Black Swan

Black Swan was one of those films I didn’t really want to see, but felt obligated to because of the reception its getting. But as someone who isn’t a horror fan, is/was a dancer and has sex with women, it seemed like a recipe for stuff I don’t care about getting it wrong.

Having seen it today, I’m still pretty ambivalent about it — in fact, I am grateful for how little it spoke to me personally — but I can say this: it didn’t get it wrong. At all.

The necessary full disclosure before I continue this is as follows: I was never a ballet dancer. I was never training to be a ballet dancer, although I did study ballet and do pointe work. My main focus was modern dance, particularly Martha Graham technique, and I was one of those people whose technique and athleticism were not perfect, but oh, I could make you watch me.

Black Swan is a horror film in the tradition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It’s about what’s real, external, supernatural horror, and what is a product of the mind. It’s a style of narrative that I understand both the appeal and horror of, but that has little interest for me. Everything I do is about the fine, fine line between fiction and non-fiction and to me what is interesting about liminal spaces isn’t confusion but overlap.

However, Black Swan is also a narrative about ambition, fear, mentorship, the rivalries of women, and what it means to be a dancer, a ballet dancer. And on those points, it nails the story its striving to tell.

The super, super weird thing about being a dancer is that you spend every, single second of the day making your body capable of extraordinary acts of beauty. It becomes a machine in serve to your art. And yet, it is never, ever yours. It is the dance’s, the teacher’s, the choreographer’s, the company’s, the director’s, and that of every single person who pushes you to do what it is a single hair from impossible.

Black Swan gets to that lack of self-ownership fast, and it’s not pleasant to watch. Because Black Swan isn’t about the beauty of submission or the (arguably) necessary brutalization of self in pursuit of high artistic success. It’s about abuse, debasement and the desire to disappear, not just into the work, but from the world. If you give up everything for the work, do you even exist without it?

The film is smart, stunningly so. As Nina seems to be slowly overtaken by the black swan, her skin ripples with goosebumps eager, it seems, to disgorge feathers. If you’ve ever been around a dancer as thin and spare as a ballerina must be, you know their flesh prickles like this easily at the cold — it’s damn hard to stay warm with virtually no body fat. The damage to legs, to feet; the issues of perfection versus desire; the self-abuse in the form of substances, sex, self-injury, and starvation; the acceptance of cycles of abuse, claiming, and disregard from others — if you’ve ever danced the way I danced, you’ve seen that stuff if you haven’t been involved in it yourself.

But here’s the thing — I don’t want to say that every dancer goes through this. I really, really don’t. And perhaps that’s why I’m so surprised that this film is such a success: why aren’t people angrier about this picture? Not of dancers, but of women? Can’t we have powerful female sexuality without it being the end of the world? Or mentors who use instead of elevate? Or women who are not starving, metaphorically or literally for love? Isn’t there any story of female ambition that isn’t about brutal, destructive, grade-school style rivalry? I get that good stories are all about anguish and extremes, but until stories about ambitious women have a narrative other than hate and self-hate, ambitious women are going to have to keep paying prices above and beyond the already terrible prices that the singular, monomaniacal focus that certain types of achievement nearly always require.

I liked this movie well enough. It showed and said true things and was well made. But one of those things is that achievement tends to cost women double. For me, that’s hard to watch.

But perhaps hardest for me to watch was the moment Nina locked herself in the bathroom to call her mother to tell her she’d gotten the part, and she’s whispering and sobbing because everything is different now. As someone who is still a performer and wants and wants and wants, I’ve pre-lived my own such moments in my head a million times. It was dead on. And even having gotten to the end of the film and being damn familiar with its truths, I’m writing this still wanting, still knowing, exactly what I’ll sound like the next time I get chosen.

I do a lot of stuff, in part, because “all I’ve ever wanted” is an idea that terrifies me, even if it’s an emotion I at least often think I feel. If it doesn’t already terrify you, Black Swan will probably fix that.

8 thoughts on “Black Swan”

  1. I am similarly ambivalent about Black Swan for pretty much the same reasons. I mean, the film was well done, certainly. But even though there was critique of the ballet world/similar ideas of beauty and perfection (in that it appears so horrible), I feel that their ultimate conclusion was that her pain and suffering /was/ actually the only way to achieve real beauty/perfection. And I simply don’t believe that. Granted, I’m a modern dancer with the philosophy that dance is personal and meaningful and “perfection,” if it exists, can only come through owning your body and letting it help you in your dancing, as opposed to fighting it. I’m interested in what ballet dancers have to say about the movie, though.

