March 24, 2023
Thanks to Eden Tesfaslassie, HMU 2022 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
In Black Swan, the film utilizes the ballet performance Swan Lake, based on a fairytale, as a frame. The film uses other elements of the fairy tale genre, as evidenced by the character archetypes. The viewer can see characteristics of mothers, Prince Charmings, and villains reflected in the film’s ensemble cast. Black Swan follows Nina (played by Natalie Portman) as the main protagonist. Nina’s mother fears any liberating experiences, such as those Nina seeks with dance instructor Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel). As the film progresses, we see her shift from the comfort and safety provided by her mother to a more adventurous and thrilling lifestyle that her instructor offers. However, when we closely analyze her Prince Charming, dance instructor Leroy, the audience can see that his role in Nina’s life seems more similar to a villain than a prince.
To understand Nina’s actions and relationships with the other characters, we must define certain terms of the fairytale frame. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ short story collection, Women Who Run With the Wolves, analyzes different myths and stories to understand the many archetypes of women and other archetypal figures around them. Even though the texts vary from different times and regions of the world, most of the stories carry similar ideas throughout the anthology.
Estes discusses multiple types of mothers in her work. In Black Swan, Nina’s mom, Erica, exhibits traits of the too-good mother. Initially, Estes states people need a too-good mother to shield them while they are young. However, as children develop, they need a different mother that acts less protective, so they can gain skills to interact with the world. If the too-good mother had her way, life would always be comfortable. The too-good mother cannot linger, and the audience can see the consequences of that with Nina. The mother-daughter relationship between Erica and Nina stems from a power imbalance. Erica does not consider Nina an adult. She infantilizes her to an extreme degree, as evident by the style of Nina’s bedroom. It is overwhelmingly pink and filled with dolls, stuffed toys, and ruffles. In addition, Nina possesses no privacy, and her mother can enter her room whenever she wants. Typically, bedrooms act as vehicles of self-expression or places of solace. Nina does not have that. Her room behaves more like a place of performative girlhood and perpetual innocence. Even though the room does not reflect Nina’s true personality, it demonstrates how she is stuck as her mother’s “sweet girl” indefinitely. This makes the scene where Nina disposes of all the childish remnants in her room so important. It represents her stepping out of that coddled-doll mindset.
There is nothing wrong with Nina asserting herself outside the obedient daughter role. Erica stifles Nina, and her behavior perverts what a proper mother should embody. Nina’s shift towards independence resembles the idea of initiation in fairytale journeys. Estes credits the initiation process as stimulating women to shed their naivete and develop their egos, which helps them better interact with the outside world. It is essential to their personal growth. However, Nina has no real-life experience, so when she decides to venture outside her nest, she has no idea what awaits her. This is where the villain enters.
In Women Who Run With the Wolves, villains are referred to as predators. Estes defines them as innate forces in human lives. They exist in people’s psyches and the outside world. Nina’s predators manifest in internal struggles such as her fixation on perfection. Nina’s inner conflict also makes her more susceptible prey for external predators. These types of predators only want perfection and portray a false sense of freedom. This gives them ample opportunities to take control of people’s lives. Nina becomes smitten with Leroy because his teachings of transcendence and perfection align with her internal conflict. With the introduction of Leroy, Nina changes into a more instinctual and wild being, but it goes beyond the stage. His instructions for Nina to personify the Black Swan character bleed into her personal life. Leroy’s liberation serves as a foil to the overbearing Erica. The audience can understand why Nina views Leroy as her Prince Charming; he even refers to Nina as his princess. However, while Leroy’s presence symbolizes a trial in Nina’s initiation journey, it is not the savior but the predator. Because of her inexperience, Nina can not recognize Leroy’s actions as exploitative.
The two dominant figures in Nina’s life become harmful because their roles play into each other. The film intentionally portrays these two relationships in sequence with one another. Usually, after a scene with her mother, Nina shares one with Leroy. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, Leroy aggressively kisses Nina, and she bites him in response. Next, Erica pressures Nina into eating a cake she does not want, which ends with Nina licking icing from her mother’s finger. Even though Nina fights Leroy and acquiesces to her mother, these responses appear more similar than one would think. Nina bites and licks as a reaction to these uncomfortable situations. These are childish responses, but Nina does not possess the skill set to navigate these interactions as an adult. However, this changes as Leroy’s presence influences Nina. She begins to rebel, and her behavior resembles a teenager acting out for the first time. She gets a lock for her room, experiments with sex, and goes out for a night in the city without her mother’s permission. The original dichotomy has shifted. By the end of the movie, Nina regards her mother with disdain and aspires to have Leroy’s approval at any cost.
Even though Nina steps away from her mother’s control, she trades in one toxic relationship for another. She does not see how her mother and Leroy’s actions mirror each other. Erica smothered Nina; she could not grow in that kind of environment. But with Leroy, Nina’s new freedom overwhelms her. She does not know how to deal with it, and it unravels her. We can see this adverse effect on her mental health. Nina has vivid hallucinations, self-harms, and becomes more violent. In the climax of the film, Erica goes to extreme lengths to keep Nina away from Leroy and the opening performance. She realizes the role changes Nina for the worse. Erica’s concerns, for the first time in this film, are justified, but it does not matter. Nina is fully ensnared by Leroy and achieving transcendence. She goes to the show. By the end of a perfect performance, she lies in a pool of her blood with Leroy holding her. Nina changes from her mother’s “sweet girl” to Leroy’s “little princess.” She dies with a smile on her face, unrepentant and unaware of the predator in front of her.
To leave a comment, click on the title above and scroll down.