Black Swan turned out to be one of those films that, after watching, I knew I’d go home and read everything I could find written on it. I really enjoyed the experience of watching this film: it is visually stunning, the acting and dancing were both superb and at times were breathtaking (not to mention I love the music from Swan Lake!). It was fun in that it had some genuinely creepy jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Plus, the experience of most epic-ly losing your shit? Not so much an unfamiliar feeling here…
It took a while for my thoughts about the overall message of the film to sink in. As my interpretations started to take form, I knew I had to find some kind of feminist analysis somewhere on the web – you know, just to not feel so lonely with my thoughts. But no matter how many permutations of the words “feminism” and “black swan” i threw into google, I found virtually nothing!
OK THEN, FINE. I’LL WRITE ONE MYSELF.
I’m not so much interested in arguing about whether or not this movie is sexist. (I know that as soon as anyone even whispers the word sexist, homophobic, or god forbid, racist, the masses are already gathering with their verbal pitchforks, stakes and fire, ready to ambush the supposed unlawful in an indignant and highly annoying rage. And I have better things to be annoyed about.) I’m more interested in the meanings, messages, interpretations, silences and erasures that make themselves known while a particular kind of story is told from a particular perspective.
This film is a story about desire. Main character Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, desires to be perfect in her portrayal of the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake. This desire is what drives the entire story. The problem is, the part requires Nina to play two roles with opposing character qualities, the ‘white swan’ and the ‘black swan.’ The struggle Nina undergoes to capture both characters becomes a struggle within her own psyche, identity and sense of self: slowly the sensual, passionate, wild and seductive parts of herself overtake her, figuratively and, perhaps, literally killing the parts of herself she was always taught—as well as forced and manipulated—to be: disciplined, pure, innocent and controlled. It’s really a classic story of good girl vs bad girl.
|| Sidebar: IMHO, the musical Wicked, which i saw earlier this year, does this whole ‘good girl-bad girl’ thing way better. I miss Wicked. ||
Not only is this a story about desire, it’s about the relationship between desire and violence: the ways in which desire consumes and destroys a woman. The film shows us many moments where it is clear that Nina’s desires (for sex, for food) and her instinctual emotions have been hidden, repressed, controlled and violated: by the male director of the ballet, by her mother, as well as by the gendered, classed world of ballet she is immersed within. This film then becomes a story about what happens when a woman embraces those hidden, repressed, controlled and violated parts of herself and allows them free reign. In many ways it’s a cautionary tale – don’t unleash your desires girls, or else you’ll end up in a hospital, bitter and insane, stabbing yourself in the face (enter Winona Ryder). In the process this film leaves no room between desire and insanity, masturbation, self-mutilation, queer sex, murder, death, suicide and destruction – where all seem to be extensions of one another.
so yeah. can i buy a vowel?
…because I know in my heart, mind and body that more space needs to be made for us to tell and hear different kinds of stories about desire. So here it is.
To me, desire is one of the most deep and un-nameable feelings within all of us. We can’t logically explain it, yet we know it undeniably. We have no language to dissect it, yet it communicates with us unwaveringly. Within us, it is our sexual and creative life-force; our dizzying wind, our smoldering fire.
There is as well a social and historical context to the relationship between desire and violence. Sexual, emotional, spiritual and physical violence, as well as power and oppression, have always worked through controlling people’s bodies without their consent. Through colonization and war, rape has been and continues to be used as an essential tool to conquer entire groups of people by dehumanizing women and those who possess variant gender or sexual identities.
Sexual violence is not only about rape, it’s about systemically denying groups of people access to information that would allow them to make decisions about their bodies. Most of us are taught racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist versions of sexual education. As an extension, (especially as women) we’re not taught to value, respect or be curious about our bodies and desires, or that it is a beautiful thing to seek pleasure from our own bodies. Rather, we are taught to deny, negate and be ashamed of our sexualities – so much so that it can be a struggle to know how to ask for what we want sexually, or to refuse what we don’t want. In this way, sexual violence is about the social suppression of desire to keep groups and individuals docile, confused and submissive.
The controlling of bodies through power and oppression works in so many ways: through exploitative labour where bodies are forced to work and produce within a system that is financially, physically, spiritually and emotionally depleting. Through war, displacement, forced-migration, deportation, poverty, as well as racist/classist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist policing of institutions and neighbourhoods – bodies are displaced without having the chance to make their own decisions about where or how to live.