  2. Maybe we have to have movies like this before we can have the movies where female sexuality and desire and love can be powerful things, but not ultimately destructive things? I mean, obviously I think the film is speaking on multiple levels – the immediate level of the ballet dancers’ world, and then also on a larger level of the world we women all have to try and live in without coming to despise ourselves whenever we look in the mirror. And right now, it would be hard to deny that the vividly self-hating, self-starving, self-less (as opposed to selfless) world has twisted how we see ourselves.

    I haven’t gone to see Black Swan yet… because I know it’s going to trigger some things for me, and I’m just not ready to deal with that yet, not right now when I’m looking in the mirror lately and all I see is ugly.

  3. Thank you. Great, from-the-heart essay that helps broaden my perspective. I’m not a woman, but I’m no man either. I’m not a dancer, but I am a performing artist. I’m looking for the points of overlap because I identified so strongly with Nina, the archetypal tragic heroine. For me, her story was a call to arms. I don’t want to kill myself, but a lot of the time, I still want to be dead, gone, invisible, empty, or disappeared. I’ve used every coping mechanism Nina uses in the film to try to manage my obsession with perfection. So as a piece of art, the film helped me see the destructive internalized misogynist romance I’ve bought in to.

    You write, “Can’t we have powerful female sexuality without it being the end of the world?” Not in mainstream we can’t. It’s a glass-ceiling censorship, isn’t it? As a woman (or more broadly, as a not-man), you can get as physically beautiful and as sexually powerful as you want to get, but only by being evil (Eve and the apple). And we have yet to see a mainstream role model of a not-man who gets enough strength from their journey toward perfection in beauty and/or sexiness to find out how much of that stuff is simply enough for them. A story about someone who’s not a man finding enough beauty and sexiness within themselves… that would be a terrific breath-through in this (well-named) sub-genre of horror films. Thanks again for your helpful perspective. K

    1. And thanks for your response, as you got to a lot of stuff I didn’t have the time or structure to get to in my own comments. I think your comments illuminated for me some of the distance I felt from the film, which I tended to assume was because I wasn’t a ballet dancer, but may be about gender as much as anything.

      While Martha Graham technique, which is where I come from as a dancer, is highly gendered, certainly being someone who felt genderqueer before I had the word for it was more comfortable in the land of her mythic sex and death narratives, than the world of ballet which still enraptures me in a specific, fetishistic way (ah, pointe shoes), eventhough I hated doing ballet — not because it was hard or formal, but because I simply didn’t fit.

      Alas, while Graham had at least nominally more room for my gender; I joked, even at 11, that her work was about “sex and death.” Among other things, I think it’s an answer to that practice of ballet. It says, “I will not disappear, and I will suffer proudly for it.”

      Graham dancing gave me my voice and my body and arguably my life. But I’m still looking for the answer — on screen, on the floor, walking around the world; I don’t really care which — that says there can be female heroism, success or sexuality not only without demonization, but without private martyrdom.

  4. Just wanted you to know that, because of this post, I went and saw Black Swan at a matinee showing last Saturday. I think I got a much better appreciation of it having read your impressions first. So thanks for writing them up.

    1. Oh cool! Can I ask how this film reads to you as a man? Most reviews I’ve seen have been from women talking about the experience of being female or from dancers talking about the experience of being a dancer. How does it read to someone for whom the film isn’t arguably about?

      1. Wow, I never got a notification of your question. I just came back here because there was a new comment, and happened to see this.

        So, how did Black Swan seem to me? Mostly a descent into madness. I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out if what I was seeing was real or imaginary, or some combination of the two. If you hadn’t told me that it was a pretty accurate depiction of dance companies I’d have thought they were overdoing it for dramatic effect, but given your opinion I accepted the presentation as accurate.

        I thought Natalie Portman was really, really good. I don’t remember the name of the actress who played the new dancer from San Francisco, but I thought she deserved an award for her role as a supporting actress. Her role was kind of obvious, but she played it superbly, and made it believable.

        Along the way I had a lot of thoughts about women in the arts, especially at the very competitive level. My mom and her 1st cousin in Irish step dance, my daughters in their ballet classes when they were children, my granddaughter, my goddaughter, all into dance because they love to dance and trying to figure out how far they want to take it as a competitive thing. Likewise with instrumental music, and the members of my family who play in bands and orchestras (myself included.)

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