Thursday, January 6, 2011


To some, Black Swan is a horrifying and fascinating portrait of obsession and madness. To me, it evokes the sinking suspicion it might be a subversive condemnation of female empowerment and masturbation.

I can hear the arguments now: "Nina is encouraged to be more empowered, to take control of her life, and yes, to masturbate, so as to unleash her passionate side. It's her cloistered and rigid life up until the start of the film that has made her so closed off and tightly wound. She needs to let go, and the film explores that need."

My response: "Not really."


In the film, Nina (Natalie Portman) is a delicate, innocent, soft-spoken, almost childlike ballerina who desperately wants the principal role in the Company's new production of "Swan Lake". At her audition, however, while the director exalts her portrayal of the fragile and sweet White Swan, he pushes her to unleash sexuality and aggressiveness for the role of the White Swan's evil twin, the Black Swan. It is this struggle for duality that becomes the focus of the movie and, ultimately, Nina's undoing. In a nutshell, Nina can't be a whole woman -- one with layers and complexity and dualities and substance -- without going completely mad. This is literally the arc of the film. It's a superficial interpretation, sure, but it goes deeper than that.

Throughout the film, every step Nina takes in a self-possessed, independent direction leads her further and further into anxiety and insanity. She starts by stealing the items of the former principal ballerina (Winona Ryder) -- a girl who, herself, has devolved into a self-loathing, self-destructive shell of a woman -- and travels down a road of violence, hysteria and self-mutilation. The line between reality and madness is frequently obscured in this psychological horror, but to great effect, resulting in Nina's quest to become a fully realized woman of light and shade literally destroying her.

But, wait, didn't I say something about masturbation?

Throughout the film, Nina's director pushes and chides her (usually in very sexual harass-y ways) to access and exhibit her sexuality, but it's made very clear that Nina is not comfortable with this side of herself. She doesn't know how to be sexy, she's not able to discuss sex, and she does not seem to have had anything more than a very limited sexual history. Perfect as the White Swan, incompetent as the Black Swan. Her brief forays into seduction with her director are stilted, awkward, and end in unfulfillment and humiliation. Her one sexual encounter with another person was apparently all in her mind, the realization of which also leads to mockery and humiliation. At every turn, Nina's attempts to be more womanly and whole are discouraged. She is met with negative reinforcement time and again, but never so much as when she attempts to bring herself to orgasm.

Nina makes several attempts to masturbate in the film, not so much of her own accord but as an assignment by her director -- an opportunity to please him and to be the embodiment of the Black Swan as perfectly as she embodies the white one. These attempts, however, are always interrupted -- negatively reinforced -- by Nina's visions of self-mutilation and blood. The one time she started masturbating out of her own desire, she was horrified to look over and see her mother sleeping in a nearby chair. Once again, even though she wasn't seen, Nina is shamed and humiliated away from expressing her sexuality.

So what's the answer? Is Black Swan an indictment of perfection, and the fruitless pursuit thereof? Is it a portrait of the destructiveness of obsession? Is it a call for women to embrace the sexual, animalistic desires within ourselves? Or is it a public censure of such practices? Does it say that assertiveness and aggressive sexuality is something to avoid? That masturbation is something evil, something humiliating, something to be ashamed of? What makes it great art, of course, is that it's open to various interpretations, but don't overlook the darker messages within. On many levels, Black Swan undermines the ideals of female empowerment and self-satisfaction.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent writing, Jessica. Glad I read it, it sounds like a movie I do NOT need to see.