Black Swan: My Interpretation Of The Metaphors
When I first heard about this film I was intrigued by the story line. And after Natalie Portman had won an Oscar for her role, I thought it must be worth watching. It is directed by Darren Aronofsky, who directed The Wrestler and numerous other films.
After watching this film I was amazed and fascinated by the psychological theme, although there are metaphors involved my focus this time is on the psychology of the film. And the psychology involved is primarily about abuse and the consequences of it.
These psychological aspects and metaphors of the film are my personal view and are based on my own interpretation of what these metaphors and psychological aspects are and there meaning. They are in no way the right or only interpretation, they are just my view.
This will also mean that I will miss out certain parts and only describe what stood out for me and what I felt was significant. If there are parts that I don’t understand myself, that will also be a reason as to why it has not been mentioned. it will not be like a story board where I will describe the whole story.
So with the disclaimer of sorts out of the way, let’s begin.
The Dream And Her Mother
The film starts off with Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) having a dream about being the black swan. This shows how strongly she wants to achieve this. As it has become so consuming to her that she is not only thinking about it in her waking life, but also during the time when she is asleep .The unconscious mind is displaying this great need of hers.
We are also shown that he mother - Erica (Barbara Hershey) is heavily involved in her daughter’s life. However this could mean two things; that her mother is deeply caring and supportive or that her mother masks her self-centredness through her acts of ‘kindness’ and ‘concern’.
During the first rehearsal we are shown how competitive and cold some of the girls are. It is here that Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) first appears. Here he talks about their next production – Swan Lake. This is a story of Duality; of the good and the bad.
She is one of the dancers that have been chosen to audition for the lead role of Swan Lake and this also allows her dream to grow in the real world.
Nina comes across as a timid and shy individual, which would infer that her mother is more likely to be controlling and overbearing as opposed to being truly loving and supportive of her daughters expression as a separate human being.
Nina’s audition doesn’t go to plan. Her portrayal of the white swan is perfect, but her dancing for the black swan is not up to Thomas Leroy’s standard. This is partly because of being interrupted by lily’s (Mila Kunis) arrival. We can see that Nina is putting herself under immense pressure and strain to perform and having lily arrive at such an important time further ads to her troubled disposition.
Speaking To Thomas
Nina wants to prove to Thomas that she has what it takes to play; not only the white swan, but also the Black swan. The conversation covers Nina’s need for perfection and how she has to let go and ‘transcend’ this need in order to become the black swan.
This could be interpreted in numerous ways. Firstly It could be that she had a highly critical upbringing, which has lead her to feel that she is inherently not good enough. This causes her to experience high levels of anxiety and stress whenever she has to perform. For is she was to get something wrong she would feel rejected and possibly even be rejected externally by others, as this is what happened to her as a child.
So by doing everything perfectly she believes that she will be accepted. The mind works in polarity’s and will see it as either being accepted or rejected; there is no middle ground to the ego mind. However she is finding out that perfection is not what Thomas wants to see.
Thomas wants to see her lose herself in the moment and to become the black swan. If we were to look at the black and white swan as metaphors, it is quite clear that the white swan represents all that is pure and innocent and the black swan represents all that is impure and tainted; the darker side of life.
So then, it is as if Nina is being asked to become and embrace that part of her that she runs way from, that part of her that has been rejected for so long. Acceptable and not acceptable ways of behaving have been defined by her mother.
Nina finds out that she is the swan queen. She experiences mixed emotions by this though, as she feels good and rejected at the same time. Her fellow dancers express different things. Some are supportive and some are vengeful.
Nina Returns Home
Overjoyed by the news, Nina returns home to her mother (Barbara Hershey). Here her mother has a cake ready to celebrate her daughter’s success.
The good feeling soon end as her mother seems to have what could be called narcissistic or self centred tendencies. She is more concerned with pleasing herself than tuning into and recognising her daughter’s needs. Nina doesn’t want to eat due to her stomach pain and I am sure that with being a dancer she also has to watch how much she eats.
At this point the roles are reversed with the daughter acting more like the mother and the mother acting like the daughter. It should be a time for the mother to appreciate her daughters’ success, but it ends with the Nina’s trying to appease her mother.
Nina’s soon gives in to her mother, to avoid being rejected and goes along with her mother’s wish to eat the cake.
Nina goes back to Leroy’s apartment, with their relationship taking on a somewhat sexual direction. It could be said that she now has two people who are taking advantage of her timid nature. On one side she has a mother who is more than happy to compromise her boundaries and now she has a man in her life that is now doing the same.
And by compromising for her mother she gains her approval and by compromising for Leroy she achieves her dreams.
