Black Swan: The Struggle For Unattainable Perfection

*This piece touches on grooming and abuse that can occur within the dance world, as well as spoils major plot points of the film, Black Swan.* 


“I just want to be perfect.” 


Who would have thought that a film written, produced, and directed entirely by men would provide such an interesting feminist analysis? Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan follows Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who strives for perfection, but despite her best efforts, can never seem to please the people around her, or herself. Nina has just been cast as the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of Tchaikovsky’s infamous Swan Lake, meaning she will be playing both the innocent White Swan, and the seductive Black Swan. From early on in the film, it is clear Nina’s journey will not be a pleasant one to watch. She is perfectionistic from the very start, and it’s clear she has mental afflictions influencing her meticulous tendencies. The culmination of her mental illnesses and her people-pleasing, perfectionistic nature lead to her downfall. Some may argue that Nina has no one to blame but herself for her demise, but she is a victim of her environment, just like so many other women in the world of ballet — a world that treats them as if they are disposable. Nina’s mother, Erica, her director, Thomas, and a fellow dancer at her company, Lily, are all outside forces who influence and inflame her destructive habits. Through these characters, Aronofsky highlights the extreme and detrimental effects of perfection forced on women.   

From the very beginning of the film, it is clear something is wrong between Nina and her mother, Erica, whom she lives with. Nina’s room is not the bedroom of a young woman in her twenties. It is reminiscent of a child’s room. Her papered-pink walls, her whimsical, child-like bed frame, and the stuffed animals surrounding her indicate she is extremely emotionally young. The setting is almost claustrophobic, which is indicative of her relationship with her mother. It’s clear Erica takes care of Nina in every way, and Nina’s bedroom shows how Erica wants her daughter to remain youthful and innocent– to protect her. As Erica’s own past is revealed, this makes perfect sense. 

Erica was a young dancer once, but after she had Nina, everything changed for her. She was no longer viewed as the crowning jewel of her ballet company. Her body was deemed old and useless, and she was discarded. This is not an uncommon practice in the world of ballet. Women who get to a certain age or who don’t fit the mold perfectly are cast aside. Because Erica herself has been in similar positions to Nina, she has suffered mentally because of it, and ends up obsessed with taking care of Nina in every way to keep her dancing, but also to keep her away from the harm that she faced. To Nina, her mother’s obsession with her perfection means she must force herself to be perfect in the eyes of her mother, her teachers, and anyone else who will pay the slightest bit of attention to her. She projects this in the way she dresses, eats, and of course, dances. While Erica may seem like an easy character to hate because of the way she treats her daughter, the viewer must not demonize her completely. She is a victim just as Nina is.  

Thomas Leroy, the director of Nina’s production of Swan Lake is a part of the vicious system that tears down women like Erica. Similarly to the viewer’s first interaction with Nina’s mother, our first interaction with Thomas is just as off-putting, as it is clear he has an uncomfortable hold on the young dancers he directs. Thomas’ inappropriate relationship with Nina begins when she confronts him in his office about the role of the Swan Queen and they have a brief sexual encounter. Initially, Thomas had planned on giving the role of the Queen to another dancer, but after his exchange with Nina, he changes his mind and gives the role to her. It’s not that Nina doesn’t deserve the role, but Thomas’ reasoning for his change of heart highlights the abuse and sexual misconduct that can and oftentimes does occur within the dance world. What happens to Nina at the hands of Thomas is not her fault. Thomas holds Nina to incredibly unrealistic standards, forcing her to the extremes of what many women are forced to embody– to be both the virgin and the whore, to be both available yet unattainable, to be both sexy but innocent and pure. He claims that he wants her to “discover herself,” to “let herself go,” when what he really means is he wants her to be sexually available to him. This unattainable version of herself that Thomas wants her to achieve is a large part of what leads Nina to her downfall. It is one thing to want a dancer to lose themselves in the art of their work, but to make them lose their minds is entirely different. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story. According to Pointe Magazine, so much abuse is able to occur because of the isolationism within the ballet community. Predators are given the opportunities to make unwanted advances on young women through private lessons and physical touch that ‘corrects form.’ They are also given an upper hand because women typically refrain from stepping forward for fear of not being believed, or fear of retaliation from their abusers and/or peers. So, Nina is left to try to become an unattainable version of herself in Thomas’ eyes.  

