BLACK SWAN is crisply detailed, visually stunning, genre-defying, anxiously self-conscious, and unafraid to plumb psychological depths, but it also reveals an old-fashioned American stereotype of female sexuality that pits the virgin against the whore in the singular body of Nina, the dutiful ballerina played by Natalie Portman. This dualistic view of female sexuality, with its moralistic ramifications and chronic images of good versus evil, traps the film in familiar double standards. Nina’s body becomes her prison, her impediment to performing, her so-called “artistic” block. To become a true artist Nina has to transform into a sexual libertine, but the price she pays for this transformation places Black Swan on a continuum with romantic comedies, thriller dramas, and horror films that consistently punish the “whore” and reward the “virgin.”
Critics have dealt with the sexual nature of the film in a dismissive, almost cursory manner: either the sexual struggle is part of the director’s demented clichéd vision of the dance-film genre, or simply an irrelevant fact within what is clearly a horror film posing as a dance film. Yet it is impossible to understand Black Swan without seeing Nina’s sexuality as the tapestry upon which both the horror and dance film tropes attach themselves, and as the catalyst for the psychological schism that consumes her. It is also impossible to envision Black Swan as a similar meditation on male sexuality. This dichotomy derives its relevance and vitality not simply from the movie’s internal vertigo, but because it taps into the continued and mechanical manufacture of female images in American Cinema and the male gaze through which they are conceived and produced.
In Black Swan, the virgin/whore dichotomy is the very first order of business. When the choreographer of Nina’s ballet company fires the old prima ballerina in an effort to mount a new “visceral” production of Swan Lake, he chooses Nina as his Swan Queen. Nina has been dreaming of the center stage for years; she is a “good,” obedient, self-sacrificing girl, determined to be “perfect,” controlled by her mother, practicing her technique so religiously that she bleeds, cracks her toes, develops a grueling rash, and endures extraordinary bodily pain. She is the embodiment of the American ideal, the hard-working artist willing to traverse any lengths to achieve fame and artistic expression, and in a meritocracy, hard work pays off, except when you’re a woman. Because for a woman, perfect technique, brilliantly executed pirouettes and flawlessly turned out feet are not enough; there’s also the requirement of sexual allure, that enigmatic quality bestowed on some, presumably at birth, and denied to others.
The director tells Nina: “yes, you’re beautiful,” and have perfect technique and if he only needed a dancer to play Odette, she’d perfect for the role. But he needs a dancer who can play both, Odile, the black evil seductive swan, and Odette, the white innocent virginal swan. Nina’s sexlessness becomes her downfall; she’s not fit to be Odile because she’s not desirable. And female desirability, here as in other films, seems to be the ultimate measure of a woman’s power – but only in so far as it can infect the male gaze. Beauty alone is not enough – it’s a painting in impotent repose; beauty has to be in dialogue with the male gaze.
In Nina’s case, the decisive male gaze is her teacher’s, and he demands that her beauty converse with him – become a tool in his seduction. He sets her on a path of sexual experimentation which necessitates a cruel humiliation.
During a routine rehearsal, the teacher asks Nina’s male partner to evaluate her: “Would you want to fuck her?” and then answers for him,“No!” He also mercilessly compares Nina to Lily, another dancer in the ballet company vying for the role of the Swan Queen, emphasizing Lily’s innate sensuality and underlining Nina’s malfunction. And in so doing, the teacher establishes the essential opposition between the two women; their sexual temperaments become templates for their moral characters. Nina’s failure to be sexual translates into instant “goodness,” innocence, frailty, openness, obedience, whiteness while Lily’s ability to exude sexuality translates into “evil,” cleverness, manipulation, confidence, blackness, dishonesty, concealment.
In true horror film fashion, the teacher is also the Devil. He appears in a devil’s mask in Nina’s hallucinatory visions, guiding or possessing her like a sorcerer in her dance. He wants to transform Nina into Lily, implant enough evil in Nina to create the perfect amalgam of Odile and Odette in one human female body. As a demonstration, he puts a hand between her legs, exciting her, bringing “more” of “her” out, but then he throws her away like a pitiful wet dog, balking at her asexual kiss and savagely telling her: “I seduced you, you did not seduce me,” thus inciting her to further torture. Because Nina can’t simply be sexual; she has to literally mutilate her frigid self – in the hopes of eviscerating the virgin altogether.