Back At Home
Nina returns home and soon after her mother is helping her to undress. Where she finds Nina’s cut on her back. Her mother accuses her daughter of scratching herself again. And then cites the recent pressure she has been under as the cause of the scratching.
What is not looked at is the amount of pressure she has been putting on her daughter as a result of her own self centred behaviour. Anger if often the result of being compromised; this could be real compromise or perceived compromise. And when the skin is irritable it can be the result of repressed anger or frustration. So her mother could be partly responsible for her daughter’s sore skin.
When Nina wakes up the next day we can see that her room is filled with cuddly toys, this could further show how her mother is keeping her as her little girl and not allowing Nina to grow up.
Nina’s Swan Lake Predecessor Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) has been hurt in a car accident. Beth could be classed as the antithesis of Nina. Whereas Nina represents the white swan in everyday life, Beth represents the black swan.
Perhaps Beth has had a similar upbringing, but she has taken on the opposite characteristics. A common consequence of people who are abused is that they become high achievers. This is to cover up their fear of being inadequate. But the achievements rarely have a lasting impact because the trauma from their childhood hasn’t been look at or processed.
In the ballet rehearsal Nina is criticised for being too nice and for not having a backbone. This surely originates from her relationship with her mother. With her mother being so controlling and overbearing Nina has had little chance to develop her own sense of empowerment or the ability to stand up for herself.
On her train journey home Nina is exposed to a sordid experience. Here an old man is pleasuring himself in front of Nina. Although this has not happened to her before, she is used to getting taken advantage of sexually. This is a pattern that was first started off by Leroy.
It would be easy to assume that Nina is a victim here and that she is being chosen at random. However it no doubt reflects her upbringing, where her boundaries were not respected and now the same occurrence is being played out by various men she meets. Her mother most likely wouldn’t allow her daughter to speak her own mind or say no and this is what makes it so hard for her to stand up and to set boundaries with others. And because she carries this deep sense of vulnerability, her behaviour displays this and will continue to attract abusive people into her life.
Here we find Nina and Erica Sitting in front of the mirrors. Her mother is concerned for Nina and doesn’t want her to make the same mistake that she did. And now is the time that we get to see what is really going on with Nina’s mother and what causes her to behave as she does.
Erica says that she gave up her own career for Nina. But this isn’t said in a way that denotes love, appreciation or support. Instead Erica expresses regret and anger and does her best to make Nina feel guilty. To her such things from a figure as important as her mother must be incredibly traumatising. Her sense of belonging and acceptance (which are the foundations of psychological health) could easily have been destroyed. This has the potential to leave her feeling abandoned, betrayed, rejected and ashamed amongst other things.
This also explains why her mother is so controlling and overbearing. She is this way because she is trying to live out her own ‘unlived’ life through her daughter. With her own childhood needs having been neglected, she is now using her daughter to fulfil them. In her eyes, Nina is an extension of herself and not a separate person.
In the next moment Erica wants Nina to take of her shirt, to see how her skin is. To which Nina reply’s ‘its fine’ and resists taking of her shirt. It is also here that we can see how Nina is growing as a person. She goes against her mother’s wishes and joins her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) for a drink.
After Nina and Lily have something to eat they meet two guys and have a few drinks. Here lily encourages Nina to let go and enjoy herself. So they both dabble in drugs and drink alcohol.
Nina is certainly vulnerable here because she has no connection to herself or very little; she has spent much of her life listening to others. And were she to say no to her mother she would no doubt have be punished, this could create an association of rejection and abandonment around standing up for herself. This will then create a tendency to do what others say; to avoid being rejected. Another consequence of her mother’s abusive behaviour is that Nina’s own sense of self hasn’t been allowed to develop and this causes her to lose herself around others, especially forceful people.
They meet two guys and while Nina is with one of them she explains what she does and that she is soon to be in Swan Lake. With her describing it as a girl that gets turned into a swan and in order for her to break free she needs love.
This is surely a metaphor for Nina’s life. That in order for Nina to break her mother’s spell she needs love also. She needs love, support and validation. So she can realise who she is, is ok and acceptable.
In the next scene we see Nina and Lily exploring each other sexually. Now it would be easy to dismiss this scene and to label it as just experimentation and that Nina is simple exploring herself. But what else might be going on here? Although sexual activity is pleasurable to both body and mind, it also has the potential to fulfil certain emotional needs that were not fulfilled during ones childhood. This is why practices such as Tantra say that as one evolves, sex takes on a completely different meaning that the usual purpose of self gratification.
