Seduce Me: Female Bodies in Black Swan

03/02/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A white, powdered face, devilish eyes hidden within painted, black-silver swan wings, dark red lips, a crown of twisted metal -- the poster face for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) certainly does seduce us, even more than it scares us.

Black Swan follows Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman), a professional ballerina, and her desire to become the principal dancer in Thomas Leroy's (Vincent Cassel) new production of Swan Lake. To play the role of the Swan Queen, Nina must learn to play both the white swan and the black swan. A figure of utmost innocence dressed in white and pinkish hues, Nina has little trouble adopting the persona of the white swan, but she must endure the overt sexualization of her body by Thomas and dredge up an inner darkness in order to become the black swan. Along the way, we meet her obsessive mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), a newly discarded prima ballerina, and Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the ballet company who possesses the essence of what Nina believes to be the black swan and who threatens to usurp Nina's role as the Swan Queen.

Black Swan has earned more than $90 million thus far and was nominated for numerous awards including best picture, best cinematography, best actress, and best supporting actress. Young girls have flocked to YouTube videos and online articles advertising: "Black Swan Makeup," "Prima Ballerina Couture," "The fashion of 'Black Swan': Blood and feathers," "How to Get a 'Black Swan' Ballerina Body." In the last one, Mary Helen Bowers, the trainer responsible for shaping Natalie Portman's already petite physique into an even slimmer one, exclaims, "You can transform any body type into a ballerina." Lisa Rinna, one of the hosts in that video, compliments Bowers as she demonstrates the swan arms exercise, "Those arms in that movie...were so much of the movie!"

Critics have praised Black Swan and have compared it to Aronofsky's The Wrestler. They have also claimed that the film centers on an artist's struggle for perfection. Kenneth Turan of the LA Times writes: "The idea behind 'Black Swan,' in as much as it has an idea beyond the presentation of sensation, is that the quest for perfection can unhinge the unwary." Roger Ebert similarly explains, "The tragedy of Nina, and of many young performers and athletes, is that perfection in one area of life has led to sacrifices in many of the others."

Without a doubt, Black Swan will be permanently embedded in popular culture as the film about the dysmorphic ballerina whose inability to truly achieve perfection leads her into insanity. But is that all the film is about?

Although I was initially thrilled by the reception and attention Black Swan received, I was shocked to discover what these reactions consisted of. Women -- young and old--aspired to look like Portman's character; they wanted to attain the ballerina body, don the "prima ballerina couture." Critics and viewers alike focused almost exclusively on the artist's impossible quest for perfection. A few mentioned a woman's inability to attain perfection -- instead of the artist -- but most glossed over the reasons behind this. New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis even wrote, "The screenplay, by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin, invites pop-psychological interpretations about women who self-mutilate while striving for their perfect selves...But such a reading only flattens a film." Dargis's desire to distance herself from pop-psychology is understandable; to simplify the film to the female perfectionist is doing the film a disservice. However, neglecting the significance of the female body in the film ignores the film's essence.

Black Swan focuses, almost exclusively, on a female body -- Nina's body. The film documents the way Nina believes she can attain perfection and take control of her life by purging, starving, scratching, sexualizing and prostituting herself. Nina's definition of perfection is intertwined with other characters' opinions about female perfection. By utilizing two distinct, female personas -- the black swan and the white swan, Aronofsky's film addresses the problematic expectations and policing of gender performance in our society. As we delve further into the film, we soon see that Nina's most significant performance in the film is not in Swan Lake, but instead, her performative role as a woman in our world.

In the film, Aronofsky appropriates two female clichés that recur in literature -- that of the naïve, inexperienced, usually virginal girl and that of the experienced, sexually deviant seductress. Nina is initially presented as the virginal girl (the white swan) but is compelled by Thomas, the ballet company's director, to take on the role of the second figure (the black swan). Although it is easy to identify Nina, before she is swallowed by her insanity, with the white swan, she is not. In fact, she is neither of these figures.

We gradually discover that Nina is not a virgin, suffers from bulimia anorexia, habitually scratches herself until she bleeds, and pockets various trinkets from Beth, the previous principal dancer, and worships them in secret. This is all before Nina even auditions for the role of the Swan Queen. Before Swan Lake, before Thomas, before Lily, Nina already displays symptoms of dysmorphia and psychological distress, which are likely caused by the strains of the ballet profession as well as her mother's overbearing influence.

As we learn in the film, Nina's mother, Erica, is also a product of the ballet industry who has been abandoned, like Beth. Erica reveals that she was seduced by someone in the company and forced to leave her career behind because of an unexpected pregnancy. Erica's obsession with preserving her daughter's purity is not only symptomatic of Erica's policing of Nina's body based on generational beliefs -- purity was once, and is still to a degree, revered by men -- but also of Erica's desire to maintain the ideal of the virginal girl that she can no longer be. Although Nina speaks softly about her desire to be perfect, wears pink and white, sleeps in a bedroom decorated for a young girl, she is far from the virginal figure. She is, instead, simply familiar with performing a specific version of the female gender, a role she plays almost every day -- the innocent, pure girl, the white swan. No one in the ballet company ever suspects that she is anything other than the white swan.

After years of performing her life as the white swan -- "the sweet girl" -- at the behest of her mother, Nina is persuaded by Thomas to adopt the persona of the black swan, his future "little princess" and sex object, in order to achieve so-called perfection. Both Erica and Thomas develop nicknames for Nina, titles for the roles that Nina must play to appease both of them. Nina's acceptance of her new role as the black swan is another instance of gender performance, albeit one determined directly by the male gaze.