The Devil is never satisfied; his gaze is always pockmarked with frustration, and it is his facial twitches of disapproval and reproach at Nina’s failure as Odile that send the responsible “sweet” girl on a night of debauchery before a major rehearsal. Nina picks up men, drinks a cocktail enhanced with drugs, and possibly has sex with one of the men, though this is a blur. And although we witness Nina taking Lily home and having rapturous sex with her, we’re not certain to what extent she is imagining the whole thing. Nina’s face is superimposed upon Lily’s towards the end of the act, making us wonder if Nina was merely having sex with herself – an ecstatic, finally consummated round of masturbation. A prophetic voice later tells Nina that the only thing standing between her and the stage is her own self. Yet regardless of what truly happened – reality is irrelevant here – Nina’s psyche has been altered. We’re meant to feel the force of her passion – her final awakening, symbolized by a grandiose orgasm (unhindered by her mother, who’s finally been exiled) and by her extensive physical transformation: her feet become webbed, her legs turn bird-like and crooked, and she’s finally able to extract black feathers from her itchy back. An authentic sexual awakening is feral, internal, animalistic – a physical alteration of the self.
The notion of female sexuality as a good exchanged for something else has been an unwavering principle of American cinema. From genre to genre, from decade to decade, virginal good girls are pitted against sexual libertines and whores. In the pristine waters of romantic comedies, a woman can never successfully bed a man before the ending, and if she does, like Katherine Heigl’s character in 27 Dresses, she better be in a drunken stupor and repeating the following mantra: “I never do this, I never do this, I mean I never do this.” Why couldn’t poor, devoted, selfless Jane just sleep with a hot man without having to profess a monk-like existence? Her sexy, barely-clad, platinum blond sister, who sleeps around with Italian men abroad, is depicted as a selfish, lying, uncaring “bridezilla” who has to be brutally humiliated for her “sins;” her man breaks up with her at their engagement party.
And what about Knocked Up: the awesome comedy at the expense of an expanding pregnant female body, where the price for a drunken one night stand is that Katherine Heigl’s character has to have a baby with the jobless, awkward, pot-smoking, smut-loving Seth Rogen. As her belly grows, she’s not only stripped of her sexual allure, but demeans her own body to explain her hysterical behavior: “and you know, my ass was just getting so big.”In The First 50 Dates, Drew Barrymore’s character beats Adam Sandler’s character with a baseball bat upon discovering him naked in her bed. Yes, she’s suffered memory loss from brain damage, but why couldn’t she merely ask: “did we just do it?” Why beat him senselessly?
Because the perfect American woman always experiences horror for having had sex – always justifies, apologizes, regrets, and repeats the mantra, “I never do this!” There is no sexual wilderness for a woman in American cinema without the reformation of the sexual libertine into a “good girl” or failing that path, her cruel and severe punishment.
Women who behave even remotely like men suffer interminably. Consider the character played by Scarlett Johansson in the deplorable “romantic” comedy, He’s Just Not That In To You. She’s one of those rare female characters whose sexuality is so palpable and evolved that she has no qualms about sleeping with a married man, a crime so despicable in American Cinema that we immediately await her moment at the guillotine. Even so, Ms. Johansson’s humiliation astonished me; forced to hide half-dressed in a closet, she listens as her married lover has sex with his own wife.
Women in drama thrillers fare even worse. Diane Lane as the adulterous wife in Unfaithful not only loses her beautiful lover, but also her husband – who most likely goes to prison for “her” sin. If juxtaposed with Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne’s 1987 adultery movie, it becomes obvious that a man’s infidelity carries a far lighter sentence; yes Michael Douglas’s character endures being stalked by his insane mistress, yes he is burdened by excruciating guilt for putting his family in danger, but at the end when Glenn Close’s character is killed, the cheating man is relieved, order is restored, and from this point on, Michael Douglas can make love to his devoted wife. Diane Lane’s life on the other hand will be mired in loneliness and celibacy; she’ll never take a new lover while her husband withers behind bars.
