Black Swan: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

Please don’t read this post if you haven’t seen
“Black Swan,” but plan to see it at some point.

I don’t usually see things along gender lines. But in reading reviews of Black Swan — from The New York Times (A.O. Scott and Terrence Rafferty), LA Times, Entertainment Weekly and Roger Ebert — I realized that the authors were all men…and they just didn’t get it.

…Which isn’t to say that being a woman guarantees “getting it,” because reviewer Dana Stevens’s critique didn’t resonate for me, either. 

Some of these reviews give the film higher marks than others, but none of them recognizes that Nina’s identity struggle is not just that of a dancer and artist, but also that of a young woman.

The inner duel she experiences between “white swan” (pure, sweet) and “black swan” (sexual, uncontrolled), and between controlled external perfectionism and inner chaos… the jerky and tortured separation from her mother…the tension between her and some of the other dancers (who seem to view her self-containment as aloofness, and sometimes feel straight out of the movie Mean Girls)…how she simultaneously idolizes and hates Lily, a woman who represents everything she is not, and is not sure whether she wants to be. The film is rich with content along these lines, all of which tells the story not only of an artist’s emergence, but also that of a young woman… and this is a theme that none of the reviews I list above gives serious attention.

For example, A.O. Scott writes, “The subject of ‘Black Swan’ …is the relationship, in art, between technique and emotion.” That is certainly A subject of the film – and a riveting one at that – but it’s hardly the only one.

So I was thrilled to find a review by Kartina Richardson, which isn’t explicitly about Nina’s emergence as a young woman, but which does tease out the related theme of internal versus external, public versus private personas. The review is titled, “Black Swan and Bathrooms.” Yep, bathrooms — which, Richardson astutely observes, exist within the film (and within our lives) as sanctuaries from the gaze of others. Bathrooms, she argues, are one of the few places left in our “transparent society” where private personas can come up for air.

This may sound odd on the surface (most of us don’t usually consider bathrooms in such poetic terms), but Richardson makes a very persuasive case:

“For Nina, trapped under the eyes of her mother and fellow ballerinas, bathroom moments are essential. She has grown to adulthood without ever having true privacy. It is only when Nina is given a private dressing room, the first room in her life that is truly respected as hers, that her rival identity emerges. This is the darker Nina that then bars her bathroom and bedroom door. This is the Nina that emerges only when given solitude.”

Her argument is strengthened by the stills she weaves throughout her narrative, which illustrate a number of the movie’s “bathroom moments.” For example:

Image via Kartina Richardson’s Mirror blog

Huge thanks to Annemarie Dooling (@TravelingAnna on Twitter) for bringing this review to my attention. Dooling also pointed me to this New Yorker blog post, which calls Richardson’s review “a brief and memorable read… it should be widely anthologized, and remembered alongside the movie that it so splendidly elucidates.” Wowza.

As I alluded to above, to me, “Black Swan” is the story of a young woman establishing an identity independent of her mother’s control, and at the same time, awakening as an artist; these emergences are intrinsically connected, as I bet they are for many female artists. Of course, a man’s emotional abuse and sexual harassment are major engines that fuel her awakening, which I find very disturbing (I’m speaking, of course, of the company director, Thomas). Nonetheless, Nina does triumph, and in the end, expresses something that is uniquely hers… not her mother’s, not Thomas’s, but hers.

Then, of course, she kills herself.

No, our heroine doesn’t go on to live a healthy and artistically satisfying life — she gives one virtuoso performance, the fullest expression of herself as an artist and person, and then she dies.

Would certain artists gladly give their lives, if only to experience such a moment of brilliance?


But that’s not the only kind of artist there is. As Valerie Meacham points out on her Divababble blog, the character of Lily represents a more balanced kind of artist:

“Lily is confident, healthy, secure… She has achieved a level of professional success very nearly on a par with Nina’s without sacrificing the rest of her life.”

