RECLAIMING THE BLACK SWAN FOR THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT!
AN ESSAY BY GABRIEL VALENZUELA
‘How are we to rid ourselves of ourselves, and demolish ourselves?’
(Deleuze 1986: 66)
The 2010 American film, The Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, produced a vast array of feminist critiques underlying the ideological underpinnings of the life of Nina Sayers, the main protagonist of the film. While these critiques largely pointed at the gender violence inflicted on the ballet dancer, they miss a certain transformational element and dimension of another kind of violence: revolutionary violence. The addition of this radical concept is a useful tool to question the domination-centered critiques of the film in order to provide a space of autonomy, responsibility and thus represent a form of politics to shift the meaning of the film in favour of the radical feminist movement.
The film traces the disciplined and hard life of Nina, a ballet dancer, whose aim is to successfully become the queen of the Swan Lake for the New York Ballet Company. To succeed she will need to reach perfection, passion and sensuality, which is expected by her ‘masters’: her possessive, and demanding mother and the perverse instructor at the institute. However, in order to do so she will have to destroy her frail and gentle self – the white swan – and transform into the black swan. To the surprise of everyone this happens quite literally. Nina starts experiencing nightmares, hallucinations, aggressive reactions and psychological traumas. Ultimately she fully immerses herself in the play and becomes the black swan. The film ends tragically. During the final ballet performance the fragile white swan throws herself off a cliff and dies and, with her, Nina too, having wedged a shard of glass into her stomach while in the dressing room preparing for the final act.
The critical reviews of the movie were overwhelming: some critics claimed it to be excellent while others, more critical, focused on the ideological apparatus underpinning the film. Many within the latter category have more left-wing sympathies; intellectuals such as Slavoj Zizek happily added the film to his repertoire designed to demonstrate the revival of contemporary forms of ideological domination. There is a strong tendency within leftist critiques to focus on domination reaching dangerous extremes which risks fetishing the structures that oppress us and neglect acts of rebellion, detachment or radical emancipation. These types of analysis also contain somewhat of a superficial analysis of violence, reflecting merely subjective violence (violence perpetrated by an agent to whom the act can be rendered accountable) while remaining silent to the objective violence inherent in the system of capitalist domination, and most prominently, the third form of violence, revolutionary violence (transformational violence to the self and to reality).
It is the third form of violence that is clearly lacking in many critiques of the film. That is, the concept of revolutionary violence that entails a transformational demolition of our selves by rejecting our past experiences, own masters, tutors and authorities that previously had controlled us. Thus, revolutionary violence represents a complete turnover through the acknowledgement that we are alone and fully responsible for our actions. This is reflected in reoccurring outbursts of revolt where Nina negates her fragile, innocent and perfectionist self. While she is constantly reminded about others’ expectations, about their wish to fit her into a single category, she is nonetheless able to grasp this subjective and objective violence and use it to emancipate herself. In order to do so she has to go through an entire process of transformation, beginning with small acts of rebellion and ending with a violent break with the oppressive structures. Does this interpretation then offer a possible way out of the impasse of objective and subjective violence?
This form of self-violence is in part a necessary process of emancipation by which Nina concurs and where she finally becomes a political subject. If we accept this premise we can reinterpret the film as a gradual change towards Nina’s final emancipation. This begins when she finally decides to adventure into nightclubs with her competitive self, discovers her sexual body and concurs in lesbian sexual relations in her dreams (or perhaps not?). This inevitably leads to a rebellion against her possessive mother and her decision to take up the role as the black swan. The third form of violence comes to the fore at a crushing and defying rate in the last part of the film, which coincides with the final act of the ballet performance. Her emancipation and detachment occurs in the dressing room where she becomes aware of the piece of glass wedged into her stomach. At first she panics, but then takes a look at herself in the mirror and is forced to choose whether to continue or to give up on herself. The moment of decision is crucial, representing the autonomy and responsibility of the subject. She decides to continue dancing even though she knows she will possibly die. Rather than reading this last scene as a submissive act (perfection, etcetera), or as an ideological act (gender power relations) where the lesson remains for gendered subjects to remain in their position, I suggest that the scene could be read differently. What we see here is Nina taking a revolutionary and heroic stand against the patriarchy and its dominant ideologies, whereby she represents a revolutionary subject.
This radical interpretation can be taken as a form of doing politics: to reclaim the enemy’s idea and change its meaning. In other words, the film can be reappropriated by the feminist movement to show that gendered subjects are ready to sacrifice everything, even themselves. Nina’s performance then can be read as an act of heroism, containing far reaching ideological and political implications.