Black Swan: Truth or No Consequences

Black Swan is a visually gorgeous and psychologically probing film.  It secures the archetypal female psyche for the viewer and vivisects it on-screen.  This painful and nearly surgical opening of classic female struggles and vulnerabilities make it disturbing and raw over and above any particular plot or character complexities.

I don’t agree with much of the film’s interpretation in other reviews, as most reviewers tend to just accept the two lead dancers’ characters as apples-to-apples stand ins for the plot of Swan Lake.  I didn’t see a lot of simple good and evil.  I did see a lot of complex desire and confusion.  There is a difference between fictional animals and  “real” women.

Note: I wouldn’t call this a “spoiler alert” exactly, but if you plan to see the film and want to go with a clean slate, you might read this post afterward.

Last year’s post What DO Women Want? looked at researchers’ conclusions that, at least when it comes to turn-ons, women want to be wanted; but that conversation was only about one area — albeit a significant area — of female desire, namely sexuality.  Black Swan climbs much higher up the totem pole of wants, and uses the juxtaposition of characters Nina and Lily to illustrate the depth of female longing for freedom from consequence.

Certainly, every person spends moments or even huge chunks of time wishing for the freedom to just do what he or she wants to do without having to worry about what comes next.  “Personal responsibility” is a modern catch term, and there are raging debates about and private businesses built on the idea that we can all make happen whatever we want to have happen.  Black Swan carves out something more refined, stripped down, and basic.  Via the culture of professional ballet, the film is a sharply crystallized reminder that women tend to bear a uniquely warped burden of perceived responsibility for everything in their worlds.

There is a fair amount of cliche, but that is exacerbated if you believe the main characters are truly light and dark.  The character of Lily is not “the dark side.”  I suggest the character does not even exist outside of Nina’s hallucinations.  The dead giveaway is her enormous back tattoo — does anyone seriously think a professional dancer would be allowed onstage with something like that in the New York City Ballet?  There are plenty of other signs.  Lily stays up all night clubbing, bedding strangers, taking recreational drugs, and drinking the night before she is on stage.  She doesn’t warm up before she dances.  She smokes.  She eats cheeseburgers.  She’s never really worried about anything, ever.  She leads an entirely stress-free existence.  She makes friends, ignores authority, and generally thinks life is a blast.

It’s difficult to pin this character as evil, unless you frame her persona as an extreme repression of someone else’s psyche.  Nina starts to interpret Lily as evil (“She’s after me!”) because she, Nina, is so far locked outside of her own sense of balance.  She’s operating in a world where she doesn’t know how to relax, even a tiny bit.  When she tries it, she’s tipped so far out of whack that she (if we are to believe hallucinations) attacks her mother, mutilates herself, stabs Lily, and generally loses her mind.  It is Nina’s unbalanced life that is the dark side.

Women still tend to be socialized to believe that we are responsible for an obscene amount of things that either don’t matter or that we never had anything to do with anyway.  Should I have eaten that cookie?  Did I hurt his feelings?  Oh, I couldn’t cheer her up.  Is my child smart?  I don’t work out enough.  That was the wrong thing to wear.  I should give more of my time.  I should give more of my money.

Maybe if I just…….

Black Swan is brilliantly constructed because it’s impossible for me to win the argument that Lily isn’t real, just as Nina can’t prove what she thinks is real.  The film perfectly puts me or you or anyone viewing it in the same position as Nina.  I can’t “prove” it via words on a page or screen.  But I know that most women struggle to put their lives in a healthy balance, to know what their own dreams are vs. the dreams they are living for others, and to spend just one full day not worrying about how they could have made life easier or better for someone else.

Oh yeah.  And to eat a big juicy cheeseburger and not care.

Images credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 4, Born Again)

This is part 4 of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 4, Born Again)

Things became more complicated in the middle of my senior year of high school when I became a born-again Christian.  I had gone to church all my life, but mainly because my parents required me to do so.  At a church service on New Year’s Eve of 1985 I decided that I wasn’t doing a very good job of running my life and that I should surrender it to Jesus and let him have control.  At the time I didn’t know that many Christians considered a homosexual lifestyle to be sinful.

My senior year passed quickly, and in the fall of 1986 I began my freshman year at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.  I quickly became actively involved in a campus Christian fellowship, and I made a lot of great new friends.

