Skin tearing off a finger, knees buckling unnaturally, a nail file plunging through a cheek; Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) contains many scenes of extreme pain, a pain not solely felt by the body on screen but also manifested in the viewer’s body. Watching the film is thus a disturbing experience meant to unsettle traditional cinematic identification and instead situate the viewer as embodied. I am interested in how Black Swan articulates embodied sensations of pain and how these sensations engage with the corporeal effects of gendered violence. That is to say, through embodied sensations of pain the viewer is exposed to what it is likely to be the subject of gender inequalities, expressed physically as violence. My contention is that this experience opens up potentials for transformation in the viewer.
What is at stake for the film is whether it is a symptom of patriarchal submission, a reduction of women and as such imbricated in reproducing gendered violence, or if it is a rupture with patriarchal society. This divide is neatly expressed in “Debating Black Swan: Gender and Horror,” where Mark Fisher and Amber Jacobs (2011) disagree on exactly this issue. It is instructive that Fisher argues that Black Swan is a cry against patriarchy, while Jacobs sees the film merely as a symptom. Instructive because the male perspective sees an injustice, while the female perspective only sees limiting repetition. However, both critics argue from essentially a feminist psychoanalytic perspective, using Luce Irigaray as a shared reference point.
I agree with Fisher’s understanding of the film, but I do not agree with his argument. I notice that when he describes his experience of watching the film he calls it “utterly harrowing. Far from laughing, we could barely breathe” (Fisher and Jacobs 2011: 61). Fisher has recourse not to structure, identification or narrative but bodily experience, as suffocating. For this reason, I wish to explore notions of affect, embodiment, and biopower as a way of understanding the film beyond narrative and structure. In doing so, I draw on recent developments in phenomenological film theory as well as affect film theory. We have to pay attention to the film’s affective impact to better understand what the film does. In paying attention to what the film does, we can also see the transformative potential inherent in the film.
Black Swan is the story of ballerina Nina Sawyer (Natalie Portman), who dreams of dancing the Swan Queen role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina is extremely co-dependent on her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who practically runs Nina’s life. Furthermore, Nina has significant self-confidence issues and is mentally unstable, constantly seeing herself in mirrors and in people walking past her. After earning the part of the Swan Queen, Nina displaces the former star of the ballet Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), but also feels threatened by her own understudy Lily (Mila Kunis). Struggling to perform both the white and the black swan, Nina’s already fragile mind begins to imagine events and people, while also distancing herself from her controlling mother. On opening night, Nina confronts Lily, thinking that Lily wants to steal her role and stabs her to death with a shard of mirror. As it turns out, Lily was never there and Nina stabbed herself. Nina decides to dance a perfect black swan performance, while dying in the process.
Thus, Black Swan participates in the representations of gendered violence in general, as many critics noted upon the film’s release.1 However, the film’s productive effect, the way it forces us to confront gendered violence by feeling at least some version of it, complicates the film’s relation to gendered violence. The film’s production of affect in us, the way the film makes us feel something we would never otherwise have felt opens up potentialities for recognizing the effects of gendered violence. In doing so, the film opens up a potential for transformation that viewers may or may not articulate. Evidently, such articulation depends on the viewer’s gender, but not in a straightforward manner. Men might overlook issues of gendered violence, women might find those issues too repetitive or too inarticulate: potentials are not always actualized even if they are inherent in an event. Such individual responses, however, are beyond the scope of this article.
As far as gendered violence is concerned, I am aware of my own problematic relation to the film’s gender issues. As a white cisgender male, how can I know what it is like to be a woman? How can I know or speak to the sensation of everyday gendered violence? My only response is to say that I can never feel what it is like to be female, and so never feel or truly understand the effects of gendered violence. However, I do believe that films like Black Swan do make it possible for me to at least glimpse some of the repercussions of gendered violence. In arguing so, I pick up on Carol Clover’s “play of pronoun function” that she elucidates in Men, Women, and Chain Saws as a gender identity game, where men take on the identity of women for the duration of the film (2015: 56). Clover points to the fact that this play is not only a matter of identity but also “an integral element of the particular brand of bodily sensation in which the genre trades” (57). So, men may enjoy feeling like a woman for a while, even if this results in masochistic experiences. I would further argue that such experiences (of feeling like a woman) may have effect after having watched the film, thus transforming or adjusting the way we experience the world and the way we behave.
