In the current push for diverse cinema, the film industry faces increasing pressure to showcase more female characters, especially in the form of female protagonists. When the film in question has a female lead, these expectations are met with the near-universal desire to portray women in a manner that is both true to the socio-economic climate and in a positive representation that is designed to encourage viewers rather than embarrass. The “ambitious” woman is not niche in any sense – the very idea of a protagonist requires ambition in some sense. The most popular films of recent years, from Wonder Woman to Star Wars have shown women with strong ambitions. However, there are three films I believe have a very interesting, well-crafted portrayal of driven women – Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Nicolas Wilding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya – all sharing some very interesting motifs.
It’s All Relative: The Influence of Familial Figures
As the female lead sets a goal in mind – whether it is success in figure skating, ballet, or modelling – the film draws particular attention towards the parent or guardian that influences their decisions and behaviour. Perhaps the most notable example is Tonya’s mother LaVona in I, Tonya. LaVona is cruel, abusive, and emotionally distant, underpinning this behaviour with a firm belief that being a warm and loving mother will allow her daughter to settle for mediocrity. Nina’s mother in Black Swan, a former ballerina who in turn failed to achieve greatness of her own, contrasts from LaVona in her coddling, over-protective nature, treating her daughter as if she were a young child. Jesse, the protagonist of The Neon Demon, has no such familial link to guide her, and thus finds herself vulnerable to parental figures, such as Ruby, a makeup artist who takes an interest in her, and Hank, the manager of the motel she’s staying at. Both Ruby and Hank have ulterior motives, aspiring to take Jesse’s beauty for their own use, both sexually and commercially within the modelling industry.
These figures, unique in their personalities and ideologies, act as the inciting incident that sets the protagonist in a certain direction towards their artistic desires. In all these examples, these parental figures create some form of fear within the protagonist. This can include the fear of failure and mediocrity in the case of Nina, or the fear of punishment that awaits Jesse or Tonya from the stronger, power-possessing mentor. This fear itself molds the protagonist’s approach towards upcoming challenges in the film. These challenges in turn have their own gendered deviations – including harassment, abuse, and discrimination – displayed as the films develop.
Portrayals of Sexual and Domestic Abuse
As the protagonist achieves some initial success, they become increasingly obsessive and aggressive in pursuit of their ultimate goal. For our three protagonists, this success leads to a “descent into madness” which will both help and hinder their ambitions. In the midst of this, a power-wielding figure will provide something the protagonist is interested in – for Nina, the ballet’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy, ultimately casts the role of the black swan. Tonya is sexually and romantically attracted to Jeff and provides support in a way her mother never has. Ruby supports and praises Jesse in her bid to become a famous model while Hank provides somewhere for her to stay. However, what initially appears to be an almost mentor-like relationship soon becomes abusive and traumatic for the female lead. Leroy, Ruby and Hank pressure the protagonist into sexual activity in exchange for support and further success while Jeff physically assaults Tonya throughout their relationship.
All these portrayals of abuse are done in a highly sympathetic manner, highlighting the significance of the relationship to the lead’s personal ambitions and the power the abuser holds over them. This idea is further explored by the difficulty of escaping these relationships. Nina cannot play the lead role without Leroy’s approval, as the highly acclaimed artistic director of the ballet company. Beth, an ageing prima ballerina who does not get on well with Leroy, appears to Nina to have attempted suicide after announcing her retirement. Without the support of their abusers, Tonya and Jesse are both vulnerable to the isolation and disproval in their respective industries. Jeff claims he can take out Tonya’s biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, while acting as a supportive alternate mentor rather than Tonya’s estranged mother. Ruby, a makeup artist, similarly claims her own connections within the industry can help eliminate the cutthroat modelling rivalries. In order to gain further success and achieve their dreams, the films portray obedience to the abuser as the only option, sacrificing their own values and agency. In this idea comes the idea of sacrificing one’s old self. Perhaps this is best summarised when Leroy tells Nina that if she wants success, “the only person standing in your way is you”.
The Inevitable Rise and Fall
The manner in which the women sacrifice themselves for this promise of prosperity is displayed on screen as bloody, violent deaths of “the self”. In two of the three examples, Black Swan and The Neon Demon, the film concludes after the death of the protagonist. Both Nina and Jesse end up succumbing to their descent into madness. What actually kills them is an external factor representing what they succumbed to. Jesse is murdered and eaten by Ruby and her accomplices who plotted her demise, while Nina is stabbed by the shard of glass she believes she killed her competitor Lily with. While Tonya Harding remains alive and well, there is a portrayal of death – the death of her skating career, her public image, and her previous relationships in the wake of the Nancy Kerrigan scandal. In all three of these films, this idea is presented with the protagonist looking at her own reflection in a mirror shortly before her demise. The woman appears to look at her own transformation (for example, Nina and Tonya look at their own dramatic makeup). The reflection seems to be disorienting and a far cry from the appearance of the lead during their initial successes earlier in the film. This acts as a conversation with themselves – and towards the third act, acts as an agreement with oneself to continue along their path. Whether they have a choice or not in the matter is not the question, but acts as the moment where the protagonist seals their fate.
In summary, we as the audience ask what these films are trying to tell us, especially in the context of oppressive environments for women. These films highly contrast in tone (Black Swan is far more similar to Whiplash, and I, Tonya is frequently compared with Goodfellas rather than the former or The Neon Demon), meaning they are not necessarily influenced or conceived by the filmmakers in the same way. However, the way these films display women who strive to reach the highest level of their male-dominated (even if most of the industry are women), succumb to the evils of the sexist environment, sacrificing oneself – physically or spiritually – in the process. What is objectively true about these movies is the deliberate presentation of a system so horrific that the audience hopes it never happens, or if it has, never again. Ultimately, these films act as a horror story of women immersed into a world against them. Their ambitions display an attempt – and failure – of trying to match the powers held by their male counterparts. Arguably, these portrayals, often exaggerated or reshaped for creative license, act as a cautionary tale for the audience about the dangers of toxic masculinity.
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany Gemmell is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter @chandIermonica.
Categories: Feminist Criticism