Filed under: Subjectivities | Tags: Black Swan, madness, stereotypes, women
Black Swan is on the precipice of yet more accolades at this years Oscar ceremony. It is a film that has been endowed with overwhelming praise and adulation. However I would like to give voice to the substantial criticisms of Black Swan. In particular, it is the representation of women that has worryingly passed without comment and which I would like to highlight. I feel deeply concerned at the lack of acknowledgment of the film’s irresponsible and offensive representation of the four classic female stereotypes: the virgin, the whore, the mother and the mad woman.
So first any good points? The costumes and make-up were very pretty. The cinematography had promise. The atmosphere of the film was certainly suffocating and full of the intended tension. Yet this same atmosphere was sustained for the whole film: its ubiquity becoming boring quite rapidly. Moreover it seemed to heighten the banality of already banal scenes where the characters exchanged mundane, listless dialogue. The thin plot that one could distinguish was predictable and boring. To create the required suspense every tired old technique of naff horror movies was employed: dead looking people appeared in a flash, lights turned off for no reason, pictures on a wall started talking. The desire to produce an excess of madness on the contrary came across as emotionless, somehow greatly lacking in humanity.
So no, not many good points.
The film revolves around the relationship between the three female characters, Nina, Nina’s mother, and Lily, who become Nina’s imaginary rival and imaginary lover. The film also features a fourth female character, an “over the hill” former prima ballerina (played by Winona Ryder) who is forced to resign from the company and subsequently gets run over and ends up with some hideous looking stitches and metal bars in her legs. She also appears (appears because it is unclear whether this is Nina’s twisted imaginary again or not) to stab herself in her face with a nail file while screaming “I’m nothing!” over and over for no apparent cause.
The film is dominated by female characters yet it is important to note the prominent male figure, played by Vincent Cassel. Cassel’s character, Thomas (pronounced in faux french accent) similarly to the female characters, is a one-dimensional caricature. Cassel’s obvious abilities are greatly under used as he parades around as the overly ‘french’ ballet teacher talking crudely about sex and fucking every girl that makes it to the top of company; and consequently fucking them over.
Natalie Portman’s Nina is an obsessively controlled personality that strives only to be perfect. Her dilemma occurs as she cannot ‘let go’ in order to dance the seductive and entrancing Black Swan. Nina is depicted as innocent, but comes across as an ignorant and childish girl, her face permanently transfixed in a look of pathetic vulnerability. It is hard to feel empathy toward Nina’s struggle as she does little to help herself, whimpering at every criticism and falling for Thomas’s every grope.
Nina ‘becomes’ the mad woman yet there is no apparent spiral into madness. Nina is introduced from the beginning of the film as unstable and fragile, staring at herself eerily in the reflection of the underground train.There is no subtly or believability to her self destruction. Her desire to be perfect is an identifiable struggle as is the pressure of striving for high achievements. But the film does not make it clear where these pressures are coming from. Instead they are blamed on Nina herself or, as Nina does, the blame falls on her mother.
Nina’s rage at her mother appears completely unwarranted as Nina’s mother is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the film. She continually supports her daughter, who only pushes her away with contempt and the fear of ever becoming her mother. The father is noticably and unexplainably absent, as are any other family members. The emphasis is thus placed on Nina and her mother’s fraught relationship. Nina’s contempt for her mother comes across as immature and the superficial nature of her character is markedly evident as she huffs that she made it to Black Swan and her mother was only ever a chorus member. It spouts the same well worn mother-daughter competition, where the daughter strives to achieve more than her pitiful mother, and the mother mourns the life she could have had if she hadn’t become a single mother.
In the Black Swan the route to emancipation for Nina is through exploring her sexuality, or being told to go home and touch herself. Obviously this is a new concept to Nina because, as we all know, all hard-working, focussed women are frigid and embarassed about sex. Yet this emancipation turns out to involve soft porn lesbian fantasies, getting drunk and drugged and casual encounters in a grimy club toilet. Nina’s virginal ignorance is contrasted rather simplistically with Lily who exudes her free sexuality by looking like a porn star, eating hamburgers, taking recreational drugs and wearing her hair open. Nina is encouraged to be more like Lily to overcome her passivity by being actively ‘sexual’. Nina’s passivity is exemplified in a disturbing scene where Nina alone in a train carriage is faced with an old man licking his lips at her. Nina stares blankly as the man begins touching his penis and masturbating.
It is hard to know how to respond to this scene. On the one hand we see another example of the men in the film treating her as a sexual object, despite being declared as unfuckable earlier in the film. This scene is perhaps therefore a positive development as we see Nina has now transitioned from simply beautiful and talented to a wank object. The most disconcerting aspect of this scene however is Nina’s lack of reaction to the old man’s conduct. The scene passes without comment which only seems to reinforce its normality.
As Nina taps into her Black Swan sprouting feathers and getting bent legs, she throws her toys into the bin and shouts at her mother and claims she is moving out. This it would seem is Nina’s emancipation, the stuffing of teddies into the trash a symbol of her transition from child to adult. A passing also signaled by her lesbian (fantasy) encounter, being groped by a pervy teacher and seeing dead people in the dark.
In her empowered state Nina becomes a demonic and fearful character, as if possessed. Yet her empowerment is impossible for her to control and the only means to free herself is to kill herself.
The film’s finale only serves to reiterate and reinforce the binaries that have plagued women for centuries.
A woman can either be virginal, whorish, or a daughter but she cannot attempt to be all three. If she does she will only become mad and then kill herself. A woman cannot be ambitious without being unstable, insecure and jealous; a woman cannot be sexual without being a whore; a woman cannot be single without being frigid.
The success and celebration of this film is an offence and insult to the struggle women have endured to deconstruct the binaries that have kept them within a double-bind. The women depicted are truly one-dimensional; Nina the quintessential virgin, Lily the empowered ‘new feminist’ whore; and Nina’s mother, embodying the limitations women faced in a past generation.
The film’s narrative is predicated on a woman’s self-hated and distrust of other women. The derogatory behaviour of men is accepted passively as the women battle against one another weakening themselves. Indeed in her newly empowered state Nina passionately kisses Thomas, yet disowns her mother and brutally ‘kills’ her female rival.
When the ambitions of a woman extend from one dimension to another madness is the result. But even this madness is one-dimensional. This madness in its exaggeration is presented as pure hysteria, a psychological pathology instead of a radical response, a desire to attack the bounds of the double-bind. This hysteria meets its end in the death of woman, who rather conveniently impales herself at the height of her achievement showing forcefully once again, women can never have it all.
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