My Lasting Problem with The Black Swan

When I first saw Black Swan, I loved it. I thought it was a wonderful movie, and to an extent that first reaction still stands. But the further away I get from it, the more I doubt this original opinion.

Darren Aronofsky is a talented and accomplished director. The film is well-constructed and visually spectacular, and its tight pacing is a testament to its (male) writers, Mark Heyman, Andreas Heinz and John J. McLaughlin. But, and this is a big BUT: I think it would have been a better film, at the very least a more nuanced film, with a stronger female voice.

Now I am not one to argue that writers and directors cannot accurately portray the opposite sex. I think this is patently untrue. But I think this is where the element of nuance comes in to play. I think there are parts of a woman’s life that the average male screenwriter has not even begun to consider. This became apparent to me the more I thought about Black Swan.

So much of the film, and the discussion surrounding it, focuses on the horrors within Nina. No one seems to mention the external horrors. Nina is pressured to be bone-thin. Nina has an abusive mother. Nina is sexually harassed by her boss. Nina is alienated by her fellow dancers. Yet these elements merit only a passing glance, in favour of an extended rumination on totally hot lesbian sex, man. Never was the marginalization of the horrors of Nina’s everyday experience more evident than in a brief scene where she rides the subway home, alone. Therein, she sits across from an old man who masturbates at her while licking his lips and making hauntingly disgusting, Hannibal Lector-esque sucking noises.

When this scene played out on the downtown Toronto screen I was watching, several male voices openly laughed from the darkness. Laughed. At a scene which clearly showed the everyday horrors experienced not only by Nina, but by many – if not most, at one point or another – of the women in the same audience. I was shocked. The thing is, I don’t think that the people laughing out of malicious intent. I think, instead, it seems so foreign to them that it becomes ridiculous. The fact that this happens all the time to women around the world just does. not. compute. So they think it’s a funny aside, something that would not or could not happen outside the diegetic world of Black Swan.

And yes, this criticism falls far more on the film’s spectators, rather than its authors. But while the laughs themselves rang out, the film moved along, never mentioning nor addressing this experience. And while the film takes seriously the abuse Nina experiences – her mother and Thomas certainly aren’t played for laughs – the fact that it affects her in the way it does is positioned as a character flaw. She is weak, driven to madness because she cannot control herself. The film never undertakes an examination of how frighteningly understandable it is that she should break under the pressure of her life. In fact, the entire character of Lily seems to exist as a physical embodiment of this. Look at Lily: she’s well-adjusted and sane. She eats cheeseburgers! She is sexy! She has control over her life! All in stark contrast to Nina.

Instead of an examination of the external pressures of Nina’s life, we have more reflections of Nina in a mirror. More ruminations of Nina’s tortured mind – naked in a bathtub, of course. The film focuses on the horrors inside her psyche, never allowing the thought that they could be caused by the horrors foisted upon her by her everyday experiences as a woman.

Because, frankly, that wouldn’t look as sexy in a leotard.

Editor’s note: filmschooled generously shared this piece from her blog, you can find this article in its original context here.

19 thoughts on “My Lasting Problem with The Black Swan”

  1. A lot of people chuckled in my theater, too, but I think it might not been malicious at all. I think the chuckles were more out of discomfort than anything else, because after the chuckling I heard a lot of “Eeeeeew”s.

    I might be too optimistic, though.

  2. I haven’t seen it yet–it’s not a priority for me–but the idea of nuance definitely struck me, and seemed to be at the heart of the review in the New Yorker, that it became a “lurid farrago,” I believe was the phrase. I’ve been sort of turned off by some critics and viewers who seem to see the white swan/black swan dichotomy as some kind of new insight (it’s not even a terribly original metaphor), while at the same time treating it, as you say, like a problem with Nina and not a repeated social and cultural trope about women, women artists, women dancers, women with mental illness, good girls and bad girls and hedonists and prudes, etc.

  3. For whatever reason, I had very little desire to see Black Swan — to the point that I nearly didn’t read this article. You know what? I do want to see it now after reading the article and the ensuing conversations (because they aren’t ‘comments’ at this calibre).