Another way – I think about the fact that every woman I know including myself has some kind of complicated and difficult relationship to food. Along with being taught to be ashamed of our sexualities, we are taught to be ashamed of the shape, size, colour, abilities and hair of/on our bodies. We’re taught to be ashamed for our hungers – whether that be for food or for sex.
Further still, I think about how often the desires’ of youth are punished, regulated and repressed. How often are children shut up and shut down if they’re crying too much, or if they’re too angry, excited, scared, or aroused? Often youth have valid reactions to what they’re experiencing, and the way their emotions are repressed is of course a very gendered, racial, classed process. Unfortunately the emotions we were taught to suppress as children can often create confusing needs that we struggle so hard to have met in our adult lives.
Although Black Swan shows otherwise, I want to stress that embracing desire does not inevitably lead to violence. The first thing you’ll learn if you ever get training to become a sexual assault counselor: sexual violence is not about sex – it’s about power. Desire alone does not make a decision to violate another, and moreso, desire has every capability to respect and consider another. The decision to treat another person like they don’t matter is what creates violence. That is about power, inconsideration, arrogance, entitlement…it’s not about desire alone (or sometimes, at all).
After I got home from watching this film, I realized my therapy was to read Audre Lorde (one of the great anti-racist queer feminists of all time…), specifically her essay: “The Uses of the Erotic” (See link for online version of essay). Here, she talks about ‘the erotic’ as a powerful and often unexplainable place of joy, inspiration and strength found in all women. Although the erotic has been commonly abused (for a strong woman is a dangerous woman), she argues that to embrace our erotic feelings in all aspects of our life is to be in touch with our strongest feelings of satisfaction: whether this be through our lust and love for work, friends, creativity, activism, food as well as for sex. We begin to realize we are capable of living our most rewarding lives in the moment, instead of waiting for them to come through “marriage, god or the afterlife.” She says,
“In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”
Moreover, she talks about how important and valuable it is to share our eroticisms–our joy, inspiration and strength–with others. Whether we share our deepest, most unexplainable pleasures through our bodies, words, work, or laughter, it is the place of the erotic that opens us up to loving another as much as we love ourselves; it is the place that sustains and fuels our growth and empowerment as people, lovers, friends and communities.
I want to end with a story about me (cuz that’s really what this is all about). There is a part of me that has always wanted to be a ballet dancer. I never got very far because my posture sucked – I was always told that I’d stick out my ass too much (and I couldn’t get it to go back in!).
Fast forward to the last few years of my life. I felt like I was destructing right in front of myself. I found myself tangled in multiple unhealthy relationships that consumed me almost to the point of ruining me; that hurt me to the point of wanting to hurt myself. The year I was living through this was the same year I started therapy and burlesque dancing. (Burlesque, where I was allowed, nay, ENCOURAGED to stick out my ass!)
Looking back I know it’s not a coincidence that I made the choice to go to therapy and start burlesque in a year that I felt so wrecked. It was like my most inner voice was telling me to find that fierce and unstoppable life-force within me, and I found it through my desires.
Therapy for me was/is about connecting with the most vulnerable parts of myself, and paying attention to my most instinctual emotions. Doing this means redefining my relationship to myself by taking care of pains I experienced as a child, pains I still carry with me but that I often ignore or judge (I think most people do this). By listening to, soothing and validating our instinctual childhood emotions that we carry with us, we can find places of calm and peace within current crises that feel unmanageably, unspeakably difficult.
Burlesque for me is not just a leisure activity, but one of the most important parts of my life. For a few hours every week, I practice something that stimulates my sexuality, physicality, emotions, imagination, creativity, passions and politics to the most intense and fiery degree. All I have to do is embrace it, and keep pushing. It’s not only empowering, it’s like oxygen. It’s more than oxygen. It’s more than being alive within a world that constantly attempts to dominate. When you feel that full and bursting with every part of life that you realize exists inside your body, heart, spirit and mind…you begin to realize your unstoppable life-force that, no matter how oppressed, cannot be fully dominated.
Without our desires we don’t have the spirit to challenge what we believe is unfair, or to fight for what we know is right. Without our desires we don’t have the capacity to decide who we want to love and how. It is our desires that strengthen us to live fully and beautifully in the world, and that compel us to share our lust, love and joy with one another. No wonder the repression and control of desire is so rampant – it is all part of the same tired, centuries-old project of trying to take away our choice, breath, love and freedom.
But all I wanted to do today is tell a different story–about how we didn’t die at the end of the movie.
Since this post was about the need for telling multiple stories about a given topic, check out this really great talk by writer, Chimamanda Adichie. She talks about the dangers of telling only one-side of a story in writing or creative expression.