By Tiffany Tsai
Freelance writer in Los Angeles
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.