The Ugly Duckling: Female Stereotypes and Psychological Disorders in Black Swan

The conventions of mainstream horror films have transformed ostensibly in parallel with socio-cultural development. The narrative structure and even the nature of the ‘monster’ have undergone broad, noticeable changes with the advancement of movements such as postmodernism and feminism. This particular genre holds a great deal of significance with regard to the representation of women in film: usually confined to a caricatured stereotype, the portrayal of women has evolved broadly from monster to victim to hero. black swan

Whilst there is a general trend of transformation in Hollywood productions, conventions persist in American cinema, promoting negative stereotypes based on clichéd gender roles. Black Swan achieved box office success as well as critical acclaim but also appeared to implement these regressive gender roles. The following analysis is concerned with the resurfacing of archaic female stereotypes in the film Black Swan and how they are ultimately used to subvert mainstream Hollywood conventions through pastiche.

The very first sequence in Black Swan shows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dancing the part of the White Swan with a fantastical elegance; her body moves with fluidity that is captured in both long and medium close-ups. This is revealed to be a dream sequence as Nina sits out of bed, stretching her legs and feet in a close-up: the bones are heard straining and cracking. Already the film establishes that it is going to look past the dream-like portrayal of dancing and show the unnatural exertion that dancers put on their bodies. Cast as the dualistic Swan Queen in a contemporary rendition of Swan Lake, from a company resembling the New York Ballet, the film follows Nina as she attempts to shed her fragility and master the part of the Black Swan. Under pressure from her mother, artistic director and rival dancers at the ballet school – Nina is subject to paranoid delusions that see her face projected onto others, as well as physically transforming into the Black Swan. The pressure from other characters shapes the external threat in the film whilst her believed transformation forms the internal threat. When deconstructing the causation of this relationship, it becomes apparent that there is a contradictory combination of serious issues and frivolous gender stereotyping.

Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler (2008) acts as a counterpart to Black Swan, providing an investigative look into performance and the male body. The film attempts to look inside the hyper-masculinity that surrounds the world of professional wrestling, using the protagonist to explore sexual difference. His highly muscular physique marks a gender extremity that seems to correspond with his inability to relate or communicate with women – including his own daughter. Shown to be the idol of both boys and men, his sexual difference (an exaggerated masculinity) is at once celebrated and condemned. This binary differentiation of sexes is recalled in Black Swan, which instead explores the typically feminine world of ballet – looking once again at the body and performance. Adapted from an original screenplay set in Broadway, the decision to explore professional dancing implicates too, the exploration of the respective female lifestyle. In a section titled ‘Postfeminism and Dance’, Phoca and Wright comment that “All forms of dance from waltz to ballet, were shaped by the publicly acceptable distance between male and female bodies” (1999: 151). This maintains the idea that there are inherent questions of gender and sex when invoking the art of dance. Furthermore, both of these films show the consequential afflictions of physical training in search of the perfect performative body.

The role of a prima ballerina is fraught with pressure to acquire and maintain the perfect body. In research on the role of body image in ballet dancers, Ravaldi et al noted that “Ballet schools’ cultural pressure towards an ideal of leanness, which gives a dancer an eternally adolescent and prepubertal appearance, could interfere with the complex process of gender identity acquisition” (2008:554). This eternal adolescence becomes the source of conflict in Black Swan, with Nina’s mother attempting to protect and nurture her child-like sensibilities whilst Thomas, her artistic director, insists she become more sexually active and promiscuous. The conflict of ideals and this extreme, disciplined lifestyle are shown to have various psychological repercussions in the film. In example, Nina is seen constantly avoiding the use of light switches with her bare hands, and in one instance uses her foot to flush the toilet – actions that propel the notion of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This would imply a psychological instability that leads to the confirmation of further disorders.

