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Nina Sayers is a ballerina in the prestigious New York Ballet company and is working to be cast as the Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake. While Nina is a fantastic dancer, she lacks the fire and passion to truly play the Black Swan and that the role is better suited for newcomer to the company, Lily. Nina is seen as the perfect choice for the White Swan who is the representation for innocence and grace, however, the Black Swan is quite the opposite, representing a more sensual side.
The role requires the dancer to represent both and to appropriately portray the duality of a feminine personality.
For Nina, getting in touch with her dark side to prepare for the role sends her into a downward spiral that eventually leads to her demise. Nina starts out as a well-mannered woman who is almost childlike. She lives with her overly obsessive mother. Her room is still decorated as though she is 5 rather than twenty-something.
And her mother still tucks her in at night, only playing into the childlike nature of Nina’s personality. This is also seen in her wardrobe. Only wearing white, cream, and pale tones of pink. These give off the vibe of her innocent and non-threatening persona. Her need to be in control is signified by her anorexic and bulimic behaviors.
This movie plays heavily on what it is to be feminine and the duality of femininity. Beginning with the focus on ballet itself. Ballet is often looked to as a representation of femininity as well as a physical appearance that is unattainable.
A sense of innocence is also given off when you think of the typical portrayal of a ballerina. The graceful movements and that pale colors associated with that image plays into what is also thought of as what is appropriate of a young girl. Purity, in this case, is seen as a weakness. Thomas, the artistic director for the ballet company, telling Nina she wasn’t arousing enough to play the role of the black swan and therefore would not be cast as the lead was the catalyst for Nina’s spiral. She strive for perfection and inability to show passion in her dance is her biggest obstacle.
One she decides abruptly to get over starting with her kiss with Thomas that gets him to rethink his previous decision. Her mission to prove herself continues when Lily is introduced. Lily embodies the Black Swan and is the foil to Nina. Her performance as she dances comes off as effortless, carefree, and passionate. Lily and Nina’s relationship is both liberating for Nina but also extremely destructive. We as an audience are left to decide if Nina is attracted to Lily because she admires her or fears that she will be the reason she doesn’t fulfill her dream. The scene where in which Lily and Nina engage in a more sexual relationship is one of the hallucinations that Nina has. I take this as Nina really coming into embrace her own sexuality and in a way, finding that same passion that Lily has.
It seems to be her wanting to overtake Lily and become her, rather than be with her. This idea is supported when Nina hallucinates that she murders Lily to ensure her place as the Black Swan but in the end she is faced with the fact that she’s murdering herself. The hallucination turns out to be Nina’s way of killing her old self, the White Swan. And beginning her transformation into the character. In “The Horror of Female Sexual Awakening”, Rebecca Willoughby states “the horror of Black Swan is the absolutely terrifying idea that a young woman might make it through the difficult process of maturation, develop a healthy, multi-faceted sexuality, and be successful at her chosen career at the same time”. I agree with this point because Nina lacks the ability to truly go through this process alone and it’s proven through how vivid her hallucinations become throughout the film.
She also tends to overreact as any child would when faced with these issues. Her abrupt changes in behavior are can be interpreted as tantrum-like. Lily’s entrance also introduces the other stereotype often placed upon women, The Whore. This theme suggests that all women are extremely good or extremely bad. It’s defined by sexuality, the “good” coming off as an asexual, innocent being where the “bad” is seen as sexual and predatory. The tie between sexuality and Nina’s mental decline is apparent. Her downfall seems to quicken after her loss of inhibitions, something that came about after the sexual experience with Lily. The theme of the Virgin vs the Whore or Good Girl vs Bad Girl is not only a common trope in movies but is a dilemma woman face even now.
The fear of our power and abilities and the fear to allow both sides to be seen. This duality is mostly portrayed throughout the film using mirror and Nina’s own reflection. This is seen when Nina is first given the role as the Swan and her vision of herself begins to disintegrate. Her hallucinations begin when she sees herself wearing a black coat and high heels in her reflection despite wearing a pink coat and white scarf. The double appears a few times during the film, taking on a life of its own. By the end of the film, Nina has spiraled so much and has gone mad. This results in her dying as the black swan does at the end of Swan Lake. This fully completes her transformation into the Black Swan. In her final moments, Nina tells Thomas that she’s perfect. This “perfection” that Nina reaches by the end of her performance suggests that true perfection is unattainable.
In “Exploring Female Relationships in ‘Black Swan’.”, Lowen states “…at some level it also addresses how we women fear our own power and abilities, believing that if we fully exercise both, we risk obliterating and destroying those around us—including ourselves” I agree that the film clearly gives off the message that perfection will ultimately destroy the women that strive for it, but I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment. I believe that had Nina had the resources and was given the time to truly take her transformation into the black swan and into womanhood the correct and healthy way, she could’ve danced the role just as well without having to go through the traumatic experiences she endured.
We also have Nina’s relationship with Thomas. Nina believes he is a positive mentor. Giving her the role over Beth, the former lead in the company, solidifies his belief in her ability in her mind. However, Thomas is a sexual predator. He’s idolized by many for his “talent” and his behavior and treatment toward women tends to be overlooked, ignored, or excused because of his position. Because he has some control over these women’s careers, they don’t bring attention to his blatant sexual assault and abuse of his power over them. While we as the audience know Thomas is a type of villain in this scenario, the excuses made for him are disturbingly close to reality.
In the article ‘The Black Swan” the author points out that Thomas the only way to get Nina to portray the role correctly is to sexually humiliate her and to push her physical boundaries. This also heavily contributes to her downward spiral. Nina doesn’t seem to authentically enjoy any part of her transformation into the black swan. Everything she does to herself is only to get the approval of her abuser and leads to her having a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with Thomas. Nina’s lack of a good mother figure is also made apparent throughout the film. Erica, Nina’s mother, is a former ballerina who is living vicariously through her daughter. While Erica cheers on her daughter’s successes we later see that she’s very jealous and displays a lot of animosity toward Nina.
She seems to do things to sabotage her and knowingly send her even further down her rabbit hole of madness. Nina, in her childlike mind, needs someone to look up to and idolize. The obvious choice for her would be Beth, the former female star in the company. Beth was everything Nina strives to be. She even steals the woman’s lipstick. This further proves the point that Nina is still in the mindset of a child. Stealing Beth’s lipstick to feel more like the leading lady is similar to a child playing dress up and using her mother’s makeup. Nina later takes her place as the female lead of the company and that guilt is yet another thing that drags her deeper into madness. Nina has never had to grow as a person.
Her strive for perfection has put becoming a woman on the backburner. When she finally does decide it’s time to grow up she turns to doing things she sees as adult such as smoking and exploring her sexuality. Her transformation requires the full mental capacity of an adult. Something Nina lacks. This is why the quick transition from childhood to adulthood leads to her death. Each relationship with every adult in her life also plays a major role into brining Nina to her breaking point. Whether they saw themselves as helping Nina improve or grow is debatable, but the end result is the same. Nina dances beautifully in her final show. She achieves the perfection she longed for. That action came with major consequence as Nina, just s the black swan, dies in the final act.
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