The recently released film Black Swan, which went nationwide in the United States on December 17, 2010, has already received a lot of Oscar buzz, especially for the work of actress Natalie Portman, who has been nominated for best actress for the lead role of Nina Sayer. The previous release of Black Swan’s director, Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler (2008), received similar critical acclaim for the work of its leading actor, Mickey Rourke, who ended up being nominated for Best Actor at the 2009 Academy Awards. While Black Swan may seem like a very different flim from director Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the two actually seem to be made as two parts of one larger work. Although the two stories take place in very different worlds, with The Wrestler taking place in a very grimy suburban landscape mostly within the confines of New Jersey and focusing on an independent (indy) wrester who performs in small venues, and Black Swan being set in the very urban, cosmopolitan and highly cultured atmosphere of downtown New York City and focusing on a ballerina competing for the lead role in Swan Lake in a world-renowned theatre, they both feature protagonists who are going through very similar problems within these worlds that say something very poignant about the problems of our current society. In interviews, Aronofsky has even said that he originally planned to make a film in which he explored both indy wrestling and world class ballet through an unlikely couple, though later decided to split them into two films due to the complexity of both worlds and the need to tell both stories fully.
Aronofsky explains how he sees the relationship between The Wrestler and Black Swan:
"They [ballet and wrestling] are really connected and people will see the connections. It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art — if they would even call it art — and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves…I’ve always considered the two films companion pieces. At one point, way before I made ‘The Wrestler,’ I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it kind of split off into two movies,. So I guess my dream is that some art theater will play the films as a double feature some day."
While reviews of Black Swan have mentioned that the two films are similar in their treatment of the relationship between the performer and their body, they are generally treated as two very different films in the media. This is due to both the vast difference in the cultural and economic classes of the audiences they appeal to and depict as well as the fact that the protagonists’ problems are very different on the surface, with Robin ‘Randy the Ram’ Robinson (played by Micky Rourke) in The Wrestler appearing to be dealing largely with physical deterioration and Nina Sayers in Black Swan appearing to be largely dealing with mental deterioration linked to some form of schizophrenia. However, despite the differences in surface appearances, both movies share the common theme of being about perfectionist performers trapped in a child-like mentality and completely alienated from their own very being as well as the world around them due to the blatant inequality and general social degradation that has resulted from the terminal decline of American capitalism since the end of the post-War boom in the late 1960s.
Neither character can maintain a healthy relationship with a loved one or feel comfortable in society in general, as both of them only really feel at home in their role as performers, with the characters using these roles to fill in for the ‘real self’ which is heavily suppressed and only flickers into existence for brief moments due to the extreme level of alienation that both of them experience. In The Wrestler, Randy tries to make amends with his daughter after a long career on the road and away from home. His daughter hates him when he first tries to approach her again due to all of the neglect he has demonstrated towards her birthdays and the important developments in her life, though he is eventually able to spend a nice afternoon with her in which they both remember an experience they had together when she was just a little girl. Yet, he ends up missing an important dinner with her due to sleeping in too long after a wild night out in which he got high and went home with a young woman after attending a wrestling event. This effectively ends Randy’s relationship with his daughter, as he shows up late that night and is told that he should never speak to her or try to see her again, as he has crushed her hopes too many times.
The particular scenario of the wild night out is actually very telling of the nature of Randy’s alienation, as he goes to this event purely as a spectator because he is not able to wrestle at the time due to his recent heart surgery, yet he tells the much younger woman that he picks up in the bar afterwards that he is still an active wrestler. For Randy, his status as an active professional wrestler with links to his past glory in a major federation is an essential element of his identity as a virile and confident male. In his regular life outside wrestling, he works in a grocery store doing stock, and recently picked up weekend shifts as a meat-cutter at the deli counter due to being out of wrestling action for a while and wanting to save up some money to improve his economic and living situation (he lives in a trailer park) out of his own individual interests as well as the love he feels for his daughter and, to a lesser extent, his love for a stripper that he has become close to, Cassidy (played by Marissa Tomei). In his role as a grocery store worker, Randy feels totally dehumanized and demasculinized, occupying a very low rung on the totem pole of society and having to take orders from finicky old ladies. He tries to make it feel fun like wrestling by cracking jokes with his customers and hitting a pillar with his elbows behind the counter, though it obviously just doesn’t do it for him. Because of this, he feels drawn to the wrestling event, to the bar afterwards, and then to the woman’s house, where he gets to feel like a real man and a superstar again by getting attention for his wrestling identity.
