy narrative is still horrifying. Films like Rosemary's Baby (1968), Alien 3 (1992), Grace (2009), Honeymoon (2014), and many others address complex anxieties about fertility, gestation, and birth. Fittingly, the demonic pregnancy subgenre is a site for feminist concerns such as: Is a woman simply an incubator? What is our identity when we become intrinsically connected to this Other that sets up house in our uterus, drains us of nutrients, kicks, causes vomiting and acid reflux, and sometimes dies in the womb and starts to rot? What becomes of our identity when we are faced with an offspring we didn't want, whom we hate, and who might destroy us?
Season two of The Magicians has been dark in the usual ways (amputations, mutilated cats), but Julia's rape revenge and pregnancy plot has pushed the show into the larger cultural conversation about how much power women really have over their bodies. By referencing horror and sci-fi subgenres that feature feminist undertones—the rape revenge narrative and the demonic pregnancy narrative— The Magicians asks us to question the recourse available to a victimized woman who is saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Not only does Julia encounter the red tape that confronts all women seeking abortions, but her fetus seems unable to be vanquished by medical or magical methods and is prepared to kill in order to survive.
Episode five, "Cheat Day," confirms that Julia's rape by the fox-god Reynard resulted in a pregnancy. Throughout this season, Julia has been grappling with the trauma of this rape and the process of healing. With the discovery of an unwanted pregnancy, Julia is now not only on a quest to murder her rapist—she must also find a way to get an abortion.
Abortions have been receiving more even-handed treatment on television as of late, with shows like BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex Girlfriend destigmatizing the procedure and refusing to cast judgment. What's so different and interesting about a show like The Magicians, with its world steeped in magic and supernatural possibility, is that getting an abortion is still fraught. In fact, it might even be impossible because this magical fetus has mind-control abilities; it can manipulate and advocate for its continued viability in vivo. This extreme is terrifying—and it's also timely and appropriate for our current misogynistic political atmosphere.
Take the now infamous comments about pregnancy made by Republican Representative Justin Humphrey on February 17, 2017:
What I call them is, is you're a "host." And you know when you enter into a relationship you're going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don't get pregnant… But after you're irresponsible then don't claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you're the host and you invited that in.
Humphrey's rhetoric might as well have come from a horror or sci-fi film, so neatly does it fit the narrative of the woman who is held supernaturally hostage by her reproductive capacities. His commentary comfortably fits the structure of the demonic possession narrative in which a woman is held responsible for welcoming a demon to inhabit her body. The language of penetration and hosting is uniquely feminized. There is a sexual dimension to "inviting that in."
However, in The Magicians, we don't have a gynotician regulating women's bodies; we have a fetus holding a traumatized rape victim hostage. We see the fetus's power when Julia goes to her appointment at the abortion clinic. Julia is laid out on the operating table in one of those flimsy blue paper gowns—she is the image of vulnerability, desperation, and hope. Then something goes wrong: The doctor's hands act of their own accord, and she reluctantly stabs herself in the eye with her own medical instrument. It seems like the fetus has either telepathically caused the doctor to commit suicide or manipulated her behavior.
As the doctor bleeds out on the floor, Julia screams for her friend to come in. Julia is so desperate to get rid of this pregnancy that she begs her friend to give her an abortion right then and there, dead body be damned. One can't help but read a politicized anxiety present in her plea: If I can't get a professional to do this, I will literally ask anybody; I will do anything. Her anxiety feels like it could belong to any woman threatened by her shrinking and disappearing reproductive healthcare options.
Rape and abortion narratives can often be problematic when handled poorly. Sometimes they fail to take into account a woman's unique perspective and instead become narratives about male feelings, reactions, and growth. Sometimes they are used as less significant plot devices intended to move a larger plot forward. Often, rape narratives are handled insensitively and can be triggering for survivors. Despite some occasional clumsiness, The Magicians has so far been careful to exercise caution, and I hope they continue to do so. It's still uncertain how this plot will resolve, but Julia's quest to take control of her narrative is part of a larger polemic on how trauma repeats itself and how those who are traumatized are forced to endure that trauma repeatedly. Her additional quest to take control of her reproductive destiny is an important part of this journey—and ours.
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