Guest Post: Kathy Nance on The Black Swan

Inside each of us is a shadow.

For Natalie Portman’s brittle ballerina in The Black Swan, that shadow could have been her salvation. Instead, it drove her mad.

In Jungian psychological terms, our shadows are the parts of us that we deny, but which must be explored and incorporated in order for us to be whole. One way to work with the shadow is to draw it out in order to explore its attributes more fully. When we know our shadows, we come closer to knowing our whole selves.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that concept as I watched The Black Swan. It seemed so clear to me that the real challenge for Nina (Natalie Portman) was not dancing for an audience. Her challenge was to learn to waltz with her shadow.

The plot of the movie stems from the ballet master’s decision to have one dancer embody both the Black and White swans. In the Swan Lake ballet, those roles usually are danced by two different ballerinas. The White Swan is the innocent virgin who can be saved from a curse by a prince’s love. The Black Swan is her primal, sexual twin who seduces the prince away. The ballet ends with the White Swan’s suicide.

By having one ballerina dance both parts, the symbolism shifts. It is no longer a contest between the archetypal virgin and whore. The ballet now explores the truth that all of us have both parts—virgin and whore—within us.

Ballet master Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) refers to Nina as a “frigid little girl.” And she is. She sleeps alone in her pink childhood bedroom. Her mommy wakes her up each morning and serves her a breakfast of a half-grapefruit and poached egg. She spends her evenings practicing alone in her room, the hours she’s spent in the studio not enough to make her as perfect as she wishes to be.

She dances her White Swan audition with precise, controlled perfection—then is literally blown off her toe shoes by the arrival of Mila Kunis’ Lily.

Lily is vital, sensual. She eats cheeseburgers. She smokes. She sleeps with strangers. She dances with the sensual abandon than infuses her life. In a conventional production, she’d be the obvious choice to play Black Swan to Nina’s White.

Everything Nina has repressed, Lily celebrates. No wonder Nina goes mad. Unable to bring out and incorporate her own shadow material, she sees it in Lily. The one person whose approval she most craves–Thomas–holds Lily up as the sensual, Black Swan ideal.

Nina reveals that she has always worked for perfection thinking that if she could become perfect she would be loved. And yet, she so clearly does not love herself. Her self-loathing is shown as a neurotic obsession to claw her own flesh. She seems to hate the body that is the vehicle of her art. She tries twice in the film to masturbate to get in touch with her own sensuality—and fails both times. The most ardently sexual she becomes is during a drug-fueled fantasy of making love with Lily.

If only Nina had been able to consciously make love to her own interior shadow with such ardor, she might not have gone mad. If only she had been able to waltz with the repressed part of herself, she might have become whole. That was what the role called for. That is what full humanity calls for. It’s one of the things we do in my tradition: learn to embrace, dance with, love our shadow selves. It’s not easy. I’m still working on it. After years of study, I still am startled by the dark and light twins inside myself. But I think becoming my whole self is worth the effort.

Black Swan, White Swan. Dark Twin, Light Twin. In the dance and mating of those two halves we find our whole selves. And if we cannot bring the two to wholeness, well, we may not go mad. But we will not fully live.

That is the message I took from The Black Swan.

  • Beauryker

    Nice perception!

  • Beauryker

    Nice perception!

  • Straightedge

    what a weirdo. i can’t believe that analyzing something so deeply would yield tangible and coherent results. if anyone takes reading the book the good earth as having more meaning than that of life situations of a man as this person clearly does from this movie analysis than i say to them good day.

  • Galina Krasskova

    As an ex-ballet dancer, I had a tremendously negative response to Portman’s character. (and as an aside, no dancer worth her salt would go out and get both drunk and drugged the night before a major dress rehearsal or performance. It just would. not. happen. I and a couple of friends, also ex-dancers, who saw the movie were really put out by that).
    Now, it was beautifully acted, but really, I kept thinking “you’re too weak for the work. Get off the stage. there are hundreds more talented behind you just waiting for their turn.”.

    and the mother…good GODS. @_@.

    I’d much prefer to see ‘The King’s Speech” again. :)

    • Beauryker

      Galina, you need to lighten up. IT IS A MOVIE! A fairy tale. Fiction. Not real. Sounds like you’d better go back and watch King’s Speech again. Won’t have to use your brain quite as much.

      • Galina Krasskova

        Having worked in the field (ballet), there is an obsessive quality that goes with gaining excellence in form and function. LOL. But I don’t think quite THAT much obsession. I liked the article here, that talks about dealing with one’s shadow. much better way to look at the movie. :)

        and Beauryker, if our fiction and fairytales don’t move us, why bother watching them?

    • Laura M. LaVoie

      I definitely saw the characters in this movie as “Not Real People” but rather archetypes.

    • Kathy Nance

      I know what you mean. It’s always weird to see a film that deals with a subject I know a lot about. I tend to avoid movies about reporters for that reason. I just obsess on the details that are WRONG and have a tough time getting into the meat of the movie. Studying the Craft and learning more about spiritual phenomena has ruined another genre for me as well.