What becomes evident from this is that Randy is so alienated by his oppressed and exploited status as a lowly grocery store worker living in a trailer park in his real life that he uses his identity as a former wrestling superstar as a way to escape from this reality and feel fully actualized as a human being and as a dominant male. What is particularly interesting about this escape into a dominant male and fully actualized human being through the use of his wrestling identity, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, is the employment of the ram metaphor and his transformation into a ram, as the ram has traditionally been a symbol of male fertility, and his transformation into ‘The Ram’ as a performer is very similar to the performance of a transformation into an animal or animal-human hybrid that many ancient peoples undertook as part of their cultural ceremonies. In fact, the use of an animal metaphor connected to gender and the very act of performing this animal role in a physical manner depicting good and evil in a way similar to that undertaken in ancient cultures is something that appears in both The Wrestler and Black Swan, and in both professional wrestling and ballet in general, which are the closest current performance mediums to the ancient transformation performances.
In Black Swan, the inherent alienation present in modern ballet and capitalist society in general is shown in ways that are often more extreme than in The Wrestler. While Randy generally gets along well with others and tends to be friends with his fellow performers as well as those around him, Nina always maintains a safe distance from fellow performers due to her mistrust of them and is extremely isolated in terms of her relationships with others, lacking any trust or real empathy for other human beings. Also, while Randy is quite sexual and has no problem picking up girls at bars, Nina is extremely sexually repressed and lives with her mother in her childhood room with stuffed animals and pink furniture. In one scene in the movie, she attempts to masturbate but stops in guilt when she realizes her mother is in the room. What Aronofsky is obviously trying to show here is the difference in the sexual and gender-related alienation of men and women in capitalist society and how women are particularly oppressed and alienated in the sexual realm of life. What he shows is that although men are more free to be sexual and to have sexual relations with women and even the same sex without feeling terribly degraded or socially unacceptable, they are still afflicted by very similar gender norms as females that also work against the ability of males to find un-alienated and loving sexual relationships with others as well as healthy relationships with their own bodies.
He also shows how the gender and sexual roles that adult men and women often attempt to follow as norms in the period of American capitalism in decline are based on childhood fictions of what a ‘real man’ and ‘real woman’ should be that are also affected by class differences. Nina is a particularly meek woman sexually who is extremely uncomfortable with her own sexuality and seems to feel that her sexual feelings are almost wrong or somehow immoral and that being good somehow conflicts with being sexual. Her very ‘feminine’ shyness and ‘girlish’ behavior in her interactions with males, including her very forward and misogynistic choreographer, betray the extremely negative effects that her perception of gender norms is having on her ability to simply live a full life as an adult human being.
Nina seems to be from the lower end of the middle class, as her mother is very cultured and is a former ballet dancer herself, but they both live in a relatively small apartment with few frills and Nina has to commute by subway for her practices, even when she stays very late at the theatre and feels uncomfortable sitting in mostly empty subway cars with men who gawk at her and taunt her sexually. In fact, the only time she ever takes a taxi is when she goes out for a night on the town with Lily (played by Mila Kunis), the ballerina who was her fiercest competitor for the role of Swan Queen and for whom she felt an intense sexual attraction that was never really reciprocated. Despite the fact that Nina herself is not rich, the gender role that she is trying to live up to is specific to ruling classes where women do not have to work, and is one based on an extreme form of meek, mild and virginal femininity. The gender role performed in ballet is one of perfection and female fragility, the material basis of which is that rich women can be sheltered from the harshness of work and the public sphere. For upper-class men, having a wife or lover who is sheltered from these elements of life while also being sexually inexperienced, meek and naïve can be seen as a luxury and a sign of their class privilege. The desired image of women in modern ballet is based entirely on this bourgeois ideal of what a woman should be like. However, what the history of ballet shows very clearly is that this feminine ideal, in ballet and in society in general, is based on a romanticization of the aristocratic woman and the supposed closeness to nature and the earth of the pastoral era. It wasn’t really until the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century that ballet was developed into a real art form on par with opera.