Yet in order to understand the production of affect, we must look closely at the way that we are aligned with Nina and her situation in the first place. While many of the film’s shots are grotesque and disturbing in their own right, the primary impact comes from us being aligned with Nina throughout the narrative. Everything that happens to Nina happens to us, and we feel it as much as she does. However, I do not mean to suggest that we identify with Nina, but rather that we follow along with her sensations, we move along with her body. My claim is that by watching the film our sensual being is articulated to feel the pain of gendered violence. We feel what it is like to be Nina Sawyer and by extension get a sense of some of the pressures from contemporary culture’s preoccupation with bodily perfection.
Nina embodies pain, but also presents a form of dissent or subversion of gendered violence in the way that viewers are made to feel her pain. In this move, the film recuperates unpleasant feelings for their critical productivity. Black Swan is important, not because it is a pleasant watch. Rather, the film is important because it produces ugly feelings of pain that we are subjected to as viewers. These feelings of pain and suffering render sensible the gendered aspects of biopower and this film makes us more sensitive to gendered violence. Only such ugly feelings can challenge cultural assumptions and produce transformative behavior.
Thematically, Black Swan deals with issues of gender, mother-daughter relations, and problems of sexuality. There is also tension between the desires to live up to expectations and to break free from social constraints. Nina faces a choice in the end: to follow her own desires or to bow to social pressures. Some, including Natalie Portman, have argued that Nina’s bleeding wound at the end of the film signifies menstruation, thus visualizing Nina’s transition from girl to woman. However, I believe that the wound is real, that Nina dies in the end, but that this death is not sacrificial as much as it is transformational. Nina’s black swan is presented as feathers and wings growing from Nina’s body. This is not a literal transformation but instead the visualization of Nina transcending beyond the strictures placed on her body, the way that biopower has articulated her body until she herself breaks biopower’s hold on her. Of course, the only way for Nina to negotiate biopower is through death.
Black Swan is a film that deals with what Don Ihde has called body one (the phenomenological lived body of experience and our being-in-the-world) and body two (the body under social and cultural conditions of biopower) (Ihde 2002: xi). By presenting the lived experience of a body subjected to certain specific social and cultural restraints, Black Swan makes the argument that it is problematic to separate the two bodies; our lived experience of being-in-the-world is always shaped by Foucauldian biopower. Foucault defines biopower as the “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies” (2012: 140). These techniques work at the level of the social body but also impact individual bodies through valorization and what Foucault terms “investment.” Examples of biopower abound in Black Swan. A clear example of valorization is Nina starving herself to remain thin enough for a ballet dancer, thus valorizing a specific body ideal. Thomas the director (Vincent Cassel) exploits Nina’s sexuality and insists that she masturbates in order to give the best performance possible. In this way, Thomas demands that she invests her body and sexuality in the performance, in order to be successful.
I argue here that Foucault’s idea of biopower has a material dimension to it. This is evident in two ways—first in the way that such biopower is enacted through Black Swan’s narrative and second in the way the film itself acts as an agent of biopower in the energies and intensities it subjects the viewer to. The drive and ambition that leads Nina to abuse her body in this way expresses well the contradictions which biopower exists through. Rosi Braidotti suggests in her work on feminist theory and metamorphosis that “[b]iopower constructs the body as a multi-layered entity that is situated over a multiple and potentially contradictory set of variables” (2002: 229). While the dancers’ bodies are valorized, they are also abused—by the dancers themselves but also by others, such as Thomas, Nina’s mother, and the cultural pressures of how a ballet dancer should look.
We cannot separate Nina’s ambitions from her mother’s dreams and wishes for Nina. Nina’s body is the site of several people’s desires, including her own and those of her mother, Thomas, and particularly Lily. Nina is best understood as an assemblage of a multitude of techniques, desires, and subjectivities, instead of a subject distinct from other subjects. This is what it means to exist under biopower; that no one is free from social and cultural techniques that co-determine, limit, and condition all bodies.
