Black 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*
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.
His 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
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.
Major 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