I used to watch Black Swan at least once a week, which was odd, given that none of the women I knew could stop talking about how misogynist it was.
The plot of Black Swan — if you never managed to pierce the thick outer layer of memes to get to the thing itself — is that a very young and very uptight ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, has been suddenly pulled out of her ballet company’s chorus and into the starring role for a production of Swan Lake. She has only been given this role because her company’s director, played by Vincent Cassel (an actor who seemingly exists purely to play sinister French sex maniacs) has a habit of picking up and discarding young, pretty girls. His previous favorite — played by a pre-comeback Winona Ryder, in a role that seems like a pointed comment on the fact of Winona Ryder needing a “comeback” at all — is in the hospital following a suicide attempt, so we can see that this process never ends well for the girl in question. As Portman begins to prepare for the role, with Cassel alternately over-praising her, groping her, and telling her what a talentless piece of shit she is, her psyche starts to splinter, and she becomes suicidal herself.
If I frame the plot this way, you see why I liked it: It sounds a proto-#MeToo story, a comment on how dangerous “visibility” is for women in an industry controlled by male gatekeepers, a story about being unsure whether your success is due to your talent or to the sinister motivations of the men above you. It’s about women being the “beneficiaries” of a starmaking process that will rip them apart and throw them out with the trash the minute they age, or gain weight, or get sick, or show any personal defects whatsoever. It’s about a woman who dies whispering the words “I was perfect,” having ritually disemboweled herself in order to earn some respect at work.
Well: That’s what I thought. Everyone else thought it was a misogynist Madonna/whore parable about how much Darren Aronofsky wanted to see Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman make out with each other, which, to be fair, also happens in this movie. They noticed how terrible Natalie Portman’s mother is, how her maternal care functions as a suffocating pillow over her daughter’s face, or how everyone keeps calling Winona Ryder’s character a bitch, and how Ryder earns it; they asked what it meant that the only sympathetic female characters were very young women, and that even those women were framed as promiscuous (Kunis) or unstable (Portman, to a spectacular degree). They noticed what Cassel keeps saying: That Natalie Portman will never be a great dancer until she learns to be sexy, and that the best way to learn to be sexy is to have sex with Vincent Cassel, like, right now.
Black Swan is a movie about a woman coming apart. It’s about feminine vulnerability and instability. The question is whether you can traverse that territory — or, bluntly, whether a male director can traverse it — without giving the impression that women are, on the whole, weak and unstable. I think you can. I watched Black Swan during my weaker moments; I connected to it because the ways Portman comes apart felt like the ways I was coming apart at the time. A weak moment does not a weak woman make. One story about women falling apart does not mean falling apart is all can we do.
The big, meme-able element of Black Swan, of course, is the doppelgängers. Portman’s role requires her to play both the “good” (virginal) White Swan and the “bad” (sexual) Black Swan. She can dance the white, but not the black; she can be a good girl, but she can’t fuck. That this division is flatly insulting to women, that our moral caliber is not determined by whether we have sex or with whom we have sex or how often we have it, is something we can maybe take as a given. The point is that, from the very first frame of the movie, Portman is always already both White and Black Swan. She carries the potential for both roles within her. The White Swan is the only role she feels comfortable with; it’s the only version of herself she wants to be. Therefore, the Black Swan — her other half, her missing instincts, all the below-the-surface wildness and messiness of her psyche — is always popping up, screwing with her, being projected onto other people or onto the landscape.
Mila Kunis — the hot girl, the wild girl, the girl that Portman both crushes on and perpetually suspects of being after her job — is sometimes the Black Swan, in this movie. But sometimes the Black Swan is Natalie Portman’s reflection. Sometimes it’s a stranger on the subway. Sometimes the Black Swan is Natalie Portman’s own body, warping, bleeding, sprouting feathers like new body hair, insisting on its strange and awful hungers no matter how hard she tries to ignore it.
Portman is split off from herself in all the ways our culture likes to split women up: Virgin/whore, sweetheart/bitch, obedient baby daughter/raving adult nympho who does ecstasy and gets eaten out by Mila Kunis in her childhood bedroom. Those splits are enforced on most of us, but the fact remains that we all exist on both sides of that line. (Okay, the Mila Kunis thing is not necessarily universal. Still, a girl can dream!) Even the most heavy-breathing moments of Portman Exploring Her Sexuality, in their icky balance of allure and alarm, are grounded first and foremost in Portman’s alarm: Fear of herself, fear of what she needs, fear of who she could be if she let go even a little.
There are real reasons for this woman to be split off from her adult sexuality. One convincing reading posits that her mother is sexually abusive, which makes sense of why her “care” for Portman’s body always feels so sinister and invasive. There’s also the pretty clear implication that Portman isn’t “frigid” because she’s scared of sex, she’s just not heterosexual, and engaging with her sexuality at all brings up questions she’d prefer to ignore, like what Mila Kunis is doing later. Sexual abuse splits people off from their bodies all the time; it makes sense that, when your body comes back, it would feel alien, awful, like turning into another kind of animal. Our culture teaches women, and particularly queer women, to fear themselves and each other. It is not surprising when women rip themselves in half to get away from their “bad” selves, their “bad” feelings, the “bad” desires that won’t stop rippling their muscles and poking through their skin.