At the same time, we are constituted as viewers by the film in which we feel what Nina goes through, not as an ideological formation of a subject position, but as what Vivian Sobchack calls a cinesthetic subject. For Sobchack, the cinesthetic subject emerges out of our corporeal, emotional engagement with the film’s audiovisual form: “We, ourselves, are subjective matter: our lived bodies sensually relate to “things” that “matter” on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and localized” (2004: 65). Our bodies commingle with the bodies on screen and the film’s body, which is what produces sensations that are prepersonal and embodied. I feel the sound-image rather than see it. This is not to deny that cinema is a visual medium but rather to accept that my entire body is involved in apprehending the film. Consider the use of the handheld camera, employed throughout most of the film. The shaky motion of the camera serves as our way into the film world and produces an intimate feeling, a sense of closeness with what we see. Although it is almost a cliché to remark on the cinema veritè style as one that brings us closer to the fictional world, the effect is undeniable. Also, the unsteady motion of the camera works well for an experience that mirrors Nina’s jittery, nervous nature. There is a sense of looking around, scanning the environment and never feeling completely at ease, all expressed through the handheld camera. The film’s body, the way the camera embodies the world for us, becomes the way that we align our bodies with the screen. Our recognition of such unsteady embodiment becomes the way we make sense of the film. When bodies on the screen are in pain, we make sense of that pain in our own flesh because we take up the position of that pain. Watching a film induces involuntary feelings, feelings that extend our sensual being in the world. As Sobchack insists, it is not a matter of us feeling the same pain or any actual pain when experiencing Nina’s body in pain on screen. Rather, we experience a vacillation between the screen bodies and our bodies, an ambiguity that cannot easily be resolved, which is precisely the aesthetic experience.
Take as an example the scene where Nina notices a hangnail. As she tries to pull off the piece of skin, far too much skin comes off in a sudden motion. In itself shocking, the scene’s formal composition makes the impact much greater. The handheld camera seeks out Nina’s face in a close-up, the soundtrack is a calm piano and at first everything appears calm. The brightness of the white marble sink is sharply in contrast to the red tear of the hangnail on Nina’s finger, seen in an extreme close-up. An impatient rapping on the door suggests tension and the piano tune picks up speed. As Nina begins picking at the hangnail, we cut to a close-up of her wincing in pain. We cut back to her hands, where the blood spreads and we see the skin starting to peel. Cut back to a close-up of Nina’s face still in pain, and then back to her hands as she pulls a long piece of skin off. In the rapid motion of her hand tearing off the skin, the piano picks up the pace, but a new sound element comes in. Somewhere between soundtrack and sound design, we hear a whining rise in pitch that corresponds to Nina tearing off skin. The length of skin is excessive for a hangnail, the red blood is accentuated against the white sink, and the sound design produces a stinger—a rapid increase in pitch that does not belong to the musical score yet also does not originate in the diegesis. Everything converges on making this an unpleasant scene.
This scene also allows us to understand the production of embodied affect. While traditional cinematic identification theories would argue that we are cued by Nina’s face, I believe more is at work. The sharp color contrast, the disturbingly long piece of skin, and the unpleasant shriek of the stinger are all elements that intensify the scene and work more as a cinematic assemblage as Teresa Rizzo defines it: “a machine that produces certain kinds of affective and intensive connections” (2012: 7). We can understand affect in the way Elena Del Río employs it in Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: “the unsettling force the image becomes when it cannot be explained except by recourse to a new form of thought or sensation” (2008: 201). To elaborate: the sink/flesh/blood color contrasts, the long piece of skin, the shrieking stinger converge to produce an unsettling force as intensive connections between the film’s body and the viewer’s body. As Rizzo goes on to argue, such a view of films as machinic assemblages allow for potentials “that destabilize subjectivity and identity, and that disrupt a binary construction of sexual difference” (2012: 7). In other words, the play of pronoun function works here through bodily sensations where Nina’s body, the film’s body and my body flow together in an intensive experience. This experience disrupts my subjectivity because the film becomes part of me, produces me, as it were, and so produces me as a woman in pain. Such an argument falls in line with Del Río’s Deleuze-inspired notion of becoming, where the viewer’s body “becomes the site where a transfer takes place between the abstract social or ideological meanings and the material individual ways of responding to and embodying” social and ideological meanings (2008: 72).
