This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
We're often afraid of admitting how much we've been shaped by the culture that surrounds us. To submit to the idea that a mere film could alter some integral part of our being is essentially to admit that the "pure original" we defined ourselves as in the pages of our teenage diaries was a lie.
The depressing mire that is existential philosophy has taught us about the solitude of selfhood; we can reach out through the bars and try to cling to passing forms, but at the end of the day we're stuck inside the prison cell of our own brains with only our thoughts to keep us company. Pretty grim, and pretty much a recipe for crippling loneliness.
So it's natural for us to seek our own reflection, to crave that confirmation that we're not the only ones with all these strange thoughts and doubts that we can barely communicate to the outside world. Art, in all its forms, hopes to provide that confirmation. It's where the whole magic of the thing comes from; that single moment when a character, story or passing emotion seems ripped straight from the pages of your own soul. Like a sliver of light pouring through a crack in the wall, it shows us we're not alone.
The first time I saw Black Swan, I was sitting in the darkness of a cinema at 10AM in the morning, having volunteered to attend a press screening on behalf of my friend who ran the student radio station. He'd assured me there was no way a film about ballerinas was going to be anywhere near as traumatic as that other Darren Aronofsky movie I'd seen—Requiem for a Dream, the one where the old lady thinks the refrigerator is going to murder her.
How wrong he was.
To its credit, Black Swan is at least swift in granting success to its female protagonist, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman in her Oscar-winning role), and she lands the lead role of the Swan Queen at an esteemed ballet company's production of Swan Lake early on. But the bar is high: Nina must dance both the parts of the virginal White Swan, whose precise turns Sayers naturally excels in, and the Black: her debauched, seductive double who possesses total freedom.
The Black Swan is the unattainable ideal, magnified by her jealousy towards her carefree cast-mate Lily (Mila Kunis) and out of reach because, in reality, Nina is so incredibly highly strung. Deep in denial, she struggles onwards in an act of such obsessive pursuit that she only constricts herself further, the victim of paranoid delusions. Victory will only be achieved through the complete destruction of reality, but the result is an act of such total insanity that Nina is left bleeding onto a crash mat on the opening night.
By that final moment, as the figure of Nina—so close to death—looks up to the gathered crowd and whispers, "I was perfect," I'd become a weeping, snot-filled wreck. This was full-blown ugly crying, the kind that shudders through your body and turns your face all blotted and red. Even my attempts to quietly exit the theater and keep my dignity proved futile, running straight, as I did, into the middle of my fellow audience members, still hysterical and embarrassed. They, on the other hand, blinked back into daylight unchanged.
How exactly had a movie about warring ballerinas caused such a violent, emotional reaction? I dismissed it as a case of the morning grumps and tried to put it out of my mind. But as time rolled by, the film came back to me, insidious. Every time, frustration with the world turned into frustration with myself; every time, self-analysis turned into self-hatred. Why? Because I had graduated from university and I still hadn't landed the high-earning job, stable relationship and enviable Instagram feed of my classmates. In fact, I was so far from what I constituted as the basic success rate that I labelled myself as a failure in the very role of "adult human being."
I'd spend my days interrogating myself on how I'd failed to become this pedestaled image of success, never quite embracing the irony that this very interrogation was stopping me from going out and actually achieving any of those things. Like Nina, my contempt was cyclical. Somehow I'd prepped myself for failure so great that every living moment was now under threat of disaster; I would imagine someone bursting in on me to deliver some unimaginably terrible news, and I would wake up in the morning with a pain in my chest. My increasing levels of stress and paranoia started reflecting Nina's. In short, I was making myself feel miserable for no good reason.
At least one thing started making sense through all the madness, and that's why Black Swan had left me in such an emotional state. It's because Nina Sayers knew things about me before I even knew them myself. What's so masterful, so affecting, about Aronofsky's film is that he's managed to take a centerpiece of traditional ballet, the Swan Queen, and transform her into the ultimate symbol of feminine anxiety. While that's not to say that masculine anxiety is any less dangerous—as demonstrated by this year's Whiplash—there's something about society's demands on the feminine that have grown beyond the completely unrealistic and into the impossible.
Women are expected to somehow magically capture completely contradictory states within one mortal body: to be both the Black Swan and the White, Madonna and whore, career woman and doting mother, Gillian Flynn's "cool girl" and Disney princess. We paint women as simple vessels of sexuality and then call them sluts for expressing it by their own means; we label the women glued to their desks as terrible mothers and then call the near-absence of female CEOs a "lack of ambition." We take superhero toys out of the hands of little girls so we can replace them with Barbie dolls, only to then humiliate any bleached blonde who dares walk into a boardroom. To be a woman is to never even know what society expects of you in the first place, let alone suppress any natural desires so we can conform to the crowd.
Nina Sayers came to symbolise for me a simple message: that demanding too much of yourself really is a dangerous business. I had become so consumed by my own anxiety that the concept of the innate solitude of selfhood had just become my day-to-day reality. I'd exiled myself in a sort of psychological banishment. I may not have stabbed myself with a piece of mirror or engaged in imaginary lesbian trysts, but I had certainly become fixated on my own Black Swan: my own personal idea of perfected womanhood.