Friday, February 11, 2011

Liking Black Swan does not Make me a Misogynist!

In a recent review of Black Swan, Alastair Macaulay had this to say:

"Its real objective... is to imply that a woman’s truest fulfillment is as (heterosexual) lover, wife and mother, and therefore that Nina’s best artistic successes can never compensate for her personal sacrifices."

Many people seem to be saying things like this.  This view perplexes me.  I didn't get this out of it at all.  There was no elucidation in the movie of some choice between Nina settling down with a man or pursuing her dreams.  There is no loverman character hovering around whining about how much she works, or getting jealous or whatever.  She is single and lonely, and something about her character makes me think that even if she wasn't obsessed with her occupation she would still be single and lonely.

Nina is isolated, and has tremendous difficulties in communicating, connecting or relating with others.  Is this because she is a woman?  Is this causally connected with her lack of love, heterosexual or otherwise?  I would say no.  It seemed to me not that she is troubled because she doesn't have a man, but the opposite.  She doesn't have a man (or a woman) because she is troubled.  I have known many people who are socially awkward who become workaholics because work structures their social interactions.  They can be quite effective on the job, but have trouble when this structure isn't there.  This isn't because they are boys or girls; it is one way to negotiate being a person.

None of Nina's problems derive ultimately from her intrinsic womanhood.  She is a woman and she does have problems, but she doesn't have problems because she is a woman.  Nothing that happens in the movie presents this false choice Macaulay talks about.  Nina's character drives her to do the things she does, to have the goals she has, etc.  Her womanhood is a part of this character, but only a part.  She is a whole person, a round character.  There is also, among other aspects, her mental makeup.  Boys can be crazy and obsessive, too, and when there is such a boy character in a story we don't read the whole story as some commentary on the character's boyness.  Unless of course the story explicitly sets itself up as such an examination.  Black Swan doesn't do this.  It is a thriller.  Thrillers are about crazy people, unreal and extreme situations.  Nina is not Everywoman.  Nothing about her character or situation is presented as normal.  It is nearly impossible to even tell what is supposed to be real and what's not.  How can she be the carrier of some simplistic moral message?

The second part of Macaulay's summary is more plausible.  The movie does depict Nina’s artistic success as paling in comparison to her personal sacrifices.  Sort of.  She does die, after all.  But even where this is true, it is not a consequence of her being a woman or failing to be a 'proper' woman.  She doesn't have to renounce her dream and stay barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen in order to not die.  She could simply have taken another role.  Or waited to take such a demanding part until her training made her ready.  She could have taken up meditation, yoga or therapy to handle the stress.  The only thing that prevents these sane options is her specific character; not her universal womanness.  Nina's tragic flaw is her perfectionism, not her womanhood.  

Of course, Nina's gender is critical to the story.  She is a ballet dancer, after all, not an NFL quarterback.  But you could depict identical themes and alleged moral messages with a story about an NFL quarterback (all that head trauma surely results in a hallucination from time to time.)  Boys and girls can both equally take on more than they can handle, go into a pursuit against strong misgivings, or conform to expectations instead of following the heart.  In order to read Black Swan as some sort of 'woman-know-your-place' story, we the viewers have to identify Nina's womanhood as the cause of her problems.  Nothing in the movie itself dictates this link, and personally, this did not occur to me as I watched.

Black Swan is not a story about women, ballet dancers or women ballet dancers; it is a story about this woman, this dancer, this person.  Art is about the particular, not the universal.  A story, at best, represents one set of possibilities.  Deriving universals from these particulars is a tricky business.  This kind of criticism reveals as much, or more, about the critic as it does about the work.  What did Cassius say to Brutus?  Something like, the fault, dear readers, is not in our movies, but in our minds, that we are underlings.


  1. What happened to "realism is relative", my friend? If this is so, can art truly be about the paticular?

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    I would agree that what is seen as real, and what is seen as a valid representation of the real, depends on expectations and conventions.

    It would have been better if I had said that art is made of particulars and not universals. What art is "about" is a different story. People often say that the greatest works deal with universal themes. I agree with this. What I mean is that universality is always embodied in particulars, and the more specific and concrete the execution, the better the work. Usually. At least when it comes to art that is trying to seem like a plausible reality to the viewer/reader. More stylized of abstract forms work in other ways.

    But we always start with the individual work, particularized in a fixed form. We look at the particular characters and situations, and induct generalities from those particulars. This is just like what people do in everyday life.

    The relativity of the real jumps out here. People are constantly making conclusions about how things are by the way things look. We say that a thing is someway, when it looks that way. That's what I believe the reviewer did.

  3. You're welcome!Sorry it's taken some time to respond again.

    You are correct to suggest we have such preconcieved notions throughout our life. It is an unfortunate fact of individuals and societies worldwide, civilized or not.Although declaring one to be civilized is a matter fit for another discussion. As the age old saying goes,"you can't judge a book by its cover", I believe you're right in suggesting that is what the reviewer did. We should be pleased to know there are individuals, like yourself, who can and do appreciate the arts and their universal themes.

    Misogynist, I think not.