      Even knowing as little about ballet as I do–my sister studied seriously for years, and I took a few classes–I also picked over the details, and got a little nostalgic over things like toe shoe prep. But I wasn’t as attached to them as I would have been with your life experience.

      I agree the Nina character had issues upon issues. I also looked at her body hatred through the prism of being a member of an embodied spirituality. The body loathing that she has is just a magnified version of that visited upon Western women by all the unrealistic images in mass media. Add to that the glorification of sexuality, but demonization of any woman who owns and celebrates her own body and sexuality–and it’s a miracle we don’t have more Ninas. The acceptance and celebration of diverse body types in Pagan culture has helped me tremendously.

      • Galina Krasskova

        I didn’t have a problem with her body loathing…it’s almost inevitable in a profession that is as dependent on physical excellence as ballet. You either get your body in line with the dominant aesthetic (rightly or wrongly) or you don’t have a career. It’s hard not to come to see the body as ‘the enemy’ under such pressure. Having been in that space, it’s not something i judge as wrong, so much as problematic. It’s a professional danger. But one always has the choice to seek another career.

        I had to laugh when they showed “Nina’s” bare feet. They looked way too good for a ballet dancers. not enough blood and callouses. LOL.

        what i found fascinating was the way the drive for perfection and excellence got so twisted and corrupted and out of control. that…i could see that happening. It’s a career that breaks people very easily and there’s not only physical but tremendous psychological pressure.

        I foudn the movie an interesting psychological study because of that. Ballet seemed to me to be a random backdrop, an secondary trope by which to explore a girl’s emotional issues and breakdown. I don’t know that i’d recommend it lol. i think it traumatized the friend I went to see it with but it was an interesting psychological study.

        i like how it was very hard to determine what was “real” and what was a manifestation of Nina’s mental deterioration throughout.

  • Galina Krasskova

    As an ex-ballet dancer, I had a tremendously negative response to Portman’s character. (and as an aside, no dancer worth her salt would go out and get both drunk and drugged the night before a major dress rehearsal or performance. It just would. not. happen. I and a couple of friends, also ex-dancers, who saw the movie were really put out by that).
    Now, it was beautifully acted, but really, I kept thinking “you’re too weak for the work. Get off the stage. there are hundreds more talented behind you just waiting for their turn.”.

    and the mother…good GODS. @_@.

    I’d much prefer to see ‘The King’s Speech” again. :)

    • Beauryker

      Galina, you need to lighten up. IT IS A MOVIE! A fairy tale. Fiction. Not real. Sounds like you’d better go back and watch King’s Speech again. Won’t have to use your brain quite as much.

      • Galina Krasskova

        Having worked in the field (ballet), there is an obsessive quality that goes with gaining excellence in form and function. LOL. But I don’t think quite THAT much obsession. I liked the article here, that talks about dealing with one’s shadow. much better way to look at the movie. :)

        and Beauryker, if our fiction and fairytales don’t move us, why bother watching them?

    • Laura M. LaVoie

      I definitely saw the characters in this movie as “Not Real People” but rather archetypes.

    • Kathy Nance

      I know what you mean. It’s always weird to see a film that deals with a subject I know a lot about. I tend to avoid movies about reporters for that reason. I just obsess on the details that are WRONG and have a tough time getting into the meat of the movie. Studying the Craft and learning more about spiritual phenomena has ruined another genre for me as well.

      Even knowing as little about ballet as I do–my sister studied seriously for years, and I took a few classes–I also picked over the details, and got a little nostalgic over things like toe shoe prep. But I wasn’t as attached to them as I would have been with your life experience.

      I agree the Nina character had issues upon issues. I also looked at her body hatred through the prism of being a member of an embodied spirituality. The body loathing that she has is just a magnified version of that visited upon Western women by all the unrealistic images in mass media. Add to that the glorification of sexuality, but demonization of any woman who owns and celebrates her own body and sexuality–and it’s a miracle we don’t have more Ninas. The acceptance and celebration of diverse body types in Pagan culture has helped me tremendously.

      • Galina Krasskova

        I didn’t have a problem with her body loathing…it’s almost inevitable in a profession that is as dependent on physical excellence as ballet. You either get your body in line with the dominant aesthetic (rightly or wrongly) or you don’t have a career. It’s hard not to come to see the body as ‘the enemy’ under such pressure. Having been in that space, it’s not something i judge as wrong, so much as problematic. It’s a professional danger. But one always has the choice to seek another career.

        I had to laugh when they showed “Nina’s” bare feet. They looked way too good for a ballet dancers. not enough blood and callouses. LOL.

        what i found fascinating was the way the drive for perfection and excellence got so twisted and corrupted and out of control. that…i could see that happening. It’s a career that breaks people very easily and there’s not only physical but tremendous psychological pressure.

        I foudn the movie an interesting psychological study because of that. Ballet seemed to me to be a random backdrop, an secondary trope by which to explore a girl’s emotional issues and breakdown. I don’t know that i’d recommend it lol. i think it traumatized the friend I went to see it with but it was an interesting psychological study.

        i like how it was very hard to determine what was “real” and what was a manifestation of Nina’s mental deterioration throughout.


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