The Ugly Duckling: Psychological Disorders in Black Swan

This here analysis evolved into something a lot bigger and a tad more comprehensive available here

black swan

Aronofsky’s Black Swan utilises fantasy and the unreal to build suspense and consequently unnerve the audience in moments of classic horror. The extravagant device of physical metamorphosis reflects the transitional state of the Swan Queen and is the result of a flexible equilibrium suggested by Nina’s mental state. However, her psychological condition coupled with the subsequent moments of surrealism support a subtext that is prominent in the film.

Nina desperately seeks perfection in her performance as a prima ballerina, putting herself through strenuous trials of endurance. She suffers physically in an effort to better herself and compete with other dancers. Inheriting the limelight from previous star Beth Macdonald, Nina takes the crown of the ‘Little Princess’ along with a few personal items, marking her as the next in a line of disposable has-beens. The generational trifecta is made complete with Nina’s mother, Erica, depicting a full cycle that evolves through the the three stereotyped roles of women in film: the virgin, the whore and the mother. The ideals pushed by the dancing industry in the film are that ageing is an impending threat to women that decreases personal value, which in turn asserts more pressure and explains the psychological deterioration at each stage. Erica is seen as a dancer who failed to excel in ballet which has resultantly made her extremely over-bearing and tyrannical towards Nina. Her psychological imbalance mirrors that of Beth and forebodes the destiny of her daughter; already framed as obsessive compulsive in the manner with which she constantly washes her hands, avoids physically touching most light switches or flushing the toilet.

With this added family pressure, Nina’s confounding environments prevent escape from her gruelling pursuit of perfection. Confronted by mirrors in every setting, she must critically dissect her reflection, exaggerating every weakness and imperfection. The most significant location in which her analytical reproach is heightened, is in the bathroom. This hyper-gendered space poses more questions particularly to the feminine and it is where Nina examines the bizarre lacerations on her body. The most telling occurrence to ground these hallucinations, are the few scenes in which Nina is seen being sick – though this is not usually shown directly, with the disciplined lifestyle of the profession manifesting itself through pressure on body shape and size. Nina actively chooses not to eat when in a restaurant and turns down her mother’s celebratory cake – concretising the notion of an eating disorder. This obsession with performance and appearance leads to a dramatic exaggeration of Body Dimorphic Disorder (BDD) as she can only focus on physical abnormalities which do not really exist. A common symptom of anorexia nervosa is the impairment of perception, in which the subject convinces themselves that they are physically different from their actual appearance. This psychological disorder is shown through Nina’s extreme visions: watching herself transform into a swan; an analogy that encompasses the broader theme of a girl growing into a woman.

Swan

At the core of Black Swan is a coming-of-age story. Nina is beginning to see how she differs from everyone else: her psychological disorder/s transforming this process into literally seeing herself as other people. It is as though Nina is experiencing life vicariously in order to make the transition into womanhood. Beyond the relentless black and white dichotomy of every scene and setting, there is the poignant appearance of baby pink/blue around Nina and her home. Nina’s bedroom shines with adolescence. It is through both fantasy and reality that she experiences sexual development in this room, though still threatened by the inescapable presence of her mother – or future self. Nina’s growth is marked by throwing away her childlike sensibilities in the form of the cuddly toys and making a lock for her door to regain the privacy which has been absent. The BDD and OCD elements emerge as the result of conflicting ideals: the need to mature into an independent woman, and also the conflicting threat that ageing has on her career. It is as though these disorders represent the psychological trials of growth. Black Swan is about a young woman’s struggle for maturity and independence in the face of social restraint.

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