What I suggest, then, is that the experience of watching Black Swan is one of experiencing pain, at once intensified and diffused. We cringe when we watch Nina suffer pain, but it is a diffuse pain that does not occur specifically in our body. At the same time, it is an intense pain that makes us direct our attention fully toward the screen, rather than toward our own body, and so we experience the pain on screen (Sobchack 2004: 77). Clearly, this pain is of a different order than what Nina experiences, yet it is not a pretend pain, nor do we imagine what that pain might feel like. Instead, we might refer to this pain as affective: we feel pain, although not physically so. This affective pain also opens us up for a recognition of Ihde’s body one and body two. Body one (our lived body) is subjected to pressures and conditions of biopower via the film’s formal properties, thus allowing for body two to emerge as a result of body one’s experience.
What works so well for reading biopower alongside the cinesthetic subject is that this method exposes how our lived bodies are always subjected to biopower. We cannot position our lived bodies outside the realm of biopower. Yet simultaneously, the sensual experience of our bodies also always partly escape biopower’s articulation because the sensual experience is prepersonal, and so exists on the edge of biopower. What that means is that our sensual experience may disrupt biopower and reveal its workings and pressures. Films may release potentials that run counter to biopower through cinematic aesthetics. In this way, films participate in the power relations that flow between bodies.
Violence is a central issue in Black Swan, both in terms of Nina’s narrative and how our experience is rendered. As pertains to gendered violence, I define it broadly as social control and violation to maintain asymmetrical gender systems of power (O’Toole et al. 2007: xii). Other characters constantly have power over Nina and consistently violate her desires in favor of their own. For us as viewers, however, violence comes in the form of the affect of pain.
An example of how we are subjected to the pain of the screen bodies is the scene where Nina has told her mother that she will dance the Swan Queen; the mother immediately brings home their favorite layer cake, despite earlier admonitions that Nina eats only one half of a grapefruit for breakfast. Although Nina tries to resist the fattening cake, her mother pressures her into eating some. There are two techniques at work, here. The first is the cultural subjugation of women’s bodies into a dangerously thin ideal. While articulated in one specific form for ballerinas (“thin enough to dance properly and look right on stage”), such bodily regulation is a daily occurrence for many women. The earlier scene of Nina eating a grapefruit participates in this larger construction of problematic body ideals, as does the gaunt appearance of Natalie Portman and the other ballerinas. Clearly, Nina has internalized an overly skinny body ideal, accepting it as a prerequisite for her career, while the film produces a sense that this internalization is damaging. We see Nina regurgitating in the bathroom, revealing the close affinity between eating disorders and female body ideals.
When the mother wants Nina to eat cake we feel the injustice leveled against Nina. Nina attempts to be a good subject and acquiesce to her strict diet, but her mother gets angry. The mother’s histrionics are childish and require Nina to apologize before her mother throws the cake in the trash. Not only is the outburst unpleasant because an adult should not behave like a child, it is further unpleasant because eating the cake produces a paradox. While Nina must eat a low-fat, low-carb diet in order to produce a body thin enough to dance the Swan Queen, she must also indulge in fattening cakes at her mother’s insistence. We cannot help but feel frustrated with the mother’s behavior and the trials that Nina must undergo. In this sequence we are presented with the impossible requirements of biopower as it plays out across Nina’s body and we are made to feel Nina’s frustration, as she must contain these contrasting impulses within her. The paradox is made even more explicit when we cut to the next scene and see the bones of Nina’s ribcage stretching through her skin. Nina is already dangerously thin, but must be able to both eat nothing and eat a lot in order to serve her mother and our cultural ideals.
Here we find the confluence of Ihde’s body one and body two—through the entanglement of our body, the film’s body and Nina’s body we experience the effects of body two: Foucault’s body of disciplinary regimes. What is usually discussed as discursive violence is here expressed as affective violence and we experience how it feels existing under different conditions than our own—this is one thing that fictions do quite eminently and is what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls presentification in a slightly different context (2004: 118). What Black Swan does eminently is to make oppressive bodily regimes present for us.
Such presentification of discursive regimes brings with it the recognition that power—any form of power—acts as a kind of violence. Gumbrecht goes on to define power as the occupation or blocking of spaces with bodies, which we recognize in the way our experiencing body has been occupied by the film’s body, while he defines violence as the actualization of power as an event (114). In modernity—what Gumbrecht refers to as a meaning culture—there is a tendency to infinitely defer the moment of actual, physical violence as power’s ultimate tool (83). The threat of violence is constant yet always masked by images of authority, knowledge, and so forth. Foucault makes much the same point when he argues that discipline has become increasingly invisible under modernity, which makes us realize that what we experience in Black Swan is really an instance of biopower—the disciplining and forced docility of contemporary bodies. In this way, we also begin to understand the development of Black Swan and Nina’s transformation, which must necessarily be physical in order to challenge modernity’s deferral and denial of power as violence. Nina’s metamorphosis is violent because that is the only response to the (masked) violence done to her.
