A film written, directed, and produced exclusively by men should be the last to offer a fascinating analysis of society’s expectations of women. But somehow Black Swan manages to do just that, and feel more relevant in 2020, with our growing awareness of women’s mistreatment at the hands of powerful men, than it did when it was released ten years ago.
When we are introduced to Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), she’s practically still a child. She still sleeps in her childhood bedroom, seemingly unchanged; the pink butterfly wallpaper, single bed, and stuffed animals are hallmarks of a young girl, not an adult woman. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) cooks her meals, helps her dress and undress, and tucks her into bed at night, all while chastising her if she misbehaves. Even her name is derived from the Spanish ‘niña’, meaning ‘little girl’. The film follows Nina as she figuratively enters a late puberty. Her body begins changing — developing feathers, webbed feet, and peeling skin — leaving her afraid of who (or what) she’s becoming. She experiences a sexual awakening, and begins rebelling against her mother and experimenting with her appearance.
Looking to replace ageing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) sets his sights on a new dancer to play the lead in his production of Swan Lake. Nina perfectly embodies the fragile White Swan but lacks the effortless seduction of the Black Swan. Thomas casts her despite this, though he routinely criticises her, and encourages Nina’s paranoia that new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) wants to steal her role.
The film opens with Nina dreaming of herself in the thrall of Swan Lake’s Rothbart. The wizard who curses Odette into becoming-animal to keep her in his grasp haunts her, with Thomas morphing into him on more than one occasion, such as during the club scene, or once Nina discovers his tryst with Lily. Having gained a reputation for having affairs with his dancers, Thomas is yet another talented artist who needs to torture and punish women as part of his creative process. When explaining his reluctance to cast Nina, he tells her “perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience.” He then forces himself on her, kissing her roughly with no warning. His advice isn’t necessarily bad, but he conflates her “letting go” and liberating herself, which he maintains she needs to do to win the part, with her making herself sexually available to him. Later in his apartment, though he tells her that their conversation will be professional, an opportunity to “talk about the role”, he immediately starts asking her invasive questions about her personal life and sexual history, under the guise of there being no boundaries between them. Insisting that they “need to be able to talk about this”, he asks her whether she’s a virgin, has a boyfriend, and enjoys sex, all while plying her with alcohol. Finally, he assigns her homework: to go home and touch herself. Suffice it to say, this isn’t a conversation anyone should be having with a coworker or boss.
The signs telegraphing his true nature are there, from the swan skeleton on display in his office to her mother’s concern over his reputation. Nina desperately tries to meet his expectations, and if she ever displeases him, he retaliates verbally and sexually. Unimpressed by her performance during rehearsals, he humiliates her and, once he gets her alone, gropes her as he instructs her to open her mouth for him. But perhaps there’s no greater warning than Beth, his “little princess” forced into retirement before her time (Ryder was only 38 while filming). Her years of dedication and romantic entanglement with Thomas aren’t enough to save her, and she lashes out at Nina instead of at the man who used her body and discarded her when he decided she was too old for him to play with anymore. She’s later hit by a car, and while others describe it as an accident, Thomas is sure she did it intentionally, because “everything Beth does comes from within, from some dark impulse”. He praises said dark impulse to Nina, telling her it made her “thrilling” and “perfect” when Nina had previously expressed her desire to be perfect to him. She spends much of the film trying to imitate Beth, stealing her belongings from her dressing room and using them throughout the movie, with the image of her applying Beth’s red lipstick being reminiscent of a child playing with their mothers makeup. But in her imitation she ignores Beth’s cautionary tale: if she trusts Thomas, if she shapes her career and identity to his liking, this is where it will end.
Nina’s home should be a refuge but feels more like a prison. Her mother Erica violates her boundaries constantly, demanding she remove her clothes whenever she feels is necessary and forcibly cutting her nails until it hurts. If she so much as asks for a smaller slice of cake, her mother loses her temper, and Nina begins resorting to barricading doors for privacy in her bedroom or the bathroom. When her mother decides what she eats, how she looks, and who she sees, playing the Swan Queen isn’t just about perfection; it’s the only thing she can control.
Erica was once a ballerina herself but had to quit to raise her daughter. It’s clear that she sees Nina as an extension of herself, and it’s as if she’s constantly oscillating between her desire for Nina to succeed where she couldn’t, and her need to see her fail. Erica has been discarded just like Beth, just like Nina would inevitably be, when her body was deemed no longer useful. But she misdirects her anger and resentment toward her daughter instead of toward a system that treats women like they’re disposable. Despite her actions, it’s not hard to sympathise with her. She wants her daughter to remain pure and innocent because it was her own sexual activity that destroyed her career. It’s implied that Nina has a past with disordered eating and self-harm, and it’s clear that she’s desperately trying to help her, but the way in which she does so only makes Nina descend further into the depths of her mental illness. She has good intentions but ultimately sets Nina up to be taken advantage of by men who don’t, because she’s left her easily influenced and desperate to please, with no knowledge of how adult relationships should function.
