Somewhere, a baby is crying. Their lonely yelps stick to the air like mist sticks to glass. The sound stretches out over the mirror of water upon which Rom, the Vacuous Spider just died as the nightmare moon descends. It trails you through every unlit building, but melts into happy giggles when you slay the child’s veiled wet nurse. In Bloodborne, people become monsters and they take pleasure in acts of violence, reducing childcare and motherhood into pools of rich, red blood.
I didn’t notice, at first, how much of FromSoftware’s 2015 action role-playing game relies on the concept of motherhood. When I first played my very favourite video game Bloodborne, much like its characters, I was somewhat comforted by the blood. I dressed my character in a faded pink bonnet and clean slacks (I was going for a Thom Browne sort of thing), something dignified for me to wear as I ran through grey stone churches swinging an axe. I left sickly townspeople dead on chipping staircases, stabbing myself with delicate vials of thin blood again, again, again. Something about the gloom was recognisable. I wasn’t sure what it was until I met the women.
The imposter Iosefka, a mysterious character obsessed with turning humans into elevated beings, is finally at peace when she’s impregnated with a godlike Great One’s child. The pregnancy makes her body twitch. She’s ecstatic, she’s nauseous and heaving with celestial visions. You kill her and end her rapture early to get the one third of an umbilical cord necessary to take you to the game’s true final boss, the Moon Presence, a Great One. You meet Arianna, a blonde courtesan, who becomes your friend if you let her, but her story ends in another heavenly pregnancy. This one leaves Arianna sick and crying. The baby, a writhing pound of flesh crusted with blood, looks up at her with its barnacled face, but she doesn’t want anything to do with it.
“This is a nightmare,” she sobs and laughs. If you need another third of an umbilical cord, you have to kill her mangled infant.
Then there’s Yharnam, the Pthumerian Queen, a corpse bride with thick smears of blackish blood staining the lace at her waist and trailing down her legs. Mergo, the invisible infant you hear mewling throughout Bloodborne, is Yharnam’s child, and if the stains are any indication, it wasn’t an easy birth.
I met these women and surprised myself with how little they scared me.
To me, Bloodborne’s crying, bleeding mothers are the shadows in the stories older women used to tell me across their coffee tables, warning me about what womanhood supposedly entails. “Don’t get pregnant — the father will leave you and your body will be destroyed,” they’d say. “Try not to take things too personally — you look weak when you cry.” People hear things like that over coffee tables all across the country, and it makes them fear their bodies and what they’re capable of.
The life-defining consequences Bloodborne’s brutal virgin births have on characters like Arianna and Yharnam make me think of how common it is, even among women, to talk about womanhood as this unwieldy thing we have no control over. Things happen to us, we don’t make things happen. If everything you knew about womanhood came from defeated Sex and the City soundbites and that one point in time people seemed to think that Donald Trump was the sole progenitor of all their problems, you might think that to be a woman is to stand like a phantom until someone tells you to start existing.
But I’m tired of associating womanhood with stories of passivity, fear, and blood. Reproductive justice, which is under attack for the millionth time, needs those stories to change, too.
Reproductive justice goes well beyond the scope of “women’s issues,” but it’s often categorised as one. Because of this, and because of some people’s strange insistence on defining womanhood by the ability to get pregnant, discussions around reproductive justice are often limited in recognising how reproductive issues affect people in general. Women need to feel like they’re more than just their bodies, and culturally, we need to recognise reproductive justice as an issue that affects everyone in society. Since Politico leaked a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, we’re perhaps in a now-or-never scenario for turning the tide on both of those things.
“The draft opinion is a full-throated, unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights and a subsequent 1992 decision — Planned Parenthood v. Casey — that largely maintained the right,” Politico reported in their May 2 leak.
The Court’s opinion, if (but, more likely, when) enacted, would set off “trigger laws” banning or severely restricting abortion access in 21 states, which include Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. That’s a terrifying possibility, though many of those 21 states already have created sizable obstacles for patients seeking safe abortions. Mississippi, for its part, has just one abortion clinic in all of its 125,433 , and in September, 2021, Texas banned abortion for pregnancies over six weeks. To put that into perspective, most people don’t even know they’re pregnant until just after five-and-a-half weeks, one 2018 study shows, and this number increases for unplanned pregnancies.
More frightening than any Bloodborne image, U.S. legislation that steals people’s autonomy by shrinking their access to legal abortion makes my stomach twist. I am afraid for myself and my friends and anyone currently facing the myriad of complicated, often incredibly painful situations that make a person consider abortion. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade like it plans to, as a country, we write in permanent ink that we consider women and girls to be little more than birthing machines. We write that people do not deserve to choose what happens to them, and we welcome the complete erosion of self-possession, an inevitability Bloodborne imagines through its brutal storylines for women.
U.S. legislation has never been kind to the country’s most vulnerable communities, but in 2020, the U.S. was an overflowing bubbling pot — everyone from your college roommates to big-box store Target pledged to do better and learn better. Those promises, of course, were completely empty, but it was a noticeable shift in the general public’s attitude toward civil rights. Asking for them was no longer considered a fringe activity, though disappointingly, many people at the time wrongly equated our country’s fracture lines to whether or not Trump was in the White House. The U.S. government at large has proven it has no real interest in filling the country’s needs, and marginalised groups who have been pushing back against it for centuries sensed that mainstream outrage was more a product of fashion than a genuine ideological shift. Still, at times it felt like marginalised people were so tired and angry of how long they had been deprived that maybe the rest of the country was finally realising it was time to wake up. But just two years later, we now know for sure it was all just a show.
Reading the news or Twitter, on most days, feels like stepping into an alternate universe where only bad things happen. Perhaps because of that, or maybe because the hold that Elden Ring had on me, with all its sense of wondrous possibility, is loosening at last, I find myself drawn to Bloodborne once again. In this game, fantasies are just as depressing as reality. It’s nice to imagine motherhood as an uncomplicated return to nature (“What a wonderful maternal instinct,” people like to say). But because of the limited and inaccessible healthcare system we have in the U.S., for many American women, and disproportionately for Black women, motherhood is a concrete thing built by fear and death. Bloodborne takes this configuration and presents it back to us yellowed by an orange torch, costumed in a white lace gown marred by a woman’s own blood.
Part of what first drew me to Bloodborne was the way it situates its horror in this familiar image of disenfranchisement, of women lying down and suffering. But I don’t want that to feel familiar anymore. I don’t want more children to grow up internalizing feelings of horror and revulsion around this, to be told stories of how you’ll suffer, you have to suffer, because of who you are. It’s so easy and comfortable to feel paralysed when it’s all you’ve been taught, and when it seems like the law reflects that no matter how often you march or how loudly you scream. But it feels like we’re in a now-or-never scenario.
Something interesting, I think, about the Moon Presence ending of Bloodborne is that it effectively allows you to become your own mother and child. You tell Gehrman you want to keep living. You grant yourself one umbilical cord by eating the three segments you scavenged, and after you defeat your ultra-powerful enemy, you are reborn into a slimy, fragile thing.
In this moment, Bloodborne makes motherhood genderless and all-powerful. Motherhood becomes bigger than your human body, and instead, is something totally transformative. It revolves around the power of choice — choosing to live, to eat, to fight — and feels designed to empower you, whoever you are. When I put the game away, I don’t know what will happen to the future of choice in the U.S. But I think there’s room for us to fight to save it.