Thomas provides another example of masked violence against Nina. Thomas constantly transgresses Nina’s boundaries, openly asking her to masturbate and to explore her sexuality. He also tries to use his position of authority to seduce Nina, something he has a tendency to do, as we can see in the way he discards Beth when she is too old for him and for the stage. In fact, it is strongly suggested that Thomas will use Nina only to dispense with her like he did with Beth. Beth is presented as unstable and menacing. When Nina meets her for the first time at the gala, Beth is drunk and threatens Nina. The music turns to slow, somber stingers while the camera sways slightly, in keeping with Beth’s drunkenness. It is Thomas’s intervening that stops the tense mood.
However, the main shock comes from the later scene when Nina visits Beth in the hospital after Beth has tried to kill herself. Beth wakes up and grabs Nina’s arm in a startling shot. Yet it is Beth’s sudden, relentless stabbing of her own face that shocks us the most. This scene is unexpectedly violent and sudden, as the camera shows us the nail file penetrating Beth’s cheek in a close-up with a sudden flourish of string instruments unmatched to the intensity of the violence. The reason for the stabbing is in response to Nina saying she wants to be perfect like Beth. Beth rejects that she is perfect and acts upon this belief by maiming her face.
It is significant that Beth, a ballerina, would choose to desecrate her face rather than her feet, legs, or entire body for that matter. By one logic, a dancer’s beauty comes from her (or his) bodily movement. Yet the face is significant in film (and popular culture), not only because it designates identity in a way that feet do not. In fact, one reason why the shot of Beth stabbing the nail file through her cheeks is so shocking is because that shot itself is a reversal of classical cinema’s reverence for the female face. Beth is shot straight on; the shot is dark, no backlight or fill light, casting Beth’s face in shadows, emphasizing her worn look, with her wispy hair dangling in her face, obscuring her features. The effect is far removed from the goddess shots of classical cinema; Beth is presented as worn-out and finished.
For Béla Balázs, close-ups express poetic sensibilities, “show the faces of things and those expressions on them which are significant because they are reflected expressions of our own subconscious feeling” (1952: 56). In the same vein, Gilles Deleuze (2013: 89) refers to the close-up as the affection-image, pointing out that the close-up is always a face, even when it is not a human face. And for Roland Barthes (1973: 57), the face of Greta Garbo presented the idea of woman, while Audrey Hepburn presented the event of woman. Taken together, all these male critics agree that close-ups of faces are highly tied to our affective responses to the characters and cinema in general; faces are overdetermined in cinema, although almost exclusively female faces. To slash your face is to reject your identity and your position within the affective framework of faces, an action that is far more significant for women than for men.
Beth rejects being perfect because she can only be perfect if she is still desired by Thomas, which she is not. Nina visits Beth for exactly the same reason: she recognizes that her perfection has been contingent on a man, or men in general, something Nina also learned from Lily on their night out. The face in classical cinema is precisely a gendered face, an ideal towards which women must strive. Beth’s slashing of her face because she is no longer perfect enough to be desired by Thomas is a violent expression of the gendered violence implicit in male desire. In other words, male desire produces an asymmetrical power relation that compels women to constantly attempt to make themselves desirous for men.
Nina’s body is interesting in the way it presents itself to us. As a ballet dancer, Nina expresses herself primarily through dance, which is what we might call a cultural technique—an assemblage of media, conventions, discursive structures, material practices and so forth. The primary medium for Nina is her body with the aid of dress and costume. Without going into ballet or dance theory, it seems evident that what Black Swan insists is the fact that while ballet is a cultural technique it is also always mediated and machinated. Following Jennifer M. Barker’s argument that cinema engages our bodies at different depths, Black Swan apprehends our musculature in the scenes where we experience Nina dancing. The flow of her body as easily moving through space creates a sensation of flow for us as well, carrying us into cinematic space and into aligning our bodies with Nina’s body. We are brought close to Nina’s dancing body in many handheld shots that also dance around her, creating an oscillation among Nina’s body, the film’s body, and the sensation of dancing that we feel in our bodies.
