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) 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' 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?