So if these emotional needs that have not been realised; they often will end up being projected onto the other person. And whether this is a man or a woman is irrelevant; as although a man and a woman look different, we each contain both the masculine and feminine within. And while one is with that person they will temporarily experience these emotional needs being fulfilled.
So here I can only assume as to what needs are being fulfilled for Nina through being with Lily. However, I would guess that the primary feelings that Lily causes Nina to experience is love and connection. These are undoubtedly feelings she has rarely felt with her mother.
The Next Rehearsal
Due to what happened the night before Nina wakes up late and therefore doesn’t arrive on time for her rehearsal.
When Nina asks Lily why she didn’t wake her up, she denies that they had been together and that Nina had dreamt it.
This could show how much Nina has thought about Lily and now, just like her ballet dream in the beginning, is now showing up in her dreams. It might also be a hallucination.
In this scene we see Nina throwing her cuddly toys into the trash. This shows that her mentality has changed and that she is rebelling against her mother’s way of treating her. It could be seen as s form of catharsis.
In this scene we see that Nina has become so paranoid about the mark on her back that she is continually experiencing delusions or hallucinations. Through her minds obsession and focus she is now imagining faces.
Nina finds out that lily is her alternate. At this moment she is filled panic and sadness and feels that Lily wants to take her role. Leroy dismisses this and explains that every dancer in the world wants her role and that it isn’t about her.
So it could be that Lily is simply the backup dancer and that her paranoia is irrational. And that her mind is simply filtering her experiences to only see Lily in a certain way. Nina’s childhood experiences of having a mother who was critical and against her, could create the tendency for her to see other people in the same way.
Nina visits Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) in hospital and sees her in a wheel chair. Here we can assume that Nina is feeling incredible guilt and self blame for what has happened to Beth.
We also find out that Nina has projected certain psychological aspects that she has yet to embrace onto Beth. This causes Nina’s mind to filter her experience of Beth, so that she only sees perfection.
Nina wakes up to find that her mother has taken off the door handle to stop Nina from going to the concert hall. Here the roles change with Nina becoming the abuser and her mother becomes the abused. This is a pattern that is common, with abuse often being passed from one generation to the other.
The Big Night
After a crazy night Nina goes to the concert hall and prepares for Swan Lake. Here she finds out that Lily will be performing; after her mother had called to say she was ill. Nina disposition has now changed with her taking on more of the Black Swan’s characteristics and says that she is ready to perform
Leroy says to her that she is the only person standing in her way. And that it is time to let her go and lose herself. This could mean that her biggest enemy has been herself. And that it is more a case of finding herself and losing the identity her mother has given her. A common occurrence of abuse and any form of external criticism that’s experienced during ones childhood is that it becomes internalised. The critical voice is then heard within and whether one is around the abuser no longer matters. It then exists like a parasite, taking on different guises and positions; this makes it hard to notice and eliminate.
Throughout the whole film we have seen Nina gradually change and this has been mirrored by her growth as a ballet dancer and through achieving her dream of being the lead in Swan Lake. It is tempting to suggest that Nina has gone through a stage of psychological growth. However, it would be more appropriate to say that Nina has gone from one extreme to the other, shedding her role as the victim and taking on the role of the perpetrator.
Nina performs the role perfectly, but her hallucinations or delusions get the better of her and while she is getting ready she stabs herself with a piece of glass. The psychological understanding that I have does not cover this. But it would surely be labelled as a ‘mental disorder’. And a mental disorder that has surely been a consequence of her mother’s abuse. With a split being formed within and this must be the result of the trauma she has faced throughout her life.
The Black Swan was everything Nina wished she could be and the complete opposite of how she was. The black swan within her was her repressed side. That side she had always hidden from others. For most of her life she played the white swan. But it is highly unlikely that either of these showed her true self.
The White Swan was someone she had to become to please her mother and to survive and the Black Swan was a reaction to being oppressed by her mother. The Black Swan gave Nina a sense of power and although it wasn’t functional, it allowed her to experience what she had been deprived of experiencing for so long.
Nina must have experienced years of trauma through her mother and that’s not even going into what Nina could have picked up from her mother in the womb. With Nina’s mother blaming her daughter for her own ruined career. It could be said that, before she was even born, she felt unwanted.
This shows how dangerous and destructive abuse is. It is something that can go on unnoticed for years and even a life time.
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Oliver J R Cooper
Oliver JR Cooper
Author of 25 books, Transformational Writer, Teacher & Consultant.
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That which is contained within these articles is based on my own empirical understanding and is true for me at the time they were written. However, as I continue to grow, what I perceive as the truth will inevitably change and as a result of this - parts of these articles may not reflect my current outlook.