  4. I really like your review, and I agree that this movie has a very male-heavy take on a young woman’s inner turmoil. It felt as if the writers and director were mocking her and inviting us to laugh at her. So much of the gore was unnecessary. The creepiest part for me was when her reflection turned to her. And even though I like Natalie Portman, I was bored by her performance which consisted of two facial expressions: scrunching her brow or hanging her mouth open. The little girl voice she used was creepy and to good effect though.

    For a great movie about a man woman going madder, see Ingmar Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly.”

  5. I actually didn’t spend that much time analyzing the film’s content. I was distracted because as a dancer, I was just generally appalled at Ms. Portman’s port de bras and unpointed feet. Yes, yes, I know she’s an actress and not a dancer, but then if she trained that damn hard, she didn’t look that good. Watch Center Stage if you want good actor/dancers.

    Furthermore, I am tired of stories about women coming unhinged/being unhinged. You know what IS difficult? Being a ballerina and maintaining your sanity. I know acting ‘cray-cray’ is like a worm on a hook for Hollywood, for actresses, for the public, even, because you can see a woman who is beautiful and seemingly perfect come apart, but I’m bored.

    Give me something else to gnaw on…I will always feel like the Black Swan is the antithesis of a feminist tale because it does no justice to women as a whole. It makes them out to be either shrill, bitter or flat-out bonkers.

    Yippee! Ugh.

    1. You know what triggered a debate between the husband and I? The fact that the masturbation scene was most decidedly filmed on a 2 (or a 4, 5 or 6) and not a 1 as it should have been, as only 1 trains would logically go from 66th to 103rd. I think they might have been able to take advantage of the time when the 2 actually did run on the 1 line to 137th due to construction going on when it likely was filming, but they likely just went with the 2 because of the better lighting.

      The way I saw her character was that it was almost like Natalie Portman was messing with us; something that’s always bugged me about her in interviews is that the writer waxes poetic about how “delicate” and “fragile” she is, and during most of the movie she is that to an extreme. Maybe this was her shedding those descriptors that have so long been attached to her and in taking on the Black Swan character she has finally matured?

      Maybe that’s just optimism. But it still doesn’t account for the lesbian sex scene–though given what the end of Requiem for a Dream entails, it was down right wholesome in comparison.

      1. Well for the non-dancing great majority out there I have to say this is kinda unfair. I certainly did not see anything wrong and I also don´t think it was that important. The dancing was beautiful (in my eyes) and all but it honestly was not what I enjoyed about BS. I am a rock climber and mountaineer and still enjoyed Touching The Void, even with all the “flaws”. On the other hand, I get your point… mistakes in the area you have knowledge in just jump in your face.

    2. I don’t think those were her feet, I read in this month’s Glamour that all the feet and full-body shots were her body double (a soloist with NYCB I think). Still though, a year of ballet training isn’t much when you consider that most girls do like 10 years before they ever go en pointe.

      Also I thought the dancer trying to act in Center Stage was pretty bad, I don’t think she could have pulled off a believable descent into madness.

  6. I find the movie hard to analyze on this level because I don’t think we can trust anything we see on screen. Nina isn’t going crazy during the events of the movie — she’s already unhinged when we first meet her. Think about the framing of the opening scene, post dream sequence — when she starts talking, she seems to be addressing no one. The apartment feels very barren and empty. And then we suddenly see the mother. I think the framing of this is deliberate — I don’t think the mother exists outside of Nina’s head. She seeing dopplegangers before she even gets cast as the Swan; this is not a reliable narrator.

    Anyway, that aside, I feel like I’m approaching this from a different fan angle. The movie owes a huge nod to the Italian gallos, in tone and visual style. So the presentation of events feels authentic within that genre. It’s true to the style — and the voice is true to the tone. I don’t think the film would have gained anything by a strong female voice — it would be a very different kind of movie, not one about fragility and perfectionism.

