Black Swan: The Normalized Rape Allegory
Aronofsky’s Black Swan has many things worthy of admiration: the technical prowess of both the dance moves and the CGI, the haunting sublimity of the music and the cinematography and, of course, the masterful performances of the actors. However, Black Swan is worthy of a round of applause as much as it is deserving of berating criticism. Aronofsky has failed where he often has in the past: in an effort for drama he resorts to extremes that defines and evaluates women by their sexuality or lack thereof, offering nothing between.
Among its many poignant dualistic themes explored – perfection versus imperfection, reason versus passion, black versus white, etc – the film fails in declining to explore the gray areas, especially in the binary between “purity” and sexuality. Certainly, such a narrative technique makes it a captivating drama and sets up the film as an interesting opportunity to explore converging and competing themes that touch many areas of life. However, neglecting the gray area, especially in the area of female sexuality, and defining each character in accordance to their sexuality makes the film rely on and support the idea that there is no space between a virtuous, perfect virgin and a dirty whore. The words I have chosen to set up this binary were not meant to be demeaning, but to point to their familiarity in use. After all, these are the words Western society has chosen to describe women and their worth. Unfortunately, Aronofsky makes no effort to question this binary, wriggle a way to see a middle option and fails to question these terms at all. In fact, his characters often throw them around like confetti in insulting one another. “You’re just a frigid little girl,” Beth tells Nina. A fellow dancer in red lipstick writes “Whore” on the mirror where Nina is using the bathroom. Even the more eloquent discussions revolve around this binary and make no search for the middle ground. Thomas sets up the option for Nina to be either completely comfortable with her sexuality or an inexperienced virgin. Western society is well versed in this opposition between virgin and whore and Aronofsky takes advantage of our fluency and feeds us back the same language as a spectacle we cannot tear our eyes from, thus reinforcing and normalizing the binary in the audience’s minds.
Of course, the most important aspect of Black Swan is the narrative of transformation. Aronofsky documents the transformation in learning the dance moves, the practice and work behind the learning. Here, he respects the grays and respects the dancers that put effort toward striving for mastery from humble beginnings. He understands that genius requires dedication and practice in dance. However, he does not allow the same exploration for sexuality, and allows the viewer to enter a fantasy of the opposition and sudden transformation from virginal and virtuous to sexual, monstrous whore. He takes the archetype of perfect virginal virtue – an archetype that is too often assumed and presented as true — and imposes on her horrible overbearing, sexual masculinity, thus corrupting her and killing her. But before her death, the most delicious and dramatic part – the portion where both the music and the audience’s hearts swells into a crescendo – is where the audience witnesses Nina’s epiphany: that she wanted the sexual imposition and corruption all along and is thankful for it. “It was perfect,” Nina says as her last words. Satisfied, she can now die content with herself at last.
This is, in essence, an allegory of rape, and specifically a rape where the victim is thankful for the crime. Raped by who? Aronofsky litters Nina with a number of mental disorders to have us believe that Nina’s psychosis is at fault, that her neuroses are the culprit, and even makes her imagine other people as herself to make sure the fault stays within bounds of Nina. Nina is portrayed to have raped herself. Had Nina been free of hallucinations worthy of a horror film, this would have been a very different movie. The audience would have been assured that other people were the rapists. So, Aronofsky makes Nina a whore and ultimately destroys her, but champions the beautiful soul that he beat out of her as the monument of the rapist’s achievement, the liberated pure essence of all that is good, the spectacle we are spoon fed, something which could not have been harvested without ritually destroying the innocent. So again – who is the real rapist? Aronofsky for writing it, us for believing it and watching it, and society for providing the binary. Aronofsky has created grade A porn for society’s need to get off on its own sick addiction to this binary and the audience is happy to lap it up swathed in special effects and superb acting.
There’s got to be some better role for young women: not a swan, neither black nor white, neither whore nor saint, and definitely not a rape victim thankful for the rape. Virginity does not contain an angelic forth capable of curing AIDS as believed in parts of Africa, or appeasing the gods when sacrificed as ancient peoples believed, nor does it have any resemblance to goodness. Yet Aronofsky will never try to convince us otherwise and Black Swan will serve as sick porn for the masses sold as Hollywood, star studded gold. Fools gold, perhaps, but Aronofsky would never let us in on that.