In Hulu's "False Positive," the real monster isn't just a shady fertility doctor

The creepy film starring Ilana Glazer shows the harrowing realities of how society treats pregnant people

Published June 29, 2021 5:17PM (EDT)

Ilana Glazer as Lucy and Gretchen Mol as Nurse Dawn in "False Positive" (Michael O'Neale/Hulu)
Ilana Glazer as Lucy and Gretchen Mol as Nurse Dawn in "False Positive" (Michael O'Neale/Hulu)

The following contains spoilers from Hulu's "False Positive."

More and more horror movies created by and for women means more and more horror movies that honestly and frighteningly depict the horrors of womanhood and gender. Hulu's "False Positive," starring and co-written by Ilana Glazer of "Broad City" fame, is the latest addition to this genre — with the added, all-too-relevant twist of focusing on the gendered horror of reproduction. 

At this point, reproductive horror and dystopia is arguably a genre of its own, from "The Handmaid's Tale" to 2017's "mother!" and, before all of these, "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), which "False Positive" not-so-subtly nods to. Given the day-to-day frights of the medical system and the politics that control it, and especially control pregnancy, this genre has more than enough material to work with, and "False Positive," directed by John Lee, taps into much of this material.

In the film, Lucy (Glazer) and husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) have been trying for years to get pregnant without success. They finally turn to famous fertility doctor John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), who inseminates Lucy with a technique of his own invention. There's an unmistakable eeriness about Hindle despite his at times exaggerated care and attentiveness to Lucy, and the movie takes a turn when Lucy is told she must choose between a female embryo and two male embryos, and have a selective reduction abortion to ensure a safe pregnancy and birth.

This, of course, doesn't go as planned — not the abortion itself, which goes entirely fine, as abortions pretty much always do. But Lucy eventually learns that her husband and Hindle secretly terminated the female embryo against Lucy's wishes, when she births two male twins. Even worse, Lucy eventually discovers that Hindle inseminated her with his own sperm, as part of his Evil Plan™ to plant his "superior" seed far and wide. 

While Hindle is decisively the film's villain with Adrian as his accomplice, the real monster of "False Positive" is bigger than just those two – it's the medical gaslighting and nurturing paternalism, packaged as cute little microaggressions like the term "mommy brain," that are so often used to dismiss a pregnant person's valid fears and discomfort. Even Lucy's job exemplifies how these dynamics come into play, reflecting the real-life nightmare of being a working pregnant person. As much as Lucy's all-male coworkers tell her she has the potential to be a marketing superstar, they nevertheless task her with all food pickups and other feminized errands. Their words are assuring, their actions, not so much.

Meanwhile, Hindle's protectiveness of Lucy, whom he's groomed to birth his own children, and his skin-crawling assurances that she's being "hysterical," echo the many insidious abortion laws that politicians justify as needed to "keep women safe," when they actually achieve the opposite. Case in point: Laws that mandate waiting periods to supposedly force pregnant people to "really think" before having an abortion – as if they otherwise wouldn't, and as if they need to be protected from their own decision-making. Other laws mandate that pregnant people receive state-directed, inaccurate, anti-abortion counseling before the procedure, or give state funding to anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy centers," which is really not that different from a creepy horror movie doctor feeding you lies and directly violating your reproductive decision-making. 

Lucy's husband, doctor, and immediately suspect pal Corgan (Sophia Bush) all claim they want to keep her safe despite harming her in their own ways — not unlike the dozens of state laws that have shut down abortion clinics by the hundreds in recent years, with medically unnecessary requirements, supposedly for women's safety, that most clinics can't meet. Intentional or not, the faux safety concerns and deceits of those in Lucy's orbit are a perfect metaphor for this nightmarish reality of an avalanche of clinic shutdowns, which put pregnant people in far greater danger when reproductive care is pushed out of reach.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the movie is the pattern of people smiling and gently dismissing Lucy whenever she expresses discomfort or suspicion. Hindle chalks up her fears to "hysteria," Corgan laughs off Lucy's "mommy brain," and Adrian frequently assures her that everything is fine, all while secretly colluding with Hindle. The word "gaslighting" may be thrown around a lot these days, but all of this is textbook gaslighting, and it reminds of the sort of medical gaslighting that's costing thousands of pregnant women their lives. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world, with significantly higher rates for Black women and other women of color

Lucy is, of course, a white woman, privileged with greater credibility about her body and needs due to systemic racism, but her story still reflects years of research that show how many pregnancy and birth-related complications could be prevented by listening to women when they talk about their pain or health concerns. It's not a magical coincidence that women are diagnosed years later than men for life-threatening health conditions.

The other piece of the puzzle for explaining why Lucy is treated this way is the idea that she's crazy. Her reliability as a narrator is called into question by the revelation that she's had several hallucinations, but most of her suspicions are actually true. Yet, she's treated as crazy by the very people she rightly suspects are harming her, and denied help and decision-making power because of this. This is ableism, and ableism runs deep when it comes to reproduction, whether it's taking away reproductive abilities from a person with disabilities, taking away their children, or refusing to trust that they know what's best for them.

There is also something undeniably ominous about the final scene of "False Positive," in which Lucy's aborted female fetus appears to come to life and drink her breast milk. The anti-abortion movement has one move in its playbook, and that is deceitfully humanizing and bringing fetuses and embryos to life in the cultural consciousness as "unborn babies." This decades-long crusade has contributed to many states' use of feticide laws, meant to protect pregnant people from domestic violence, to instead criminally charge pregnant people for "harming their fetus," if they miscarry or self-induce an abortion. Watching Lucy's fetus come to life is chilling — it feels like the centerpiece of an anti-abortion activist's fever dream of a movie, throughout which a pregnant individual is denied agency, violated, and deceived, all, supposedly, for their own good. At the end of the day, there is no humanizing a fetus without dehumanizing a pregnant person.

Whether "False Positive" sticks the landing is up for debate, but it's unabashed in its messaging. We hear a lot about the miracle of life, the miracle of childbirth, the miracle of pregnancy, but let's be real — there's a lot that's terrifying about all of these, too, especially in a country that tells women their one societal purpose is reproduction and incubation, while punishing and denying them the resources to do so safely. "False Positive" is a horror movie that achieves its horror by portraying these exact realities.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Commentary False Positive Hulu Pregnancy. Movies