In the nineteenth century, ballet was further developed and modernized on the basis of the change in the mode of production. Technical developments in ballet such as the box-toed shoe for pointework [tip-toe dancing] in the Romantic ballets of that period made women seem weightless and fairy-like so that they would move in seemingly flowing, organic ways that contrasted with the developing mechanization of science and industry. What can be seen from this is that the ballets of this period reflected the tension between the feudal aristocrats and the rising merchant and industrial elites, with these ballets being used to smooth over the violent historical transition from feudalism to capitalism. Additionally, this Romantic period is when women became more prominent than men in ballet, with ballerinas coming to represent the romanticization of a more modest, less scientific past of ‘virgin’ landscapes and direct human connections to the natural world. This representation gave Romantic ballerinas a decidedly meek and virginal image. These Romantic ballets of the nineteenth century and the technical as well as aesthetic developments that took place in them really set the new standard for ballet in general, with many of the techniques, themes and aesthetics developed in that period being prominent elements of modern ballet. While the production of Swan Lake depicted in Black Swan deviates substantially from the Romantic ballet genre of the nineteenth century, the transformation of the female lead into a swan, which is a creature with very female, graceful and delicate features and movements definitely fits in with the image and role of women depicted in the traditional Romantic ballets. In Black Swan, the idealized ballet image of women produced the Nina Sayer that we see on the screen, whose whole life and identity is linked to this art form and nothing else.
What the examples of Randy and Nina show is that although people use performance and performance roles as a sort of coping mechanism to help them deal with their alienation, it is also obviously a major cause of it, though in a very contradictory way. In their roles as performers and in their everyday lives, both Randy and Nina represent very extreme male and female archetypes. In many ways, both characters perform these extreme gender archetypes both on the stage and in their everyday lives, disconnecting them somewhat from a direct identification of and connection with their organic feelings of sexuality and love. While we see glimpses of these identifications and connections in both characters, with these glimpses comprising very emotional moments in both films, the identities that they feel driven to perform on a daily basis both on and off the stage seem to play the role of repressing and numbing these identifications and connections.
What both characters really seek through their performances is the feeling of love and a deep and meaningful connection to others, the world in general as well as themselves, as they are both alienated from these most human of all feelings and identifications due to the degradation and commodification of their personal relationships. While both characters do feel the least alienated from themselves and society in general when they are performing on stage and in the ring, the emotional connection they feel to their audience and their art is for them only a feeble and artificial substitute for the real love and affection that they so desire. Although neither of the protagonists really recognizes that their identities as performers are only feeble substitutes for the relationships, connections and feelings that they are missing in their everyday lives, they seem to seek these things through their role as performers even though they both realize on some unconscious level that even this quest is problematic and that they likely won’t be able to get what they are looking for in any genuine sense through these roles.
In the end, both films tell two parts of a story about the degradation of the human and the separation of people from their own bodies, natures and human social nature through the extreme commodification of all their relationships and experiences in a period in which American capitalism has been hurled into a terminal economic and ideological decline. In this way, these films continue to examine the same theme of the social and cultural effects of American capitalism in decay, and primarily the condition of human alienation through commodification, that Aronofsky explored in the very differently structured film, Requiem for a Dream. While all of these films must be praised for their brilliant critique of American capitalism in decline and class society in general, the answers they provide to this societal malady are only negative, with Aronofsky showing the drive of the individual towards self-destruction as the only solution for the contradictions they are dealing with. While this definitely isn’t the only solution, Aronofsky’s analysis does have some truth, as the drive towards individual self-destruction can and definitely does arise in situations in which people who are oppressed fail to unite and fight against their oppression in some collective manner. This echoes Rosa Luxemburg's conception of the prospects for the future of society after the consolidation of monopoly corporations and imperialism, that the only options remaining will be either socialism or the destruction of humanity.