Black Swan: A Feministing Discussion

Black Swan posterBlack Swan is winning awards and stirring up discussion left and right. The film engages a number of feminist themes in the story of Nina, a ballet dancer obsessed with achieving perfection. In this post Feministing writers discuss our reactions to the film.

*Warning: lots of major SPOILERS for the film follow*

Body transformation.

Actors get a lot of attention for changing their bodies in dramatic ways – putting on a lot of muscle or losing a lot of weight. Natalie Portman, who was small already, didn’t just get even more skinny, she got a body that looked like that of a ballet dancer. Portman’s talked about how starving herself for the role was almost like method acting. Certainly the body fit the character – there are quite a few shots of Nina’s pelvis and it looks like that of a child.

Then there’s the use of werewolf mythology to externalize Nina’s internal conflict. As she struggles with personal, sexual, and artistic growth the transformation plays out on her body. There’s the actual physicalization of her psychological struggle – Nina’s scratching and cutting, which I thought was a good representation of how some people use self-harm to cope. Then when Nina can’t cope with her “perfect” body also containing the impulsive, emotional, sensual black swan, the were-swan bursts out. I think a lot of Nina’s struggle in the film is about the difficulty of being both the virgin and the whore in a world that wants women to fit perfectly into just one box (I’ll talk about this more below where Lori’s brought it up). I think the were-swan imagery’s a great use of horror tropes to represent a struggle that’s been central to a lot of feminist thought. And I gotta say, as a trans woman it’s a struggle I identified pretty strongly with – standing in two places at once, having a body that can no longer express to the outside world what’s going on inside. - Jos

Thomas: how other characters excuse his behavior because of his art, how he uses his position.

Nina and Thomas in the dance studioHis character reminded me somewhat of the public’s rationalization and Roman Polanski — of how he is idolized as this beautiful, tragic figure with such “talent” that his actions should be excused. Like allowing him to commit assault is a sacrifice the world (in other words, his victims) has to make because the value of his work takes precedent. - Vanessa

The juxtaposition of her being too “uptight” and needing Thomas to “loosen” her up was gross, since he was obsessed with his object of art and was sexually coercing her to push her to her greatest creative potential. I read it as deeply problematic. The lesbian fantasy dream I guess is supposed to be her finding her own sexual/creative experession, but the relationship in general between her sexuality and her performance was just weird….I’m going to assume Aronofsky did this intentionally. - Samhita

Vanessa, I noticed a Polanski parallel as well. I appreciated this nuanced take on a sexual predator. Not an anonymous, probably Black man in an alley, as seems to be a standard representation of rapists in popular media. Thomas may be represented visually as an arch villain, but the character’s sexual manipulation and the excuses made for him by Nina is much closer to reality. Thomas takes advantage of his professional relationships, a stark contrast to the trope of sexual violence being committed almost exclusively by strangers. The way Thomas takes advantage of Nina’s trust and admiration does seem to have positive artistic results. Of course, it also contributes to her psychological collapse and eventual suicide. Characters excuse Thomas’ behavior because he’s an artistic genius, and he apparently is. But that’s clearly no excuse for what happens to Winona Ryder’s character or Nina. - Jos

Agreed. Thomas’ role as this sexually coercive predator pushing Nina to let loose and embrace her inner black swan in the name of the art was so frustrating and gross. Mostly because I wanted her to go home and masturbate. And I wanted her to defy her mother and get high and dance and laugh with Mila Kunis’ character Lily. (Also, I wanted her to actually have sex with Lily–and like it–instead of have that weird lesbian fantasy dream with herself?) I just wanted it to be an authentic expression of her desire–not something she does because she’s desperately seeking Thomas’ approval. - Maya

Perfection.