Being a seven-hour drive away from home seems to have helped me finally to admit the truth to myself and others.  Just two weeks into my freshman year, I told Mark, an upperclassman from the Christian group, about my sexuality.  I wrote,  “We had a really good talk.  I told him all about my past.”  I had finally told someone, but I wasn’t ready to admit the truth to my journal yet.

Through conversations with Mark and other Christians I became convinced that having homosexual desires was not sinful, but acting on them would be.  I felt horrible feelings of guilt and shame when I allowed myself to entertain sexual thoughts; I began praying that God would help me to change, or at the very least, to have the strength to resist sexual temptation.  I read all the information I could find on the subject, and over the course of my freshman year I wrote more and more openly about my struggle with homosexual desires.  

At one point, Mark introduced me to a woman he knew who was similarly conflicted about her sexuality.  It was a huge event in my life: For the first time I knew another person who was like me.  Despite our similar circumstances, I never became very close with her.  I didn’t have a car, and she lived off-campus.  I suspect I would have put more effort into the relationship if Mark’s friend had been a man.  

By the beginning of my sophomore year, I had come out to my parents and many of my college friends.  In September of 1987 I wrote, “Something I’ve meant to do recently is to make a list of people ‘who know,’ if you know what I mean.  It’s no big secret if you’ve been keeping up on the past few month’s [entries].”  I went on to list 14 people that I had explicitly told about my sexuality and 16 others that I thought probably suspected the truth.  I was careful about who I told, but there was not a single person I told during college who rejected me (and most of these guys were conservative Midwesterners).

Tomorrow, part 5 and the conclusion of Growing Up Blind – After College.

Image credit: John Warren

What DO Women Want? Go ask a vampire.

Literally consumed with desire….

They say confession is good for the soul.  So here goes…….yes, I just watched Twilight.

And then I watched Twilight: New Moon.  I’m like a crazy person, and God help me apparently there is another one out there.  But I felt a need to know more about this pop cultural phemonenon.  I remember how much I admired an octogenarian who used to come to state 4-H camp and talk to the kids, and they actually listened.   She had her own subscription to Seventeen magazine at age  80.

After I first shared my guilty secret in private, a friend sent me this YouTube video, which is just hilarious and is narrated by a guy who struggles mightily with,“Why do all females like this terrible, terrible formulaeic story line?”  This question apparently torments a lot of people.  I don’t think his little video is all wrong, but I do think it is missing the mark.  He still doesn’t quite get what the crack cocaine element of the whole thing really is.

I’ve seen the first two of these movies, and one thing is abundantly clear:  The most addictive and persistent element in the Twilight franchise is relentless wanting of the female lead in a range of ways by nearly every character in every scene.

Some want to kill her.  Some want to be her friend.  They want to be her lover, her confidante, her father figure, her mother.  They want her to be their prom date, their sibling, their punching bag, their teacher, their student, their lunch.  But no matter what it is, everyone wants her all the time.  I’m talking all the time.

The pervasiveness of this theme might not have been so clear to me as the true addictive element if I hadn’t read an article in the New York Times several months ago titled simply What Do Women Want?.  (This article is “not suitable for work” and may be offensive to some readers.  Regardless, it spent a long time as one of The NYT’s most commented and emailed articles.  It’s anything but dull.)

Sigmund Freud famously told a female student, “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is, What does a woman want?”  Deep into the 8-or-so page online article, one researcher suggests that what women want, above all else, is to be wanted.  The brain chemicals that release in the female mind around stories, images, fantasies and realities around being the focus of desire apparently are quite powerful, and can be distinctly separated from what any individual woman may want in “real life.”

There is a whole lengthy and responsible discussion about the difference between arousal and desire that may very well be the Rosetta Stone long lost to Freud.  Not shockingly, it seems female scientists are discovering important dynamics that tend to live in this huge male blind spot.

So sure……Robert Pattinson has a great truly romantic look.  And yes, vampires pluck at some weird psyche strings and have for centuries. Add that the idea of undying love is very appealing, especially when the whole world seems hell-bent on squashing the devotion and fidelity out of every last human relationship — with glee, I might add — and you’ve got some nice icing for your cake.

But it’s just the icing.  I’m pretty sure the cake is the wanting.