    That said, I can’t much defend the lesbian scene. I understand it within the story arc, but the actors have completely admitted it was a gratuitous scene meant to draw men in to see it. So I won’t mount a spirited defense.

    1. I agree that perhaps Nina isn’t the most reliable narrator. I certainly don’t think the exploration of her “unhinged-ness” (for lack of a better word!) is a fault; it is fascinating. Feminine interiority has a long history in cinema (Ekstase, from 1933, jumps to mind). Similarly, I totally agree that the films tone and style follow this: I think it can be seen as an alteration between dream and nightmare, mirroring the general white swan / black swan dichotomy.
      I likely wouldn’t have much of a problem at all with the film if it weren’t for the inclusion of Lily. Obviously she is necessary as a conflict to Nina, but the degree to which she functions to almost victim-shame Nina (maybe that’s going too far, but I’m kind of just riffing here) drove me crazy. I think the best instance of it is when she orders a cheeseburger at the restaurant. Particularly in light of all the glowing praise for Natalie Portman’s and Mila Kunis’s weight loss, it struck me as obliviously damaging. Nina clearly exhibits disordered eating, and showing Lily chowing down almost struck me as saying: ‘look how much more together she is – she can do it, why can’t you.’
      Ultimately, it was the degree to which Nina is shown to be a victim is at the root of my issues with the film. I think the movie is fascinating and beautiful, and I think Natalie Portman was incredible within it. I just think that the film’s approach to her character was slightly flawed.

      1. I totally get where you’re coming from. I guess what I was getting at with the comment about Nina as an unreliable narrator is that within the context of the story, does Lily really order a burger? Or is Nina internally placing emphasis on Lily ordering a burger? Is Nina a victim, or is she victimizing herself, romanticizing her struggle as the virtuous, hardworking, sacrificing dancer? Are these details that are being pointed out outside the narrative or inside Nina’s head?

        I’m totally over thinking this, yes, and outside the world of the film, someone made the decision that we needed to have a sexually liberated, meat eating hedonist as the foil. So we’re being manipulated with this message on multiple levels. And any cheap writer can say ‘but it was important to the story!’ when criticisms of this nature arise.

        I have been trying to figure out a way to have told the story with your criticisms in mind and I’m not sure I can craft a narrative that’s satisfying, but it’s probably because I can’t get outside of Portman’s characterization of Nina. It’s hard, you know, when a competent director/storyteller plays with tropes that are so badly done in other movies — is he taking the easy way out (lesbian sex scene, masturbating subway dude) or is he doing a good job with what can be manipulative material?

        1. This is a really interesting point, especially when it comes to Lily. For me, the character that I found wanting in terms of nuance was Lily, not Nina. Lily was so nonchalant and easygoing about everything that I couldn’t think of her as a real person — she was very two-dimensional to me, whereas Nina was much more real for cracking under the immense pressure.

          So, when I think about Lily as enhanced (if you will) by Nina’s own struggles, I can accept her as the two-dimensional foil that she was.

          And now I want to see Black Swan again.

  7. I totally agree with your analysis here. I was really troubled that Nina was consistently victimized by those around her. I think that the clear message of the film is that she descends into madness as a result of her own insecurities and instability, but the external influences in which she is abused or harassed aren’t shown as main instigators of her state of mind.

  8. I’m often really surprised by what movie audiences laugh at. I saw Precious in a packed theater, and a lot of people roared with laughter at the scene where her mother throws something at her and then chases her up the stairs. I know that we sometimes laugh because we’re uncomfortable or feel helpless, but people were laughing at what I saw as a very tense scene like they would at a slapstick comedy and I was really perplexed.

    1. Yeah, I’ve wondered about the same thing. I saw Brokeback Mountain in a full theater, and there was a lot of laughter when Michelle Williams’ character saw her husband cheating on her and realized he was gay. Like you said, I understand laughing because of discomfort, but the amount of laughter surprised me.

  9. This post articulated what I was struggling with about this film. Especially the man masturbating on the subway. I had the same experience in the theater when I saw it this weekend. I could hear men chuckling in the audience, and the women making disgusted sounds.

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