There is a strong motif of mirrors in Black Swan which, despite its modernised transformation with use of special effects, is a customary source of horror. The mirrors adorn every location of the film, which forces Nina to constantly confront her own image, preventing escape from her pursuit of perfection. Aside from providing a classic horror convention and invoking the theme of duality, the omnipresence of mirrors offers insight to the discipline and pressure that Nina undergoes in the film. Repeatedly criticised for her physical imperfections, Nina must critically dissect her reflection, exaggerating every flaw of her body. The most significant location in which her analytical reproach is heightened, is in the bathroom. This hyper-gendered space poses questions particularly to the feminine, with its binary division of sexes, and it is where Nina discovers and progressively examines the bizarre lacerations on her body. The most telling occurrence that grounds these hallucinations, are the few scenes in which Nina is shown indirectly being sick. The indication of a developed eating disorder is confirmed by Nina’s active dismissal of food throughout the film. The opening reveals her mother preparing a breakfast of half a grapefruit and egg whites, which elicits an excitable reaction from Nina though her sincerity is not clear. For the remainder of the film she actively avoids eating food, whether a celebratory cake offered by her mother or refusing to order at a restaurant.

Sick 3

Ravaldi et al’s research goes on to compare the symptoms of Eating Disorders (EDs) in both ballet dancers and ‘nonphysically active students’, “confirming that ballet dancers have a stronger desire for losing weight” and that “the dancers’ desire for losing weight (and/or desire to be underweight) seems to be enhanced by a complex body image problem that is stronger than in nonphysically active subjects group” (2008:553). This serious issue and its presence in the film are explained by Morag MacSween in her book titled Anorexic Bodies: A Feminist and Sociological Perspective on Anorexia Nervosa: “The concept of the body as a self-contained psychosomatic unity which expresses itself through manipulation of the outer environment around its own desires is, I would argue, the dominant body concept of our culture and, as one would expect of in a patriarchal culture, is phallocentric” (1996:84). This comment also encompasses the altered reality that is represented in the film, explaining one of the causes of Nina’s manipulated environment. The research of Rivaldi et al and the comments of MacSween both show eating disorders in ballet dancers, or simply patriarchal culture, to be a serious and tangible issue, though the film does not dwell on the subject. The seriousness of the issues presented within the film is almost overlooked when the focus is pulled toward the more fantastical, horror-like threats. However, their constant resurgence suggests that they are intentionally being obscured, pointing to the superficiality of conventional horror. More-on, the surreal and otherworldly threats of the film, reveal themselves to be relevant in their symbolic association to the issues of eating disorders and maturity. A common symptom of Anorexia Nervosa is the impairment of perception, or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), in which the subject convinces themselves that they are physically different from their actual appearance. This is shown through Nina’s obsession with her own body image, and the constant physical examination she puts herself through until she believes she is transforming into a swan. The physical transformation is gradually revealed to be a psychosomatic defect, which supports the idea of representing a psychological disorder such as BDD. However, the extravagant, cinematic device of metamorphosis into a swan also encompasses the subtext of a girl growing into a ‘monstrous’ woman.

Nina arranges cosmetic items in a very particular order – obsessively neat.

One of the key items that will reoccur is the nail file: a significant nod to the obsessive compulsive paranoia that surrounds the maintenance of Nina’s nails.