Nina blames Lily, a fellow dancer at her company for the imperfection and confusion she feels throughout much of the film, rather than Thomas, the source of these feelings. Upon Lily’s arrival to their company, Nina is instantaneously jealous. Thomas reveres Lily as a dancer who is able to move freely and with passion, all the while casting aside Nina, who he deems as “too perfect,” and as someone who “moves without feeling.” This proves extremely problematic for Nina, who bases her entire performance on being perfect in the eyes of Thomas. To her, getting the moves exactly right is the only way to dance, but Lily represents a different side that Nina can only dream of embodying–the side that Thomas wants her to be.  

In terms of the show their company is putting on, Nina is the perfect White Swan, and Lily is the perfect Black Swan, but as the role must be played by the same person, only one woman can be on top. This toxic competitive element is unfortunately not made up and is not limited to the world of ballet. Women are pitted against each other in essentially every field, but one could say that in the world of ballet it’s even more extreme. Nina’s general paranoia only heightens with Thomas’ praise of Lily, but when Nina speaks up about this, Thomas does nothing to ease her stress, and instead uses her feelings as a way to fuel her performance as both the Black and White Swan.  

On the opening night of Swan Lake, Nina misses dress rehearsal because she oversleeps and rushes to the performance just in time. Upon her arrival, she finds Thomas has given Lily the role for the night. Nina does not care. She pushes past him into her dressing room and prepares for the opening act. Her mental illnesses are charging ahead full throttle as she begins hallucinating what she assumes is just a rash on her back and shoulders, and her toes merging together, forming a singular webbed foot– she is becoming the swan in her mind. 

Still feeling jealous of Lily, Nina goes on stage to perform her opening act. While she is able to execute her performance, the viewer can tell she is frustrated with herself that she wasn’t ‘perfect,’ and even more frustrated with Lily for the position Thomas has put her in. She returns to stage to finish act one and is so distracted with emotion that she lets herself fall. She is no longer the perfect white swan. Her movements are imprecise, she is angry, and she is not the innocent woman she once was. She returns to her dressing room to change for the next act, and finds Lily in the Black Swan costume, applying Nina’s makeup. Lily taunts Nina, and Nina snaps. She slams Lily into the mirror and Lily morphs into a dark version of Nina. She strangles Nina, who is still in the White Swan costume, and Nina stabs the darker version of herself, who then morphs back into Lily as Nina realizes the gravity of what she’s done. She quickly gets rid of Lily’s body by dragging her into her dressing room’s private bathroom and places a towel at the door to stop blood from leaking through. Nina, having found this new side of herself and finally getting rid of the one thing that she saw as standing in her way, returns to the stage for her dance as the Black Swan.  

With her hallucinations again at their peak, and Lily out of her way, Nina ferociously embodies everything she never has before. Her eyes turn a spine-chilling red, and she sprouts actual wings from the rash on her back and shoulders as she dances the part of the Black Swan. The audience, and Thomas, are thrilled with her. Nina feels newly empowered, and perfect. Back in her dressing room, Nina changes into the white swan once more for the final act, and hears a knock at her door. She opens the door to find Lily, who is looking to mend fences and congratulate Nina on her performance. Shocked, Nina says nothing, so Lily leaves and Nina checks the bathroom to find it empty and free from Lily’s bloody body. She looks down to find her own abdomen bleeding.  

Realizing the full impact of what has happened, Nina knows this will be her final act. She sits down at her mirror with tears in her eyes, but instead of letting grief consume her, she smiles and finishes applying her makeup. This is her last chance, and she won’t let it slip away from her. Now that she has fully mastered the Black Swan, there is no doubt in her mind that she will be perfect as both the White and Black Swan.  

Nina finishes her final dance and jumps from the cliff onto a concealed mattress as the White Swan. As all the dancers come over to congratulate her, she seems out of it, but thrilled. Thomas leans over her and calls her his “little princess,” the name he reserves for the girls he grooms who become successes. He doesn’t notice her abdomen pooling with blood. Upon Lily’s notice of it, he demands to know from Nina, “What did you do?” once again pushing the blame off himself. He only wants to reap the benefits of her successes; not take responsibility for the damage he’s caused. She dies the moment it’s confirmed all he ever cared about was profiting off her hard work and desperation for perfection.  

“I felt it. It was perfect.” The last words of Nina Sayers should serve as a cautionary tale. While her story was dramatized to blend psychological film horror with real-life horror, it should not be taken lightly, and it is important to evaluate because of the light it sheds on women struggling with similar issues, in and outside of the dance world. Aronofsky executes Black Swan perfectly, and through Nina, he shows that when unrealistic expectations are forced on women, the effects are disastrous.