Such aligned flow between bodies makes the bumps much worse; when Nina stumbles, stubs her toe, breaks her nails, and ultimately later in the film when her legs buckle forward unnaturally, the impact is shocking and physically abrasive. We feel with Nina because the film has aligned us with her body and her pain becomes our pain. Consider two examples of pain. The first is when Nina twists and massages her clearly damaged foot. The close-up of the foot and toes, the discoloring of the skin, Nina’s expression, the exaggerated sound of her body pushed to the foreground; taken together these devices make us physically uncomfortable and wince in sympathetic pain—sympathetic with the painful experience of Nina’s embodiment.
The second scene is when Nina gets a massage to help with her pains—the sound is once again pushed to the foreground alongside reaction shots of Nina’s face. These scenes are intensely disturbing and unpleasant. However, while both scenes disrupt our stable embodiment they do not estrange us from the film. These scenes pull us further into the film’s affective space. This is not an alienating device but an immersive device; that is to say, the sensation of pain is one that brings us into closer contact with the film, even as the scenes shock us. One might argue that the two scenes do alienate us from the film in the sense that they work as critiques of violence and pull viewers out of their comfort zones. However, my point is that since we flinch and gasp at the pain we are in fact immersed into the film. Alienation should therefore be understood in the Brechtian sense of working against the viewer’s emotional, affective involvement. Elena Del Río makes much the same, pointing out that Brechtian performance “contribute in large measure to the disruption of classical identification and its allegedly regressive political consequences” (2008: 70). Del Río goes on to point out that what is overlooked in the classical sense of alienation is that unsettling affects may also produce critical insights. This is why pain, even though I insist that it functions as an immersive, affective device, may still produce critical insight.
The pain causes our bodies to align with Nina’s even against our will. We are pulled physically along by the film and immersed in Nina’s experiences. Such physical comportment subjects us to the deeper bodily transformations Nina undergoes as things devolve for her. Tarja Laine suggests that watching melodrama is often a matter of “compassionate participation,” where we are produced as onlookers, feeling compassion for the trials that the characters undergo (2013: 63). This is so in the case of Black Swan because we will never know what it feels like to undergo the pain that Nina experiences. As such, Laine argues for a separation between Nina’s experiences and the viewer’s. I agree that there is a distinction between the pain that Nina feels, the pain of gendered violence, and the sensation of violence that the viewer feels. I do not agree, however, that as viewers we are particularly separate from the film. Instead, film’s intense sensations blur the boundaries between our bodies and Nina’s. I admire Laine’s work and the syntheses she provides in her book. What is at stake, then, is that she regards film as a partner in the production of affects and emotions (Laine 2013: 4). However, I would insist that film is a machine for generating affect that we are subjected to. In making such an argument, I follow a Deleuzian view of bodies as machines that connect to and affect each other.
This entire discussion might seem like splitting hairs, but if I do choose to insist that we are not particularly distinct from the film during our experience, it is because I do not wish to suggest that the feelings we undergo are somehow secondary or less real. The feelings we undergo during a film experience are every bit as real as the feelings we undergo from other experiences. It is painful to watch the degradation that Nina undergoes, and not solely a matter of compassion. Nor do I believe that we have much of a choice in whether or not we feel. While we may of course dismiss the entire experience, that choice simply blocks off any affective engagement.
I do not wish to suggest that I somehow feel the pain of gendered violence simply by watching a film. I do believe, however, that my corporeal engagement with the film indicates that my experience emerges from the screen bodies and while my engagement is surely compassionate (unless I am unfeeling), this is also an instance where my body becomes sensitized and tender. I literally feel vulnerable and often clench up in discomfort. This is not to suggest that my discomfort equals Nina’s experience but it is to suggest that I get a better sense of what gendered violence is and what it feels like. I “flesh out” that experience, as Sobchack term it, and so my body is made sensitive to issues of gendered violence. When I say screen bodies I am in fact talking about two kinds of bodies: the bodies of characters presented on screen, and the film’s body, that is what Sobchack (1992: 206) refers to as the expressed perception of the film. Another way of phrasing this is that the bodies of characters express feelings and experiences but that they do so only through the film’s body, which expresses those feelings and experiences in a certain way, what we might also call form. For this reason, since our experience is made up of both the characters’ bodies and the film’s body simultaneously, there is no clear distinction between character bodies and the film’s body.