I’m grateful to Meacham for pointing this out (and to Beth Taggard, aka @ourladybeth, for sending me Meacham’s post), because without recognizing Lily as a counterpoint to Nina’s brand of artist (and the character of Beth is an equally unstable artist), it would be tempting to think that “Black Swan” is saying that artists are necessarily tortured creatures; and that’s a myth that I’m personally pretty tired of hearing. As an artist myself, I can attest to being emotional, and complex… to finding a kind of relief in personal expression than nothing else provides. But would I kill myself to create a masterpiece? No f*cking way. And is there more to my life than my art? Absolutely. (Check out this Onion piece for a great ribbing of the tortured artist archetype.)

“Mr. Aronofsky’s film is about a feeling all performers are familiar with, the spooky sense, when you’re in full flight, that you’ve crossed over into the dark territory of dream, or fairy tale, somewhere you haven’t seen before. It’s the exhilaration of losing yourself, and the fear of being lost to yourself forever.”

Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times

The journey Nina goes on is dark, and terrifying — but it leads her to find herself, which, not coincidentally, happens as she completely loses herself in her opening night performance; at that moment, she has finally integrated her internal and external selves into one, powerful whole. The even greater challenge, of course — which Nina is not able to conquer — is to experience that integration in everyday life.

What did you think of the film? Do you agree with me that the film is as much about coming into your own as a young woman, as it is about finding yourself as an artist?

6 thoughts on “Black Swan: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

  1. I thought Black Swan was cinematical genius. Dark? Disturbing? Absolutely. Yet, brilliant. I think I watched it from a completely different place from many as I'm not only a woman… I'm also bipolar. We tend to be a bit obsessive. The drive for perfection didn't come from her domineering mother. That's internal. We can also be elitists (not all, mind you). Nina clearly, in both manifestations of herself, thought she was far superior to others… even in the midst of her more unsure moments. I know that seems paradoxical, but it is the nature of the beast.


  2. Beth, that is a fascinating interpretation. I'm not bipolar but I related to the extremes Nina experienced — not in a literal way, but then I felt that the film blurred literal and metaphorical… anyway, I find your interpretation really fascinating.Curious, what's the role of the mother in the film, in your mind? Why's she there, what's her purpose in the story?


  3. I just saw the movie, and am still processing. It was very visually beautiful and the effects were subtle and eerie. I somewhat disagree with your assessment of Thomas's character. I don't agree that he is emotionally abusing or sexually harrassing. He was the director of a large number of highly-driven, highly-stressed athelete-artists, nearly all female and many carrying personal baggage provoking everything from the "Mean Girls" style behaviour to paralysing fear to outright psychosis. From that medium he has to create art that satisfys demanding audiences. The role of the Black Swan required an aspect of an artist under his direction that she was not delivering – and what that role needed was sexual response. Nina was so sexually inhibited she couldn't respond, even to herself, until the frustration combined with drugs/alcohol, channeling her fixation on Lily into a sexual victory. Thomas has to find a way to draw the sexuality out of her. He's an artist too – using methods that have succeeded for him in the past (Beth) to create his vision. I'm also not sure I can agree that Nina "found herself". I'm more inclined to say that while she achieved the trancedence she sought, she did so at the expense of reality, and in her visions of that crumbling reality combining with the lead up to the trancendence, she destroyed herself.The "bathroom moments" concept is really interesting — and I would add "mirror moments" as a second theme. Nina lives constantly in front of mirrors — even in the bathroom, her moments of privacy, she faces herself. There were so many mirrors and often they were used blantantly as a device for reflecting Nina's visions, and most sigficantly, her weapon for stabbing herself. There were more subtle uses too – when Lily comes home with Nina (or Nina is imagining it so) some mirrors reflect Lily and some don't. In your own choice for "bathroom moment", Amanda, the mirror is the thing in the bathroom she is interacting with, and word WHORE is written in lipstick – who stole lipstick? Natalie did – and the mirror is reflecting her face in the word. Who wrote WHORE in the mirror?Just a few of my thoughts, while still thinking it over. 🙂