The ballet school itself is populated primarily by females who divide into malicious, resentful groups. Lily, the newcomer who imposes the biggest threat to Nina, exercises an effortless, louche attitude that epitomises the quality of the Black Swan – the quality that Nina lacks. As the film progresses, Lily is cast as Nina’s understudy which increases her paranoia and distrust in other dancers. Reminiscent of All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950) and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (Aldrich, 1962), the rivalry of the girls at the school resembles perfectly the ‘anti-female friendship film’. In her chapter, titled ‘Backlash: The Anti-Female Friendship Film’, Hollinger outlines these films as portraying “a destructive female relationship that mocks the possibility of women forming the bonds of loyalty and affection…they represent women’s friendships as plagued by jealousy, envy, and competition for men, and they teach women to beware of and fear one another” (1998:207).Not only does Black Swan show Nina to be jealous of Lily’s dancing form, she later sees her as sexual competition when fighting for the attention of artistic director Thomas Leroy. Their antagonism is concreted in an almost parodic scene that flaunts a lesbian sexual experience between them – taking the appearance of an exploitative and misogynist horror film. Whilst this scene may be a reference to the Oedipal/Electra drive of homosexuality following the rejection of the father (absent father/Thomas) as an object of love (Irigaray, 1985: 98), it is dealt with through an overtly stimulative, tongue-in-cheek representation – excused by being in the protagonist’s imagination after being drugged. Despite the appearance of this superfluous scene which suggests a jealousy so strong that borders sexual attraction, the desire to eliminate competition remains in place. Hollinger describes these competitive relationships with other women as a means to divert focus from women’s issues, and grant men primary importance as the only ones upon whom they can rely (1998:207). This is echoed in the distrust that Nina holds for everyone except Thomas, of whom remains the dominant and reliable overseer. The anti-female friendship film did not gain wide cinematic expression after 1992, which suggests that Aronofsky is implementing and consequently subverting an already dated convention. Exaggerated through the overly-villainous plight of Thomas who almost becomes a father surrogate to Nina, as well as an object of psycho-sexual attachment.

When the girls ‘bitch’ about fellow dancers they do so with two faces in shot – or talking from behind their backs.

The excessive typicality of Thomas is mirrored by Erica, who invokes the archetypal psychotic traits of mothers, providing the majority of the highly genred horror scenes as a form of ‘the abject’. Julia Kristeva has written extensively on the relationship between the maternal figure and the monster in horror films, using the term ‘abjection’ to encompass the mother as an object of primal repression that must be radically excluded as it threatens life (1982: 2,208). This theory is exemplified in the character of Erica who rapidly becomes an external threat to her own daughter. She is explained as being an ex-ballerina that sacrificed her career to have a child, which manifests in her overtly overbearing yet resentful treatment of Nina. She lives vicariously through her daughter’s successes, attempting to keep her eternally adolescent by restricting development. It is when Nina begins to experience life outside of her mother’s confinement that she is most threatened, amplifying the horror elements of the film. In using Nina’s inability to mature and escape her mother’s repressive treatment as a source of tension, Black Swan confirms Creed’s observation in ‘The Monstrous-Feminine’ that “abjection [is] at work in the horror text where the child struggles to break from the mother, representative of the archaic maternal figure, in a context in which the father is invariably absent” (1993:12). Nina’s father is neither seen nor mentioned throughout the film, lending itself to the negative stereotype of an unsupported family structure that is subject to the capricious mood swings of the jealous mother. Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer of Black Swan, offers some insight to the visual coding that alludes to this pervasive jealousy and subsequent paranoia:

“We assigned some symbolism to the various colors: black represents the darker side of Nina’s character, white is her innocent side, pink represents her childhood, and green conveys envy and ambition. For example, the pink bedroom with all the stuffed animals shows that her mother never let her grow up, and the apartment’s green walls underscore the competitive nature of their relationship” (In: Pizzello, 2010:41).

The pink background of the ‘MOM’ contact screen is seen twice – both times outer-lined by green light. The first time she dismisses the phone-call is also the first time that she sees someone with her own face.

In growing-up and separating herself from her mother she is shown to be viewing herself literally from an outside perspective.

The competitive nature that Libatique refers to, is explained psychologically by MacSween who comments that “for the younger woman, then, self-development and self-assertion involve surpassing her mother. For the mother, she is ambivalent about her daughters new opportunities: she wants her daughter to have what she has lacked, but also envies and resents her potential to do so” (1996:56). This confounding environment, rife with jealousy and competition is reminiscent of the ballet school – parading the same typified, female emotions. This is because the women in Black Swan are not representing different psychotic women but the various, overlapping stages of one prime archetype. Knowingly, the film parades the three renowned stereotypes of women-in-film as central characters: Nina – the virgin, Lily/Beth – the whore, and Erica – the mother. They are separated generationally, as if to suggest they are all part of the same foreboding cycle. This is captured symbolically by projecting Nina’s face onto these characters as well as a number of dancers at the school in moments of heightened paranoia. This is symbolised further in the metamorphosis – Nina is deteriorating mentally as she matures into the psychotic template of women in Black Swan. This is demonstrated in the final act of the film, in which she takes on the role of the Black Swan and begins her declination into the inevitable cycle.