The horror film genre is perhaps the most sexually offensive and humiliating to women. Sexually active or “loose” women’s bodies are readily exposed, raped and dismembered. In Piranha 3D, women are called “whores,” and “bitches” and one woman’s body is severed in half with the camera still lingering on the dismembered breast. Ezra Winton calls it one of Hollywood’s “most misogynistic and sexist films in recent memory.” In earlier movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, “the Final Girl” is the last girl standing, the resourceful, intelligent, usually asexual female bringing into view the virgin/whore dichotomy. In such films as the Hostel:Part II, a woman who quickly falls for a man against the better judgment of her asexual friend, the final girl, is hung upside down, naked, gagged, tied, while another woman – the killer, also naked – uses a sword to chop off the woman’s limbs and imbibe her blood. In Turistas a blond flirtatious woman is awake and watching as each of her organs is slowly cut out and removed, her breast still perfect, covering the hole which used to house her heart.
There’s a relationship between these horror films and the horror that Natalie Portman’s Nina endures in Black Swan. Nina bleeds, pulls off her own skin, injures her toes, feels her frail body breaking as she shifts into her animal form – she is tortured from within her mind but its physical manifestation demonstrates that her pain is just as severe and destructive as any horror film depiction. What saves Black Swan from collapsing into the typical Hollywood horror-film stereotype is that Aronofsky turns the virgin/whore dichotomy on its head; Nina suffers precisely because she is not “fuckable” – that is what stands between Nina and art. One must be free and uninhibited, loose of mind and spirit, untethered to the moral tenets of parents and society to perform exquisitely on stage. Art on stage requires a purity of sexual spirit – and an unleashing.
When at last Nina fully transmogrifies into the Black Swan and sails unimpeded by her own hang-ups across the stage, her blackened eyes lit by scouring desire, the audience witnesses a rare flicker of triumph . Her dancing is at long last sexual, seductive, artistic all at once. One even feels that she gains power. Her eyes glitter in red, illuminating an evil strength – the sort of strength that can be equated to the ability to impose one’s will upon others. For until now, Nina has been acted upon. Innocence was a passive existence. Being sexual means having a will, having agency; she is able to kiss her teacher at last with her tongue, to impresses her dancing partner, even to outdo him, and to win over her audience, thoroughly enrapturing them.
“She did it,” I wanted to cry at the screen, in spite of an unsettling suspicion that she may have killed her nemesis to attain it. But Nina had only killed herself; Nina was Odette to the core, unable to kill anyone but herself, proving to us that while she may have acquired the attributes of a black swan for the stage, Nina was ultimately good.
The movie, however, is stuck in a peculiar paradox. If we demote the moral terms of “good” and “evil” to society’s continuously changing “moral” ethos, then the ending can be seen in the service of art. Nina can only create true art if she kills her asexual “good” self. “Goodness” then must die for art, the goodness that is equated with female “asexuality” and “virginity.”
However, if we view goodness as an objective term, bound to a higher power that transcends changing social norms, then the ending becomes a happy one: Nina did not kill Lily in the service art – out of a selfish thirst for success; instead, killing herself was the only way she could still be a black swan on stage and not become an evil murderess in life – it was her only option as a “good” heroine. The goodness of a heroine is vital for successful American cinema, vital to the male gaze, which hungers for sexual libertines but always wants to end up wedded to the “good” girl. Yet it is the Devil-teacher who creates the dance and then determines within the framework he’s erected what is “sexual” and what is “good,” which woman lives and which woman dies upon the stage – and ultimately in life. It is this reliance on the male gaze that imprisons the Black Swan in familiarly grating stereotypes. In other words, it cannot escape its own male gaze. Think of what a woman can achieve when she is not harnessed by the virgin/whore dichotomy. Think of Baryshnikov’s brilliant performance as a suffering dancer in White Nights – a struggle depicted through dance against the oppressive Soviet regime. Reinvent him as a woman – and offer her his expansive stage.
Anna Fishbeyn is a writer and performer. Her one-woman solo show, Sex in Mommyville, debuted at the Flea Theater in New York City this summer. Please visit sexinmommyville.com for listings of future performances.