  4. Man, my awakening as a young woman was NOTHING like that.I've got a less charitable take… Aronofsky is saying (or yelling) (both here and in his other films) that perfection can only be found in madness, or that the pursuit of perfection (common among artists) leads ultimately to self-destruction. Pi, The Fountain, The Wrestler and Black Swan all have that as a pretty central point, and Requiem for a Dream skirts with it.I enjoyed the spectacle of the film, and it's scope. But while I found something hopeful in his earlier work (esp. The Fountain), I saw Black Swan as more misogynistic, if not just misanthropic. Even Lily, who you reference as balanced above, is portrayed primarily as a druggie slut. She's less a character than a mechanism to compare with Nina. I think Aronofsky's becoming like Lars Von Triers without the Dogma thing.I'd also argue that Nina doesn't find herself as a young woman, or that if she does, then that's an ugly ugly view of womanhood. She never finds balance between her selves, she just vacillates wildly between them. As for whether she finds herself as a artist, I'd take the point of view that it's moot. A momentary epiphany before death does not self-actualization make. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the movie. I admired it's ambition. and I thought it was a nice synthesis of an "idea" movie and a "character" movie. I'm glad I saw it, though I won't actively recommend it and won't see it again. Black Swan takes a pretty grim view of art, women and life. I need to go watch a Drew Barrymore romantic comedy to cleanse myself a bit.


  5. Wow. Just wow. I just saw it (and am, therefore, late to this party). I totally get what you're saying – watched the artist vs. woman all the way through the movie. From infantalized, frozen in time princess through the fractured adolescence, to the final integration. I did think it was lame that she had to go and kill herself, though I know it was a mirror (all those mirrors…) of the journey of the white swan.As a performer, I would love to find that role that grips me as much as the swans gripped Nina. There is something about a moment on stage (too seldom) where you suddenly find yourself inhabiting the role, speaking as the character, reacting in the moment that feels like nothing else on earth. For those of us who act/improvise/dance/sing, it's a drug. We spend so much time practicing, rehearsing for that high. When everything falls away and you're just there, in the room and the only thing that exists is the character, the moment. Crack.I could really identify with the mother/daughter separation. I just wanted to scream every time her mother came in to put her to bed. For many women, myself included, identity separation from our mothers is hard. In my case, mom didn't want to let go and still doesn't. Hence the desire to scream at the screen.I could go on and on and on. Instead, I'll rewrite the ending myself. She dances, she lives. She revels. She moves out of her childhood home, embraces the dichotomy and enjoys it. She can still sprout wings, though.


  6. Karen, beautifully said. I'm with you 100%!! …especially the "she still sprouts wings" part. Katie – this is so well put: "while she achieved the transcendence she sought, she did so at the expense of reality." For me, the style of the movie blurred metaphor and objective reality to such an extent that I stopped trying to parse them and went along for the fantastical ride. So if you put aside the dichotomy of "real" versus "imagined" and take it all as a kind of magical realism (though I'm sure I'm abusing the formal meaning of that term)… then I think the ending resonates in a different way. …as far as Thomas… I totally see what you mean, and that was my initial reaction to him. He's hardly hot for her… he does what he does to elicit the performance he needs. Still… not cool. Directors through the ages have found ways to connect with artists without fondling them or telling them to fondle themselves. John, I haven't seen any of his other films except for Pi, which I saw ages ago, so I don't have the advantage of viewing Black Swan in the full context of his work. I agree that the film presents a grim view, but I do think it captures in a poetic way the torturous experience of coming into your own as an artist and young woman. I'm afraid for women I know, this is not a sugar-and-sunshine kind of experience. Granted, it's not always as grim of an experience as the one portrayed in this film, but the intensity definitely resonates for me on a visceral level. And I don't necessarily think he's saying that BEING an artist and woman is quite this torturous…rather, it's the BECOMING.


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