“Black Swan” (2010) and perfect girls

28 January 2011

“I just want to be perfect,” Natalie Portman’s character Nina explains to her director Tomas (Vincent Cassel), when she defends her gifts as a dancer. Perfect, but she’s not good enough. Honestly, I think that in 100 years when historians look back at the condition of women at the turn of the 21st century, they will use “I just want to be perfect” as the most cutting, accurate articulation of our culture’s contradictions. And when I say this, don’t focus solely on the word perfect — think about the word just as well. It’s a statement that begs for approval from others, assumes an impossible standard, and modestly begs not to be seen as unattractively ambitious. Viewers of Black Swan: get ready to enter our world.

Am I exaggerating? Certainly not for young women like Nina (Portman). Back in 2003 Duke University was rocked by an anonymous letter to the editor of the campus paper that described a woman’s slow loss of confidence during her undergraduate years at Duke. She explained that women undergrads adhered to the ideal of “effortless perfection” — the notion that they should have perfect hair, clothes, weight, grades, and success — demands made all the more impossible because girls must never display the crushing effort required to achieve any of it. They exercised on treadmills for hours to be able to eat pizza later on. They just had to be perfect. The letter led to the usual results (hand-wringing by the Women’s Studies department, denials that there might be a problem) but here’s the thing: this is hardly limited to Duke. The New York Times featured a story in 2007 about high school girls who do everything — and likewise strive to be “perfect” — and still get rejected, crushingly, from colleges. We’ve been bemoaning the diseases of anorexia, bulimia, and other distorted body image issues for more than a generation now; it doesn’t take much to see that thinness is part and parcel of a broader set of demands that likewise have overwhelming psychological effects on girls. Perfect, perfect, perfect. It’s the disease of our time. Is this movie an elaborate metaphor for the experience of girls and young women?

Who’d be more susceptible to this psychic burden than a ballet dancer? The competition, the necessary precision, the need to be beautiful as well as freakishly talented, the toll on one’s body. Portman has famously discussed losing a whopping twenty-plus pounds from her tiny body for the role (“I thought I was going to die,” she explained), a statement that has elicited little sympathy on the part of journalists, who write callous headlines like, “Does Natalie Portman weight loss mean Oscar gold?” No wonder there are so many scenes of her alone, picking at a loose piece of skin or afraid to look in a bathroom mirror, all of it taking place in cold, hard rooms. Want to read a brilliant, almost prose-poem piece on this film? Take a look at Kartina Richardson’s essay at Mirror on Black Swan, women, and bathroom mirrors (I can only admire the flow of good writing). As much as I watched this film with true amazement at what Portman achieved as a dancer for this role, I have a hard time thinking of this as simply a role; it sounds as if the actress herself spiraled down into a kind of method-acting hell. Thank you, Natalie Portman, for speaking candidly about the part’s difficulties, rather than pretend her physical perfection in the part came without effort. We would do well to follow her lead rather than focus on the post-production fact that she gained back the weight and got pregnant with her fiancé, also a dancer.

With all the conflicting expectations, no wonder Portman’s character starts to split in two. Is this because she’s unhealthy or too emotionally fragile, placing too many demands on herself? No, it’s because other people do, too. She’s perfect — the perfect daughter, a perfect dancer — but she’s not sexy enough to be the Black Swan. “When I look at you, all I see is the White Swan,” her director Tomas tells her. “Yes, you’re beautiful, restrained, graceful. Perfect casting. But the Black Swan … it’s a hard fucking job to dance both.” He patronizingly advises her to masturbate — to loosen up, to seduce him and the audience as the Black Swan. Yet when she does, she falls from grace as a perfect daughter; she looks with new eyes at her little-girl bedroom, all pink and white and stuffed animals and a ballerina music box. In the process she starts to see another version of herself on the sidewalk, on the train, in the mirror. It goes without saying that the demands of heightened sexuality don’t loosen her up at all; they start to destroy her. I find it apt and poetic that if you google “perfect girls,” you get a whole list of porn sites.

For all of these reasons I find it impossible to view Black Swan as just a film, or a thriller, or a psycho-sexual melodrama, or as any of the other tidy descriptors used to characterize it. In fact, I find it impossible to view it as a critic — I can’t tell you whether this is a good film or whether Portman deserves the best-actress Oscar because it hits too many of my nerves. I can’t help seeing it as a fractured fairy tale with ingredients stirred in by Carl Jung, the modern modeling industry, and feminists given to telling cautionary tales. Did I “enjoy” watching it? Not in the least. Do I think it’s a historic visual testament to the tolls of Effortless Perfectionism? Oh my god, yes. It’s the return of the repressed, this film. Of course, I also believe that some viewers will be distracted by the lesbian sex scene, and that my views of this film as I’ve framed them here will not be typical. But just you wait: 100 years down the line, this’ll be the film that appears in all those women’s history classes — I can only hope those future female undergrads have found a way out of the psychic prison their forebears experienced.

14 Responses to ““Black Swan” (2010) and perfect girls”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    hi didion –

    now I see why you told me in your comment to my piece on Black Swan, that you were having a hard time with Black Swan as a film because the film itself brought other issues to mind for you.

    Before sitting down to write this I had to read your Black Swan piece twice. I found a few things I wanted to ask you about.

    First this line from your last paragraph:

    Of course, I also believe that some viewers will be distracted by the lesbian sex scene.

    Distracted in the sense of shocked that Aronofsky would utilize it to the extent that he did? Distracted in the sense of that will be what they remember most vividly?

    I think if anyone is ‘distracted’ by the scene – to what ever extent – this says more about them than it does about the film-maker. But I am wondering about your context about writing that?

    …and that my views of this film as I’ve framed them here will not be typical.