Also echoed in the green backlight that appears behind the jealous competitors.

The final act of the film produces a climatic clash between the external threat of competitive female relationships, and the exacerbating internal threat of Nina’s self-destructive and unstable mentality. Erica, in an overbearing bout of mothering, restricts Nina to her infantile bedroom, adorned with fluffy toys, when she is supposed to be performing the opening night of Swan Lake. This is the most apparent reveal to her masked desire of restricting her daughter’s maturity. When Nina attempts to leave, her nurturing appearance is broken as she reveals her more psychotic and aggressively jealous motive. Demonstrative of her overcome fragility, Nina induces the violent, monstrous side of the Black Swan to force her mother aside, physically harming her in the process. She continues to dispose of the female competition as she arrives at the theatre. This includes a confrontation with Lily in the dressing room where she discovers that she was going to be replaced by her understudy: alluding once more to the anti-female friendship film All About Eve. Nina once again embodies the Black Swan as she throws Lily into a mirror and stabs her in the abdomen with a broken shard stating ‘My turn!’. Taking to stage, the monstrous side of Nina is exercised fully during the dance of the Black Swan as she transforms into the abject. This form of the abject becomes that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva: 1982:4). Creed comments on this form of the abject in the same way as the monster in the horror film stating that it brings “about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability. In some horror films the monstrous is produced at the border between human and inhuman, man and beast”(1993:7). This border is clearly broken as the transformation takes place on stage, as Nina becomes the amalgamation of wo/man and beast. When Nina returns backstage to the body of Lily, she discovers the actuality that she had imagined this threat and stabbed herself. When Nina takes to stage once more, she performs her last dance and in a blurring of performance and reality, commits suicide as the Swan Queen.

This finale of Black Swan poses many questions to the meaning behind her death, and is thematically reminiscent of both The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948) and The Wrestler. The character of Nina bears close resemblance to Vicky, the protagonist of The Red Shoes, in her obsession with performance within ballet and ultimately her sacrificial denouement. The clear likeness of these two characters and their situations are acknowledged within the film; when Nina is first shown attempting the dance of the Black Swan, a shooting technique is used that is taken directly from The Red Shoes. A poignant and discussed shot from the film, it consists of

“a whirl of abstract colours and shapes interspersed with flashes of the audience. This is clearly a subjective series, but what matters is not what she sees, or even primarily the perspective (it is not set up as a point of view shot), but the sensation – a vertiginous experience of ‘space-time’. We are drawn into this sensationalism, but also drawn, albeit imperceptibly, into an exchange of energy – between actants on the stage and in the auditorium” (Stern, 1995: 278).

This shot is used in The Red Shoes to express the attainment of perfection in its full overwhelming nature, alongside the social pressures that she faces off-stage. This is referenced in Black Swan when the same whirl of colours and shapes fill the screen, interspersed with shots of an unimpressed Thomas – eventually disrupted when Nina stumbles, acknowledging the first appearance of her rival Lily. By using this particular shot in the scene, Nina’s fate is forebodingly compared to that of Vicky, with a close bond through the pressures of a love interest/director and rivals. This is confirmed when she is revealed to have committed suicide: Vicky throws her self from a balcony to an oncoming train before her performance, in an intertextual re-imagination of the ballet in which the shoes take control of her. Breaking a pattern of compulsive repetition through suicide, Stern explains the logic of her sacrifice in context: “the dynamic of the film has set up a pattern of repetition that seems thematically to revolve around choice, but in fact the psychic logic actually enables the impossibility of choice. Compulsion cannot be helped, obsession precludes choice and culminates in death and ecstasy” (1995: 266,277). Nina’s suicide parallels this breaking of a compulsive cycle in preventing her monstrous development. She represses the inevitability of becoming a psychotic stereotype by killing herself on stage, ironically inclusive of the intertextual fate of the Swan Queen. Nina lays on the ground as the fantasy world, that the audience have been limited to see through, dematerialises and she lies with blood emitting from her stomach. Denying her growth into a woman, Nina remains eternally adolescent as a shot from above shows her body – the self-inflicted injury resembling the catalytic womb that Nina resentfully suppresses. This closing to the film is reminiscent of Irigaray when she talks of women liberating themselves in art: “in wanting to throw off the physical and spiritual clothing of oppression, we destroy ourselves, too. Instead of being reborn, we annihilate ourselves” (1990: 102).

