When it comes to more nuanced notions of gender and repression, however, Black Swan becomes much more thematically murky. For purposes of this post, I will focus on the issues of female adulthood, independence, and sexuality in our protagonist, Nina. Through its depiction of her journey to self-destruction, Black Swan delivers the clear message that a free woman is a dangerous woman, perhaps less miserable than the trapped girl but certainly more devastating.
The primary female influence on Nina is her mother, Erica Sayers, played by Barbara Hershey. A failed ballerina who gave up her career for her daughter, Erica lives vicariously through Nina. At the same time, Erica keeps her daughter in a consistently infantile state. Nina’s room is pink and filled with stuffed animals, and her bedroom door is perpetually open. When Nina gets the lead role in Swan Lake, her mother buys her a cake and, after Nina refuses a large piece, almost throws the whole thing out. The proper balance is restored only when Nina relents, if only a little, and Erica feeds Nina some frosting off the tip of her finger as one might to a baby or a pet. Even Nina’s sexuality is strictly corralled. Erica sometimes spends the night in her daughter’s room, explicitly preventing Nina from exploring that part of herself. This mother-daughter relationship, clearly, is not a healthy one, and it is one that explicitly keeps Nina from entering into adulthood, much less taking control of it.
This is the Nina we have at the start of Black Swan, a young woman trapped in a child trapped in a woman’s body, and this is the Nina who is perfect for the innocent White Swan but not so for the dark and sensual Black Swan. This is the woman the head of the ballet company, Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, casts as the Swan Queen.
When we first meet Thomas, he is stalking through a room of ballerinas, appraising them, touching them as a mark of who gets to audition for the Swan Queen and who does not. This scene oozes male dominance, male ownership, over the female, and this impression is affirmed when Nina visits his office in order to ask for the role. She knows to do her hair and put on lipstick, to put on a sexualized feminine presentation. And Thomas notices, Thomas points it out, and Thomas grabs her and kisses her.
To the film’s credit, this scene is portrayed as the assault it is, and when she bites him and runs away we see his behavior as horrifying, sexist, and unfair. Nina’s talent should win her this role, not Thomas’s decision to take sexual advantage of an employee.
But it is this scene—or, more accurately, her willingness to fight in a sexually aggressive situation—that lands Nina the part.
Repeatedly, what can be described most accurately as sexual harassment or all-out assault from Thomas is depicted as disturbing but overwhelmingly necessary or justified, not only to get ahead in the ballet industry but also for Nina’s personal growth. Intrusive questions about Nina’s sexual habits, an order to masturbate, and even a physical seduction are Thomas’s methods for teaching Nina to become the Black Swan, and this harassment sparks Nina’s sexual awakening. Nina even develops feelings for Thomas. Repeatedly the film tells us that Nina is repressed, infantilized, shut in by herself and her surroundings, and while Thomas is certainly not the good guy for what he does, his role as sexual gatekeeper blurs what should be a morally clear-cut issue. It’s no coincidence that the director states, “That whole scene with Natalie when he tells her to go touch herself, it's really not that out of line” (Source). For the director and for the film it isn’t, because the end product is justified by the means.
The product here being a woman crafted into the perfect Swan Queen, the means an aggressive male authority figure forcing his sexuality on a female employee, something the rest of us might call a crime.
One must be careful, however, to note that Nina’s sexuality is not depicted as a particularly good thing. In keeping with tradition, the dark and even the murderous are sexual in Black Swan. Perhaps because that which is repressed must be released in an equally violent manner, Nina’s sexuality is destructive and a marker of her own moral degradation. Her growing independence is treated in a similar manner, and develops alongside this sexuality.
Take Mila Kunis’s Lily, the embodiment of everything Nina has buried deep inside her. Free in her dance, in her consumption, in her speech, in her manners, in her sex, Lily acts as Nina’s foil, both for the character and for the audience. She is also the one to lead Nina into autonomy, especially sexual autonomy, first by a visit to a club and then through oral sex. Lily literally takes Nina away from the controlled environment of her mother’s apartment, but even then, she spikes Nina’s drink. This free spirit is deceitful and dangerously so, and as Nina becomes more and more confident and sexually aggressive, performing a mind-blowing performance as the Black Swan and kissing Thomas in front of the other dancers, she becomes more violent and morally questionable, killing “Lily”/herself and attempting to cover up the crime.
Also notable is that, during their sex scene, Nina is not actually with Lily but with the dark version of herself, Lily simply a hallucination. (I could go into the theme of female homosexuality as something dark, forbidden, wrong, and tantalizing here, but that’s a topic for another post.) After reaching orgasm, Nina is literally smothered by her own doppelganger, this sexual release leading to a sort of breakdown and death.
By repressing all of these aspects of her adulthood and womanhood, what could be healthy is blown up to unhealthy extremes—one can’t help but wonder, though, just what would healthy extremes be? In Black Swan we only see unhealthy femininity, unhealthy sexuality, unhealthy womanhood. Healthy limits are never defined, and it is in fact left questionable whether these even exist, especially for women.
By the end of the film, Nina can be considered an independent actor. She has broken away from her mother and calmly convinced Thomas to give her the role of the Swan Queen. She has even gained control of her own sexuality, as seen in her kiss of Thomas. At the same time, however, we have actually seen her physical metamorphosis into the Black Swan—a hallucination or delusion, perhaps, but no less a symbol of transformation into something dark and unnatural. After all, escaping her mother involved breaking her mother’s hand. The relationship with Thomas was never a healthy one, and so even this expression of her desires is darkened. Perhaps most importantly, reaching this stage in her adulthood has literally cost Nina her moral and physical life. In order to keep the part of the Swan Queen Nina has committed murder, if only in her mind, and in actuality she has stabbed herself.
In Black Swan, we follow what is in many ways a coming of age tale. Nina, a sexually innocent young woman, is infantilized by her mother and surrounded by figures of an aggressive and developed sexuality, and in order to play the role of the Black Swan, she must force herself to grow up, and she must do so quickly. At every stage of this process, however, she is either revictimized or must victimize others, including herself, in order to reach any sort of autonomy. It is tempting to read this negative portrayal as a scathing criticism of a sexist culture, but there is scarce evidence for such a reading; not in a world where even Lily, the closest thing Nina has to a friend and the film to a positive portrayal of female sexual independence, is cruel enough to spike Nina’s drink in a club. If this is how friends help friends, I’d hate to see how they hurt each other.
Black Swan is a fairy tale of broken womanhood. It is a world where mothers are wicked and little girls might be unhappy at home but at least they’re not stabbing themselves with broken glass. Black Swan is a world where women can’t win and not necessarily because of their circumstances, a world where men hurt women and this is bad, yes, but to some extent justified because it seems there is something fundamentally twisted about female sexuality anyway.
It is a world where, the moment you let the women free, they’re more than capable of destroying themselves.