This film resonated with me deeply, particularly around the theme of perfection; Nina’s extreme longing for acceptance, of being “chosen” — of feeling so much pressure to be perfect by your environment that your very identity is compromised — reminds me a lot of my past experience with EDNOS, personal relationships and insecurities growing up (and shit, that I still have). I don’t doubt others had the same reaction. - Vanessa

In addition to illustrating the intense pressure–external and internal–to be perfect, the film really drove home the reality that it’s a standard that’s never actually attainable–that once you start judging yourself by how close you are to “perfect,” once you get sucked down that scary path, you’re fucked. Because you can always be just a little better, thinner, more graceful, more beautiful. And then once you’ve achieved one kind of perfection–as Nina had as a “perfect” white swan–the game switches on you and it turns out that’s not enough either. - Maya

The virgin/whore dichotomy.

Nina as the black swanMajor virgin/whore complex happening here. - Lori

I think there’s definitely a tie here too between the theme of perfection and purity… - Vanessa

I saw the virgin/whore dichotomy as central to Nina’s story. She’s spent her whole life trying to be the “perfect” ballet dancer, and has seemingly achieved that goal. Physical, emotional, and sexual immaturity were all wrapped up in this image. We get to know Nina’s body intimately in the movie, and it looks, small, underdeveloped, young. She is still her mother’s “sweet girl” and subservient to her directors at the ballet, with whom she has more of a teacher/student dynamic. There’s no part of me that believed Nina’s “No” when asked if she is a virgin. Nina has achieved perfection on one side of the dichotomy – yes, at a pretty high price including the harm to her body. But it’s when she tries to become the perfect whore too that Nina is torn apart. She is asked to show not only technical perfection but sensuality as well (and Nina has to be perfect at everything she takes on). She has already been pushed so far in one direction that she can’t handle the duality. Many of the steps she takes are liberatory, if qualified – masturbating, but at the urging of the sexually manipulative Thomas, distancing herself from her mother. But ultimately they’re tied with her downfall, as Nina is being asked for simply too much. She can’t contain the perfect virgin and perfect whore at once, and the conflict actually bursts out of her body in the film’s most bombastic were-swan moment.

I think this speaks brilliantly to the virgin/whore dichotomy, such a central part of how women are understood. We are either the prude or the slut, easy or frigid. We are expected to fit in one box, and do so perfectly, but we face conflicting demands as sometimes we’re supposed to be the “little princess” and sometimes the dominatrix. It’s too much for anyone to take, and it’s the every day struggle of women in a culture that doesn’t recognize us as full, complex people. Natalie Portman’s character is an extreme example of this division and how it can destroy a person. - Jos

Word to what Jos said. Poor Nina’s downfall comes from a problem that is so, so familiar to many women. Sure, the horror film genre, and the drama of the setting in the ballet world, and the perfect metaphor provided by the Swan Lake tale, amplifies the dichotomy. But really, this is an everyday struggle. I think when we talk about the virgin/whore dichotomy, it’s often to discuss the pressure women face to fit neatly into role or the other. But I was reminded, watching this movie, just how often we’re asked to play both. Be sweet and sexy, submissive and ambitious, maternal and exciting–at different times, for different people, in an impossible balancing act. And, of course, do it perfectly, effortlessly, as if you aren’t trying at all, as if you just happen to be exactly what everyone wants you to be. This is what seems to ultimately destroy Nina–the pressure to do it all while maintaining that illusion of effortlessness.

One complaint I have about the film, though, is that I thought it almost made the dichotomy too obvious–and pushed the horror of Nina’s deterioration to a cartoonish extreme. As my best friend Martha Polk wrote in a great review, there’s already a whole lot of scary shit in the everyday experience of being a woman and navigating these impossible pressures. There’s no need to bring in the special effects when sticking to the more subtle terror in Nina’s mind would make a more powerful–and, arguably, more feminist–film. - Maya

Nina’s relationship with her mother.

While a wee obvious, I liked how Aronofksy tied the mother and Thomas’ influence over Nina together with their ”Little Princess” and “Sweet Girl” pet names (although Thomas didn’t call her that name until the very end), particularly because I think it’s important to expose just how much of an influence the two of them had in Nina’s deterioration. And it was so telling of how “clueless” they seemed to be, how surprised and unable to take responsibility for what was happening to her, when the signs of her mental health issues were so obviously escalating, and how they enabled (and directly contributed to) her unhealthy behavior. -Vanessa

Public reception of the film.