Black Swan does all this theatrically, melodramatically, with that signature Aronofsky commitment to bludgeoning subtlety to death and leaving it by the side of the road so that you can speed over the border to transcendence — Natalie Portman flips out and murders the girl she has a crush on only to find out that, gasp, she was really murdering herself!!!!! — but that’s how any breakdown feels, a visceral, un-subtle, bloody, show-stopping mess that only you can see. The question is whether this feels to you (as it did to me) intimate, like someone letting you so far in that you can touch them, or whether it just looks fucking ridiculous. I have substantial evidence that a lot of people took the second option. There’s me, the woman who’s watched Black Swan twenty times. Then, there are all the memes.
There’s a moment in another movie everyone hated — I, Tonya — that is as close as I can get to explaining how writing feels to me, when I do it right. We watch Tonya Harding hit the triple axel, one of the hardest jumps in figure skating, and a thing that, prior to Tonya Harding, American women could not do. She jumps, she lands, she beams at the audience. It happens so fast you don’t really see it, so the movie slows down and plays it in slow motion. Not just the jump, but her face, how tightly screwed-up it is, how much physical effort and concentration goes into this half-second of her life. We hear her internal monologue, explaining how difficult this was. We know already that she’s poor, abused by parents, beaten by her husband, that judges sneer at her lack of grace and white-trash music choices, that people have been telling her she’s shit in creative ways for her entire life, and that is all context for this one thing she does, turning her body in the air exactly three and a half times in a specific formation, doing one thing she’s been told over and over she can’t do. She jumps. She lands. We see the smile again, but we see it differently: Thank you, says the big, toothy grin. “Fuck you,” says the internal monologue in the voice-over.
This is not a jumping-off point to talk about how hard life is for me, because I don’t think it’s harder for me than it is for most women, and it has in fact been easier in most respects. It is to say that I am drawn to these stories about women and exertion, women who drive themselves to the breaking point trying to be good at something. “Female ambition” is often dismissed as snaky and treacherous, or hollow and neoliberal, a desire to get out of your victimhood and into a corner office so you can start victimizing other women. But ambition is not always ambition for money. It is not always about power — at least, not power over anyone else. Sometimes ambition is turning your body three-and-a-half times in the air in a specific formation. Sometimes it’s restructuring the sentence sixteen times until it sounds spontaneous and off-the-cuff. Sometimes it’s Natalie Portman on the floor of a ballet studio, waving her arm up and down until she can make it undulate like a swan’s wing; like something with inhuman bones.
“I was perfect,” Natalie Portman says, at the end of Black Swan. Her perfection annihilates her. But she wants it so fiercely. She runs right into it, lets her perfection take everything she has. The year I watched Black Swan, I was just starting to become known as a writer; I had done a campaign that attracted national attention, and it had also attracted plenty of trolls, and it had furthermore attracted lots of well-meaning but painful discussion of what kind of feminist I was, whether I deserved the amount of attention given to me, whether I measured up. So much emotion, I remember one woman writing, not thinking I would read it. Do we really need all the pathos? After an argument, one man wrote me to tell me that one of my real-life friends — I won’t tell you who, but she knows you — thought I was setting the feminist movement back by confirming stereotypes of women as overemotional. Perhaps this is true; I did have a particularly high level of emotion at that moment in time, because my abusive father was pretending to be dying so that I would give him my phone number. (He’s still alive. I haven’t called him.) I spent all day crying about my Dad, then I logged on to the Internet to be a strong female role model, then I cried about my Dad some more and read the comments. People told me I was a righteous once-in-a-generation hero, and people told me I was an ugly castrating bitch, and people told me that I was a mess who was letting the movement down. I never had one Vincent Cassel, I just had these comments, over-praising me or telling me what a talentless piece of shit I was. I spent all day dancing for them, trying to be perfect, and then I collapsed on the couch and I watched Black Swan.
Is that a story about a weak woman, a hysterical female? If so, is it sexist to tell it? Am I setting the movement back by confirming stereotypes of women? (That last one seems unlikely; I assume you know women other than me, so I can be as much of a crybaby as I want without fucking things up for the rest of us.) I doubt it. I put my chin up and dove back into the fray; a weak moment, not a weak girl. I’m not scared of my own capacity for feeling. I don’t hate it. Self-hatred is a feeling, too; it’s the one that kills you when nothing else can.
Portman destroys herself for perfection. She’s trying to be perfect in too many ways, by too many definitions: “Perfect,” to her mother, means being a dependent, obedient little girl. “Perfect,” for her boss, means being a pliable, disposable fuck doll. “Perfect,” for the culture, means being either a good girl or a hot girl, a sweetheart or a sex object, a virgin or a whore; it means being both, but never at the same time, or for your own satisfaction, turning parts of yourself on and off depending on what the people around you want to see.
In the end, though, she knows what perfection is. Perfection is the beast that ripples out of your body, the animal thing. Perfection is nailing every turn and jump the way you want to. Perfection is not what you are; it’s the thing you do, the animal power inside you, the ability to walk away from your boss and your mom and your weird-ass imaginary relationship with Mila Kunis and just fucking dance for once. White swan, black swan, doesn’t matter. Both are you, both live in your body, and even if they live in every other girl, too, this show tonight is yours.
If Portman could disappear into that perfection, if she could leave everyone else’s definitions behind and simply love the wild animal mess of herself for what it can do, she might not need to repress or contain it. She might not need to kill the parts that frighten her. She might do something else, be something else, dance more and better dances; she might live.
Black Swan is available to rent on YouTube, iTunes and Amazon Prime.
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