    Well of course they are atypical. There’s much more in play in your piece than just a film review. I’m wondering if your point for making that statement is a hedge to those who read you for your film comments, or – you are taking pride for your stance on the problem of ‘just wanting to be perfect’ and how it is harming people in alarmingly greater and greater numbers.

    As you correctly state as well as imply – the quest for beauty does make killer demands on bodies as well as psyches. But beauty is only element in the great toward success. In fact, sometimes beauty can be no factor at all in a success stroy.

    Gertrude Berg, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir come to mind.


    • didion Says:

      Cheers and back at ya, JMM. Re: the sex scene, I was surprised how many online stories seemed to be focused on the lowest common denominator (“how easy was it for two straight girls to do a sex scene together?” or “Mila Kunis reveals Portman made it easy to do a sex scene together”) as if it was a gratuitous scene designed for the dudes in the audience rather than a key plot element in the splitting of Nina’s self. So that comment was just an expression of disgust with the online journalism I found.

      And re: my atypical responses… I think this is one of those comments that emerges from my genuine surprise at how uncritical I was after having seen the film, how disturbing I found it, even long afterward. I’d read a lot of reviews by critics I like and trust — and in fact had avoided seeing the film for a while because I wasn’t sure I was prepared for it — and even with all that I found myself moved by the film in ways that I didn’t expect. I wondered as I wrote the piece whether I had these responses because I had a long and painful series of interactions with a student struggling with serious emotional problems last semester (anorexia, suicidal tendencies, grasping neediness). I also wondered whether the film tweaked the kinds of expectations I face in a world of highly critical and often sexist and mean-spirited academics, a subject I’m feeling with special acuity this spring because I’m giving a series of special talks to unfamiliar academic audiences. I’m in a heightened state of self-consciousness; my students are freaking out — clearly, I saw the film in a very particular state of mind.

  2. tamcho Says:

    “In fact, sometimes beauty can be no factor at all in a success story.

    Gertrude Berg, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir come to mind.”

    Hmm…I guess its no coincidence that all the above women you name are not contemporaries?

  3. Great review, I enjoyed it but just don’t see where Jung comes into it all except in the context of being a psycho-drama in which case it’s more relevant to cite Freud if any analyst must be cited at all.

    • didion Says:

      Many thanks for the compliments, Kevin, and yes, I truly did mean Jung — I should have explained that I found the story Jungian for its play with archetypes. For Nina it’s black swan/white swan, which have such virgin/whore connotations; for viewers it’s the fairy tale story of Swan Lake as the analogy for Nina’s tale. And maybe specifically for myself, it was how much seeing the film prompted all manner of thinking beyond and around the film, but not critical of it per se (I’ve only taken quick looks at Jung’s Red Book, but it prompted similar responses). There’s a messiness to the film’s psychological exploration that seems different than what I know of Freud.

  4. didion Says:

    This post has been cross listed at: http://sadiemagazine.com/?wpblog=view&p=1575
    and has a series of separate comments there worth reading.

  5. […] simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not […]

  6. el anticristo Says:

    Just wish to say your article is as amazing. The clarity in your post is just nice and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the enjoyable work.

  7. @Rob Says:

    Perfection is an insidious disease that underminds women everywhere. There was something about this film that bothered me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I read your post.

    I see it play out in my little world everyday, esp with the moms I run into. The expectation that you will be a size 2, be the “perfect” mom, with the “perfect” kids. I run into bi-lingual three year olds, who not only go to pre-school, but take classes everyday after school.

    I also have a bit of a love/hate thing going with Martha Stewart. But, let’s not go there.

  8. […] not just as specific, individual cases, but a broader cultural phenomenon. It’s similar to the way I treated Black Swan last year – film as a jumping-off point to talk about […]

  9. […] It makes me wish that Knightley rather than Natalie Portman had appeared as the lead in Black Swan — again, a statement I never thought I’d […]

  10. […] nominations involved serious competition. Natalie Portman won for Black Swan — a film that, like Didion, I can’t assess even remotely objectively because I find the women’s issues …, and which, I suspect, if I had not been half-crazed on that day due to the flooding of my office […]

  11. Traxy Says:

    I find the whole “need to be perfect” thing really sad. I’m a member of a roleplaying game, where a lot of the other members are still in school, and the issues they keep bringing up really makes me despair at times. They’ll be really upset for not getting perfect grades and have wayyyyyy too high expectations of themselves. I was only really bothered if a teacher told me I would fail if I didn’t start to finally make an effort, and if I “only” got a B, so what? Life in general hasn’t been bothered about what my grades in high school were. It’s just sad that the need to be perfect is so ingrained in them that they beat themselves up endlessly when there’s really no need. They’re perfectly fine as they are, and as long as they’ve made an effort, who cares if it doesn’t give an A+? When you’re old and grey, what are you going to remember and be most proud of? Your high school grades or your actual, real-life achievements as an adult?

    • Didion Says:

      So wise. Somehow this wisdom has not been passed on to a lot of those teens, however.

      One of the odd things about being a teacher is that you find trends amongst the students who attach themselves to you — and two of the trends I’ve noticed is that real Type A women, whom at first I found alarming — they’d sit down, fold their hands neatly, cross their legs like businesswomen, and say, “The thing I love about your classes is that they’re very well organized.” [Snort.]

      I think these women are told from an early age that they can — nay, should — be perfect on many levels, and it’s like a poison that sinks in to their brains. I can honestly say that at some point in my life I was very susceptible to this poison, and that most of my adult life has involved making the very self-conscious decision to NOT let it work on me. I have often thought about how not being perfect has been a very specific and influential decision, and how depressing it is that 1) I made it as if this were a smart choice (it was, but it’s only smart given the alternative) and 2) that I still frame the issue in those terms.

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