I’ve read a few reviews of Black Swan where the critic basically said, “If Natalie Portman was a man people would be saying x, y, and z about her performance.” I find it interesting that even critics who are praising her for pushing the performance so far can’t even do so without qualifying their praise with, “This is what people would say if the actor was a man.” There are so few real, complex film roles for women out there, so there are very few opportunities for them to be seen at the top of their craft (I think there’s a lot more room for range on TV right now).

I am glad to see that Portman’s involvement in crafting the role has been emphasized publicly. I think both she and Aronofsky have done a good job of showing this isn’t just the work of a male auteur and an actor for hire – Portman really owns this part and is invested in the story it’s telling. -Jos

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11 Comments

  1. Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    To my chagrin, I have yet to see this film, but what you say about the werewolf mythology really resonates with me. I’m trans as well, have had a personal lifelong fascination with horror films and tropes (like, to the extent that I once spent a thousand bucks on a specially converted DVD player that would allow me to play films in any format from anywhere in the world), and have always held the werewolf aloft as my personal favorite character/story. It’s no mystery why…loss of control over one’s body, a sense of doomed tragedy, torn between two worlds, etc. And like you point out, those are themes most women can relate to in one way or another, and their inclusion in Black Swan only makes me appreciate Aronofsky that much more.

    Gotta get my butt to the local multiplex soon.

  2. Posted January 22, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    I actually found this movie atrocious. I was a huge fan of Afronsky for his abilities to go deeper into film making than most commercial directors, but this just confused and frustrated me. Not only was it offensive portrayal of ballerinas— apparently all of them are either whores, bitchy, catty, or frigid and naive, I’m pretty sure this film doesn’t pass that Bechdel test, I didn’t try it though. As well, the whole lesbian scene was obviously fan service to men– Sorry but it was un-necessary to show that. Nina nor whats her face were a lesbian. It does not express anything other than Afronsky’s fetish to see two “hot” Hollywood actresses eating each other out. As a former film maker, and feminist, this movie was garbage trying to be edgy and dark. There was so many interesting things to play with or show, especially with the actual play and the true darkness in that play, but none of that was touched. My favorite review of this movie stated how one of the producers were excited to make Swan Lake ‘real’, even though it lacks a lot of reality. It left me rolling my eyes. To comment on the “struggles” as a ballerina, I felt that wasn’t even sufficient. Ballerinas work incredibly hard, and have so much pressure, yet this hardly showed any of the things actual ballerinas do. I just remember them stretching or talking trash before the start of a play. Sure, that happens, but that’s not all. If I was a ballerina, I’d feel offended just because of it’s one sided portrayal. I do, though, appreciate Portman’s performance but is it really a good thing to commemorate a woman to starve herself for a role? Or any actor? This is all just my opinion, but I thought it was definitely not that great or had significant feminist themes. When I read how the struggle to be “perfect” was a theme, I honestly didn’t even sense that when I watched it.

    • Posted January 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      I strongly disagree with this analysis, but that’s just one person’s opinion against another.

      I do want to address however your claim that you’re “pretty sure this film doesn’t pass that Bechdel test, I didn’t try it though.”

      nearly every scene in the movie is a conversation between women, and almost none of those conversations are about men. Conversations between Nina and Lilly or Nina and her mother make up the bulk of the film’s dialog.

  3. Posted January 22, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    Your analysis of the film and everyone else’ input was very interesting, and I agree on many aspects of it, since I’ve only seen the film once, I REALLY want to see it again. There have actually been some real life professional ballerina’s who were annoyed with Natalie Portman’s body size in the film, what they claim is that the media tends to portray them as stick thin and bony, when really most ballerina’s are required to have muscle, and most of them do work out to gain muscles and are much more fit instead of looking anorexic.

  4. Posted January 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I thought the movie was very old fashioned. It’s very uncritical of any of the horrible things that happen to Nina…especially Thomas, who qualifies as a “horrible thing” all on his own. Nina is presented as fragile and neurotic compared to the other ballerinas, so there is an inclination for the audience to view her as simply too weak, rather than to view her environment as problematic. When people talk about this movie, it’s as “the movie where the girl goes crazy and is a lesbian”, focusing on Lily as a rival and how that plays into her suicide. You don’t hear so much about her creepy boss shoving his tongue in her mouth or repeatedly pressuring her for sex.

