[Marxism] Black Swan is a misogynistic mess

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 18 07:06:34 MST 2010

Posted on December 16, 2010, Printed on December 18, 2010

Swanday Bloody Swanday: Darren Aronofsky's Sadistic, Misogynistic New Film

By Debra Cash, Arts Fuse

Darren Aronofsky has said the idea for his film Black Swan clicked for 
him when he realized that the enchanted swan maidens of Tchaikovsky’s 
Swan Lake were kind of like werewolves.

His movie is a horror, all right, but not the horror the director intended.

The pre-release publicity juggernaut behind this $17 million feature 
focused attention on the rigorous training star Natalie Portman put into 
preparing for her role as Nina Sayers, the innocent young ballerina 
getting her big break when she is cast in the most iconic role in the 
classical repertoire.

Physical therapists pulled her legs to lengthen them; her feet 
eventually were covered in gruesome blisters and calluses; she 
dislocated a rib practicing a lift; and she spent months eating salad to 
whittle down her already petite frame. (She also got a boyfriend out of 
the project, the choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millipied.)

Portman is convincing as far as that goes: the swooping, off-kilter 
camerawork fixes on her face, arms, and occasionally a well-balanced 
move in toe shoes, supplementing those images with close-ups of feet and 
shots of professional-caliber partnering performed by her body double, 
American Ballet Theater dancer Sarah Lane.

Other critics have already described how, in Black Swan, director 
Aronofsky is continuing his exploration—in films like The Wrestler—of 
bodies pushed beyond ordinary limits.

But Black Swan isn’t about surpassing ordinary limits. It’s a film about 
a masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist. Black Swan could be a 
textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with 
a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens. 
Aronofsky’s fable portrays female powerlessness on every level—youth, 
friendship, collegiality, retirement, motherhood.

Nina dances under the strict, demeaning eye of Thomas Leroy, the company 
artistic director who uses his casting power to solicit his ballerinas. 
Insinuating (and French actor Vincent Cassel has just the right degree 
of cosmopolitan sleaze), he gets Nina back to his palatial apartment, 
asks about her sexual history, and tells her to go home and masturbate 
so that she can learn to lose control. What in other workplaces would be 
grounds for sexual harassment charges is presented as legitimate—if 
self-serving—artistic coaching. Nina tries to maintain her dignity but 
later goes back to her bedroom—the one wallpapered with pink butterflies 
and decorated with stuffed animals and a music box that plays, yes, the 
theme from Swan Lake—and practices what he preached.

Oh dear. Portman is a fine actress. If she gets the rumored Oscar nod 
for this scenery-chewing role, it will be for moments like the one where 
she locks herself in a ladies’ room stall to call her former-dancer 
mother on her cell phone to announce she got the part. Disbelief, joy, 
and the sheer desire for her mother’s approval race across her scrubbed 
face. But the alternating bouts of hovering and sabotage she gets from 
her mother (Barbara Hershey, looking Botoxed and grim) is its own kind 
of ghoulishness. So are the bits where we see Winona Ryder as a deposed 
prima ballerina, blubbery and drunk or battered and hospitalized.

As the young replace the old, the old have little to offer—even in an 
art form that relies on the oral transmission of knowledge. I guess one 
expects that message from Hollywood where flavor-of-the-month starlets 
are commonplace, but it’s especially reprehensible in a movie that in 
its first boffo weekend of limited release skewed strongly to a young 

If dancing is about anything, it’s about bodily integrity. Black Swan is 
rife with images of mutilation. As Nina prepares for the role that 
requires she alternate the roles of the pure white swan with that of her 
evil twin, the black one, she begins to find strange scratches on her 
back, bleeding cuticles, and unexplained stigmata. This mutilation had 
been presaged by shots of dancers pulling apart and thwacking their toe 
shoes to get them soft enough to dance in, so apparently Nina’s defenses 
are breaking down. As she slowly loses her mind—or maybe it was lost to 
begin with—and the blood and violence increase, we see Portman 
traversing a maze of reflecting surfaces—subway doors, 
mirrors—art-directed to convey the nature of her fracturing reality. And 
of course, there is no happy ending.

Mila Kunis as Nina’s understudy and possible rival Lily puts a cigarette 
in her mouth with the swagger we usually associate with Bogart. Lily is 
a naturally sexual black swan who puts drugs into Nina’s drink and 
may—or may not—take her to bed. And guess what? In a film where the 
sexual predator is an older man, the most graphic, soft porn sex is 
between two young women. Who’s watching now?

In a recent interview, Portman explained that during the shoot director 
Darren Aronfsky kept messing with her mind. He’d tell her that Kunis was 
looking really good in her ballet scenes and then turn around and tell 
Kunis that Portman was the real achiever. The women would meet, compare 
notes, and just laugh about the sheer transparency of his ploy. Their 
solidarity was secure.

Because unlike their fictional characters, they knew what it takes to 
play their roles as ballerinas. It’s called acting.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, 
design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. A 
former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, next summer she returns as 
Scholar in Residence to the Bates Dance Festival.

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