Whether at home, work, or travelling between, Nina is constantly surrounded by her reflection. The first thing she sees upon leaving and returning home is the geometrical mirror in the hallway, reflecting shattered pieces of herself back at her. She rehearses before a large mirror, displaying three perfectly segmented Ninas at all times. There is an entire room dedicated to her mother’s obsessive paintings of her face, constantly staring, and later, twisting into grotesque, screaming caricatures. She spends her days surrounded by mirrors at the ballet studio and stares at her reflection in the subway windows. It’s here that she glimpses her doppelgänger for the first time, the back of a woman who appears identical to her, copying her movements exactly. As she returns home she passes another, and this time there’s a stark contrast between Nina’s sleek hair and prim pink coat and her loose haired, darker clad double.
She soon begins associating this shadow with Lily, encouraged by Thomas’ comparisons of Lily to the Black Swan. Where Nina’s name means ‘little girl’, Lily’s means ‘pure’. There’s a notable irony considering her smoking and drug habits, as well as her sexual freedom, but she’s also purely, authentically herself where Nina is not. Everything she does is instinctual, from the way she dances to the way she interacts with others. Lily isn’t technically perfect, but her movements are unrestrained. She breaks rules, flirts effortlessly, and exudes confidence. Through her relationship with Lily, Nina defies her mother, experiments with drugs, and has a true sexual awakening. Lily’s also the only person who calls out Thomas’ behaviour as manipulative and predatory. She tells her that he’ll begin calling her “little princess” soon, warning her that he sees them as practically interchangeable. In a better world, Lily could be her friend. Instead, she’s everything Nina’s been taught to fear.
She often morphs into Nina’s dark twin, taunting her over her insecurities. The two of them seem to embody either side of the Madonna/Whore complex, but like the complex itself, this perception of them is based on a man’s view of how women behave rather than their own actions. Nina steals Beth’s belongings before she even auditions for the role, proving that her good-girl image is at least partially performative, shaped by how she’s been told a woman should behave. Meanwhile, Lily is sexually liberated, but she certainly doesn’t deserve to be condemned for it, and she seems to be a genuinely friendly person. Rather than understand them as whole people, Thomas compartmentalises them into reductive concepts as he pressures Nina to perform his impossible fantasy of a woman sexualised enough that she’s desirable but pure enough that she’s still considered attractive.
Erica attempts to stop Nina from performing on opening night, worried about her mental state. She pushes past her, choosing the role over submission to her mother, defying her once and for all and freeing herself from the claustrophobic prison that is their apartment. Still plagued by hallucinations, she makes a rare stumble and is dropped by another dancer, unable to perfectly embody the white swan like she used to. She frantically switches emotional states, from frightened and fragile to angry and violent. She discovers Lily in her dressing room, planning to replace her as the Black Swan, and attacks her. The two fight in the shards of a broken mirror as Lily morphs into Nina and back until Nina stabs her and hides the body, finally capable of becoming the Black Swan. Completely liberated, she grows wings.
Backstage, Lily congratulates her, and Nina finds in her own abdomen the wound she thought she’d inflicted on Lily. This could be a metaphor for the self-destructive ways in which women are pitted against each other — one that I doubt was intentional considering Aronofsky attempted to do the same with his lead actresses. Having destroyed herself, she sobs as she applies her makeup, and embraces the White Swan’s sorrow and grief. She performs her swan song, and with one last look at her mother, leaps off of the stage onto the mattress below. She’s swarmed with praise, with Thomas calling her his “little princess”. They notice the blood, and begin to panic, but rather than explain herself, Nina says “I was perfect”. Though her fate is unclear, Nina is dead.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the film is that Nina isn’t allowed to simply exist, without external pressures dictating how she’s supposed to behave. She isn’t allowed to form her own identity, only swaps out the desires of one figure in her life for another’s. Her idea of perfection has been shaped by Thomas, and her accomplishment is ultimately in meeting his expectations rather than her own. She dies the moment it’s confirmed that he doesn’t care about her as an individual at all, and while she’s punished for her desperation, he profits off of her hard work without suffering any consequences. Nina’s demise is the result of her attempt to live up to the contradictory expectations of womanhood placed on her, but when they permeate every aspect of her life, what other choice does she have? Black Swan is far from a feminist masterpiece, but it’s a fascinating film to revisit and did far more than was expected of the average film at the time of its release. Let’s hope that it helped lay the groundwork for better ones moving forward.
by Kia Browning
Kia (she/her) is a student from South Wales. She has a complicated relationship with Disney, and will take any opportunity to talk about the Mamma Mia franchise. Her current favourite films include The Last Jedi, Moulin Rouge, Clueless, and Heathers. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism
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