In Black Swan, we repeatedly observe Nina's dancing from Thomas's gaze. The camera is often shot from his point of view or from the back of his head. We hear his criticisms of her dancing and her attitude; we witness him groping Nina's body -- what Thomas calls "seducing" but is more akin to sexual assault. Thomas tells Nina: "Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence." He follows his words with a rough kiss. Thomas's definition not only asserts the existence of perfection in our world -- another unhealthy lesson for Nina -- but also, conveniently for him, promotes Nina's acceptance of Thomas's sexual advances. Transcendence and letting go for Thomas translate into Nina becoming lascivious for his pleasure and entertainment; calling this sexual liberation is foolish. Thomas does not advise Nina to "touch herself" in order to teach her about sexuality. He does it to assert his control over her understanding of sex, mold her into someone who can seduce him according to his predilections. In response, Nina sexualizes herself in order to appear perfect in Thomas's eye; she slowly kills what is left of herself in order to return his gaze.

The film also directs our attention to the unwanted male gaze outside of the ballet studio, in a world we see every day. Aronofsky presents us with two significant moments. In the first one, Nina is traveling home on the subway. While filing her nails, she is harassed by an older man who smacks his lips at her and grabs repeatedly at his crotch. In response, Nina merely looks away; she doesn't voice her opinion or move to somewhere safer. Shortly after this scene, Erica asks Nina if Thomas is taking advantage of her. The placement of these two scenes is no mistake. The same predatory male gaze that Thomas boasts of is not confined to the ballet studio; it is in the world that we, too, inhabit. In another scene, Lily is watched by a male waiter who stares at her and asks, in an attempt to flirt with her, "Let me know if that's juicy enough for you." In both situations, the gaze of a male figure violates the female body by blatantly and unapologetically sexualizing it. Although these two men do not seem to affect Nina or Lily, the men do in fact alter the way the two women view their bodies. Nina shies away from the man on the subway and does not take action, allows him to continue masturbating. In the second scene, Lily initially flirts back, but later, frowns and tells the waiter off. Nina, however, does not look critically at the waiter who harasses Lily. Nina even looks to Lily respectfully during the conversation with the waiter, trying to discern how Lily attracts and responds to the male gaze.

Of course, the rebellious, black-wing-tattooed Lily is inextricably linked to the sexual being Thomas describes, to the "letting go" he obsesses over. Nina begins to see Lily as her alter ego, as a foil to her white swan persona. At times, Nina even sees Lily as having her own face, which further reveals Nina's deteriorating mental health and paranoia. Although Lily seduces the audience by presenting herself as a sexually liberated being, she is far from a healthy one. As we can see from Lily's lack of concern for others -- Lily repeatedly throws herself at men for attention, attempts to drug Nina with the help of two male strangers, and abandons the "rolling" Nina at the club -- her character is no more stable and no less performative than Nina's.

Ultimately, Nina's attempts to balance two disparate performances -- the white swan and the black swan -- lead to her own destruction. Unable to sustain both of the personas at the same time, she begins to see each of them as a separate person, each an enemy of the other. Nina's lack of control over her own life, her obsession with a perfection that is linked to pleasing Thomas, and her inability to develop and mature as a human being of her own choosing ultimately drive her into insanity. In this process, whatever remains of Nina's self is destroyed as it is replaced by the directions and desires of another -- predominantly of the main male character, Thomas. Nina's eventual acquiescence to a male dominated and controlled version of her body, the film posits at its close, amounts to a kind of suicide she doesn't know she's committing. The pursuit of another's perfection leads, in the end, to a complete annihilation of self. The film suggests this radical destruction of self-determination and of possibility -- of life itself -- are what women in a male dominated society face in everyday life.

Although Nina's character lives in a fictional plane, the issues that plague her life exist within our reality. Women and men alike are inundated with superficial images and ideas advertised as a means of developing a sense of self-worth and self-fulfillment. These problematic beliefs are then absorbed as truth and further perpetuated by us, our family members, friends, and colleagues. Based on this form of "education," we watch and police each other; we obsess over and alter our presentations of ourselves; we perform for each other until we are mentally unable to sustain the act.

Instead of addressing our society's unhealthy policing of the female psyche and body at home, at work, and in the media, many viewers of the film reinforce the normalization of gender performance by focusing on physical definitions of worth -- Portman's thinned body, the feminine, feathery fashion, the seductive makeup. Some focus exclusively on the violence or the sex scenes between Portman and Kunis, finding these both erotic and entertaining, which is not only problematic but also reminiscent of Thomas's character. Interpreting the film is such a limited manner makes the viewer complicit in reinforcing the authority of the male gaze and the necessity of having women participate in a predetermined, highly sexualized gender performance.

A few critics have also claimed that Black Swan is merely a critique of the ballet industry -- a critique that a number of professional ballerinas have claimed is inaccurate. However, limiting Black Swan to the arena of the ballerina (or that of the artist) ignores the profound relationship between gender and power presented within the film. Black Swan uses ballet as a vehicle to make the topic of gender performance more tangible to us. The psychological horrors presented in the film are very real in our world, though not necessarily as pronounced. These horrors exist in our everyday lives, and the more we close our eyes, the more we neglect the cause of their existence, the more pervasive they will become.