Black Swan – Dancing According to the Desire of Another

A schizophrenic in a state of extreme suggestibility behaves as a member of a crowd would. He is just as impressionable and yields just as much to every impulse reaching him from outside. But we cannot think of him as one because he is alone. Since no crowd can be seen around him it does not occur to anyone that he, from his point of view, may feel as though he were in one. He is a fragment broken from a crowd.[1]

The hugely successful film Black Swan (2010), directed by Daron Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) and featuring Natalie Portman’s Academy-Award-winning performance, tells the story of a ballet dancer’s (Nina Sayers) desperate efforts to escape the masses of anonymous dancers and to attain stardom as a lead dancer. When she is finally cast as the prima ballerina in a new production of Swan Lake, the psychological pressure to play both the white and the black swan proves too much for her and she is no longer capable of telling the difference between the ballet and reality. As a result she begins to suffer from Dissociated Identity Disorder (DID), a form of schizophrenia.

The initial quotation from Crowds and Power (originally published as Masse und Macht in 1960) by Elias Canetti (Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1981) already points to the origins of schizophrenia in the crowd, despite its appearance as a phenomenon limited to the individual. On the surface Black Swan also portrays Nina’s progressing DID as her problem, originating in her overdeveloped sense of competition and her obsessive perfectionism. Thomas for example, the director of Swan Lake suggests as much to Nina, when he talks about Nina’s predecessor Beth and how she was able to become the perfect dancer. In Beth’s case he speaks of “a dark impulse from within”.

It is crucial to note that Thomas suggests to Nina, who is struggling to impersonate the lascivious and fiercely sexual black Swan, to find the necessary dark impulse within her. To the careful viewer, it becomes clear quite early in the film that Nina’s desire to become the perfect ballet dancer does not originate within herself but is exclusively imposed onto her from outside. In those few moments in the film, when her desire is not manipulated by someone else, we see the real Nina, a scared girl with a very weak sense of who she actually is.

The first mediator of Nina’s desire is her mother, formerly a ballet dancer herself, who hopes to achieve through her daughter her unfulfilled dream of becoming famous. The Sayers household is a straightjacket smothering any possibility of a healthy development into womanhood. Nina’s bedroom, replete with stuffed animals and nauseatingly pink, is evidence for her mothers suffocating attempt of Victorian proportions to conserve Nina’s girlhood and a frigid and perverse innocence. The mother’s straightjacketing also serves the purpose of fostering the necessary rigid discipline to become the perfect dancer. But Nina’s body and psyche unconsciously rebel against this treatment and she starts to compulsively scratch herself and later to vomit regularly. Her mother is, however, blind to her own mediating effects and blames these symptoms on her daughter “working too hard”.

Thomas’ mediating influence must thus seem truly liberating. In order to become capable of impersonating the wild, visceral black swan, he suggests that the sexually frigid Nina takes up masturbation. It is tempting to succumb to a feminist reading, which would make the point that the film is about Nina’s sexual liberation and that embracing the black swan leads her out of the neurotic frigidity imposed on her by her mother. Nina, however, never escapes the influence of her first mediator of desire, as performing the black swan is a necessary step towards becoming a famous ballerina. The fact that Nina’s mother is in the audience at the opening night serves as evidence that her dream of seeing her desire fulfilled through her daughter is met rather than thwarted.

Becoming capable to perform the part of the black swan, however, involves a temporary exchange of mediators. Thomas, as already mentioned, is one of them. Beth, the former prima ballerina, is another. Nina steals personal items from Beth, like her lipstick and her nail file and guards them like fetishes or totems. This is the type of mimetic rivalry René Girard has identified in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Nina desires Beth’s being, as she seems to possess the necessary qualities to act as the black swan which Nina lacks. But Beth only shortly serves as her model, as, in an act of desperation over the nearing end of her career, she throws herself in front of a car. Lily, a new arrival at the ensemble, thus replaces her as model of desire.

Lily too seems to possess all the qualities necessary for playing the black swan that Nina lacks. She seems spontaneous, emits a strong sense of identity, does apparently not care about the petty rivalries within the ensemble and most importantly radiates a sense of sexual promiscuity. To Nina it appears that Lily “is not faking it” that she possesses the being she lacks. In their rivalry the two women become enemy twins. Two men they meet at a bar explicitly ask if they are twin sisters. As the rivalry becomes more intense, Nina increasingly can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and reality. At times, in her fantasy, she sees Lily’s face as her own. After a night of clubbing and drug use, Nina fantasizes about having sex with Lily. In this case, her homosexual feelings are clearly tied to her identification of Lily as a rival for the position of prima ballerina. This is evidently the type of homosexuality that Girard has identified in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World as arising from intense mimetic rivalry.

During the opening night of Swan Lake, Nina apparently stabs Lily during an interval in her dressing room with a piece of a shattered mirror. But as it turns out, she only fantasized Lily’s presence and in fact stabbed herself. Thus, like an animal being strongest when wounded, she is able to deliver the perfect performance of the white and black swan, only to bleed to death behind stage, after she had thrown herself off a cliff as the white swan at the end of the ballet.

Her perfect performance is the result of the most intense mimetic rivalry, leading to DID and her eventual real death. At this point it is important to remember Canetti’s initial quotation and to examine the role of the crowd in the whole process. Nina’s death can be compared to the Gospel narrative of the man in Gerasa, being possessed by the demon Legion (Matthew 8, Mark 5, Luke 8) that Girard discusses in The Scapegoat. Legion is one and many at the same time, and Girard points out that the community of Gerasa is structurally dependent on the demonic possession of the man. The latter lives at the margins of society and wanders among the graves. When Jesus heals the man, legion is driven into a herd of pigs which throw themselves of a cliff. In Girard’s reading this is a reversal of the scapegoat mechanism. Deprived of their scapegoat, the Gerasenes would devour each other through escalating mimetic rivalry and would, like the pigs, perish.

In Black Swan, Nina occupies the position of the demon-possessed man. Her DID is a symptom of her becoming the designated scapegoat of society. But in her case no reversal of the mechanism takes place. No Jesus-like mediator saves her from the crowd. Before a fund-raising event, Thomas asks her if she is ready to be thrown to the wolves. The theatre too, as Girard has made clear in Violence and the Sacred, is an institution derived from archaic sacrifice. The audience of Swan Lake in Black Swan is cathartically saved by Nina’s sacrificial death. She is thus indeed “broken from a crowd” to save said crowd. Her death is mythic in the Girardian sense, as she dies behind stage – the audience in its ecstatic applause, is oblivious as to their structural role as persecutors.

So are we oftentimes when we browse through a glossy magazine, filled with the sad gazes of bulimic supermodels. Black Swan is a deeply disturbing reminder of how our mindless consumption of pop culture – and of high culture –, our insatiable appetites for the yet more spectacular, mediate the desire for stardom: a desire which more often than not ends in ruins. No total difference between the simulated worlds of culture and reality exists. The case of the late Heath Ledger might serve as an example. Like Nina in Black Swan the psychological pressure to play “The Joker” in The Dark Knight for our entertainment made Ledger dependent on antidepressants and led to his eventual death from an overdose. Sadly, the scapegoats of Western culture are all too real.


[1] Elias Canetti, Trans. Carol Stewart. Crowds and Power. London: Gollancz, 1962. p. 323

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