  5. Posted January 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    though i do agree that the use of thomas’s sexual aggressive may have been distasteful, and even triggering to some, i did think that it tied very well into one of the main themes of the movie, which, as i interpreted it, was the lack of control portman had over her own body. the involuntary movement of her reflection in the mirror, her attempts to masturbate being interrupted by her mother, even her self-destructive behaviour. in a way, this movie could be interpreted as an allegory for the struggle of the modern woman to embody both the ‘perfect virgin’ and the desirable sexual, passive girl.
    i also liked in this film, that even though it was intimated that portman was aroused by thomas’s character, she recognized that it was wrong of him to assault her in that way (evidenced by her biting his tongue when he first attempted to kiss her in his office.)

  6. Posted January 22, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    I actually haven’t seen the movie yet and haven’t decided if I shall, so i shan’t read the review. Is it worth seeing?

  7. Posted January 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    This film has helped me in my recovery from major depression, in that it so plainly states what I never could say. I don’t attribute my perfectionism to my ballet studies- I think it’s rooted far deeper than that. But it’s important to remember that the arts attract artists- we tend to be very emotional people, ranging from socially appropriate to downright terrifying in our expression. There was a time in my life that I would have died rather than be imperfect, as ridiculous as that sounds, and at the end of this film I just cried and cried. I could’ve gone that far, I could’ve been that bad, but I caught myself in time. Having pathological perfectionism flung so starkly in my face was exactly what I needed to work through a plateau in therapy. Sure, the film was gratuitous in its portrayal of some things, but since Aronofsky isn’t advertising the film as feminist, I’ll begrudgingly allow some typical Hollywood gratuity.

  8. Posted January 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate the comment that tinnie made. I knew there was a lot in this film that was incredibly cheesy. If I had been in a certain kind of mood, I’m sure I could have laughed through much of it (as a friend did when she posted a very funny parody of the trailer). But instead I let myself enter into the flow of the film, ignoring the cheese, and I was rewarded with an emotional roller coaster ride. I was completely wrung out by the end. The feeling reminded me of the first time I saw The Piano.

    You all made a lot of good points above, but no one mentioned the character Beth (Winona Ryder). Beth is apparently a brilliant dancer, yet she is deemed to be now too old for the role of the Swan Queen. And indeed, since she has been the principal dancer, too old to dance any longer. She is basically tossed on the garbage heap. That was the future of anyone who danced the Swan Queen. So we have a not untypical intersection of misogyny and ageism, as well as the idea that the dancers are expendable in service of art.

    • Posted January 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      That’s such a good point. I hadn’t quite placed it, but I felt some similar feelings about The Piano as well, especially the idea that men have control over women’s bodies. Beth’s deterioration was one of the most terrifying parts of the movie to me.

  9. Posted February 12, 2011 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    RE: the “lesbian” scene.
    Why is the assumption that Nina’s character could not be a ‘real’ lesbian? There was nothing to indicate any attractions to men. We see a same-sex sex encounter and say it is for straight, male viewers; we don’t see any same-sex encounters and we complain about invisibility. If one of the dancers were a butchy woman would we complain about this as stereotypical? I am a lesbian, and just watched the film with my butch girlfriend, who poked the side of my leg and raised her eyebrows, all too happy to see the two girls get it on. . . But yeah, I get the fake-lesbian for straight male viewer thing, but not sure it’s fair to suggest this was presented in a voyeuristic way. We see Lily from Nina’s perspective, not through a peep hole, of a crack in the door, or from the side, the two of them flipping hair and once in a while looking our way etc. In fact, we learn very little about the women characters’ sexual orientations. Even Lily’s is ambiguous, although more heterosexuality is presented for sure.

    One thing about Thomas – clearly this is sexual assault. He’s horrible! then there’s the old man on the subway. But in the theatre, the audience laughed at these scenes. . . sometimes it’s better to watch movies at home. . .

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