In an opposing trajectory, The Wrester had granted its protagonist a form of immortality as he, like Nina, produces a final performative act that concludes off-screen in an undefined yet honourable ending. Black Swan uses this culmination as a means to point to the unavoidable descendancy of women as represented in the genre that categorises it. It is as though Nina does not regret her sacrifice as it is the only positive outcome she could attain within the boundaries set by the standards of the horror film. The most suggestive shot that alludes to the film being self-aware is the final frame of Nina that fades to white, revealing Darren Aronofsky’s name as the crowd of the theatre vigorously applaud – treating himself as the self-involved auteur. Using an abundance of genred and gendered stereotypes, the self-awareness exercised by Aronofsky must encompass these unsubtle and ubiquitous devices as a form of pastiche. Phoca and Wright detail that pastiche “acts as a nostalgic form of burrowing. It is mimicry which homogenizes everything in an indiscriminate and seemingly value-free way”, as opposed to the attached redeployment of meaning in parody (1999: 92). The use of the word ‘seemingly’ implies the possibility of an overlooked motive which is demonstrated by Black Swan, in that a shallow reading may appear to simply reinforce negative clichés. Luce Irigaray has written extensively on the subject of ‘mimesis’ as a form of progressive deliberation in which, through a “playful repetition” one converts “a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus begin to thwart it” (Irigaray: 1995:124). Aronofsky may be implementing such a technique though his discourse does not appear obvious and the playful element becomes rather self-indulgent considering the absense of overt comedy. Marxist academic Fredric Jameson stated that pastiche becomes a ‘blank parody’ in that it is “amputated of satiric impulse [and] devoid of laughter” (1991:17). The astounding measure of typical characters and settings does not appear to gain this comedic sense of satire – with reactions contained to that of the horror genre – until examined retrospectively. This sense of absurdity is in part revealed with the ‘twist’ that closes the film.

Black Swan excuses the resurfacing of mythic female archetypes as existing solely in the imagination of Nina, however this explanation becomes redundant when considering that the characters do not exist outside of her perception, as this is when the film ends. The semiotic meanings that are laced into the imagery and the two-dimensional characters may offer contextual reasoning, but the repetition of conventions as a form of pastiche may not be viewed as intended. Towards the end of her book ‘Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media’, Macdonald shares her concern with playfulness in media representations of myths in femininity: “The danger is, that in passing from involvement in cultural practice to the less active role as audience of the text, parodic inventiveness will melt into Jameson’s ‘depthless’ or ‘blank’ pastiche. We may all become more knowing spectators, more aware of playfulness, take-offs and reinventions, but intertextual sophistication will not of itself lead to change. Nor, necessarily, does a sense irony, but the absurdity of the contrast between the two levels of perception does at least introduce a grain of grit into the complacent eye..[If these such texts succeed] in putting an ironic distance between text and reader, then hopes of progress are less fanciful” (1995: 220-221). These serious implications seem rather frivolous with regards to Black Swan; the pastiche elements of the film become, in affect, a form of postmodern parody.


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Black Swan, 2010. Directed By Darren Aronofsky. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures Wrestler, The, 2008. Directed By Darren Aronofsky. USA: Wild Bunch Red Shoes, The, 1948. Directed By Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. USA: Archers, The What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, 1962. Directed By Robert Aldrich. USA: Associates & Aldrich Company, The All About Eve, 1950. Directed By Joseph L. Mankiewicz. USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


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