In addition, the viewer’s body is also part of the encounter with its own acculturation, habits, and perceptions. In The Address of the Eye, Sobchack draws out the gender differences that limit and condition bodily responses. She points out, drawing on Iris M. Young’s feminist phenomenology, that female bodies are acculturated in different ways than male bodies. A central site is the male “I can” versus the female “I cannot,” which is revealed by Young and Sobchack to be not one of structure and fact but one of habituation (Sobchack 1992: 153–154). At first this doesn’t sound like a new concept, considering the wealth of feminist criticism pointing to this very fact. However, this “I can/not” is telling because it is a matter of relations: can we make relations or not. So, Sobchack argues against conventional theories of spectatorship that posit that women are precluded from making relations. Instead, Sobchack argues, female bodies are positioned within social space in a way that denies them access to relations. What matters, then, is that film can function as an alternative body that allows female bodies to liberate themselves from such positioning. I completely agree. I further argue that male bodies can learn what such positioning feels like, and through such an experience acculturate differently, so as not to position female bodies outside relations. Considering the accretion and degree of acculturation that male bodies have had, such re-learning behavior and acculturation can only happen through a shock to the (male) body. In other words, through pain. This theoretical detour to understand how bodies become entangled thus return us to the need for pain as a way to critically engage with gender power relations.
The intensity of the pain in the shots I discuss above is what produces the diffused pain in us. Here I am thinking particularly of the shots of bodies in pain or overextending their normal capacity. These shots often come upon the viewer rather unexpectedly and shockingly, thereby addressing our viscera directly and making us cringe and squirm. Nina pulling back skin from her finger to reveal feathers, her legs buckling and causing her to fall forward, her face thudding into the bed post, and many other scenes indicate a surprising level of discomforting pain and bodily excess. These scenes are shocking because of their immediacy, in the way that they are narratively unexpected and out of place but also in the way that they are sudden. Furthermore, there is also a discrepancy at the level of affective tone. Thomas Elsaesser (2012: 438), in his influential “Tales of Sound and Fury,” argues that suffering is one of the key “structures of experience” in melodrama. Suffering confers negative identity through self-immolation, disillusionment, and resignation (446). We can recognize how these observations hold true for Black Swan, yet while Nina certainly suffers much throughout the film, it is as much a physical suffering—pain—rather than emotional suffering. Indeed, many of the scenes that inflict pain on Nina also, I would argue, cause pain for the viewer, although of a different order.
The flow of Black Swan is throughout most of the film jumpy and somewhat edgy; we are rarely given stable, relaxed shots or long takes to orient ourselves in cinematic space. Rather, we are constantly kept in motion through the handheld camera, swirling along with Nina as she dances or moving right behind her as she walks. The rhythm is fast and keeps us engaged in a constant forward momentum, although there are lulls in this pace. Nina attempts to steady her emotions, to get a grip or get some rest. It is often right in these moments, when the camera is at rest and the editing pace lowered, that the rhythm skips a beat and plunges us into another terribly physical shot. This editing is not exactly a jump cut but it does shift the rhythm and so catches us unaware because the editing pace shifts. I call such editing syncopated editing, a style that emphasizes the unexpected shift in pace. We are lulled into a false safety and suddenly the image leaps out at us at engages us at a higher degree of intensity. These muscular shocks address us directly and bodily.
Such physical impact is best thought of in terms of mimetic innervation, a concept Miriam B. Hansen (2012) takes from Walter Benjamin and extends to a more fully developed theory of cinematic experience in her book Cinema and Experience. Innervation mediates between mental states and motor functions, according to Hansen (2012: 132). Phrased in a different vocabulary, innervation is a transversal line that cuts across action and affect in either direction. Our bodies tense in muscular shocks, which induces an affective state of pain, while simultaneously the affective state of pain shocks our bodies. There is no clear distinction between affective response or bodily response. What matters is, according to Hansen, that the film induces these states, and innervation is also transversal in that it cuts across film’s body and our bodies as one line of expression.
So far I have discussed the type of violence that Nina is subject to, the violence that renders her as a particular subject. However, there is another, just as significant, modality of violence in the film that I will turn to now. Throughout the film Nina’s body wrenches under the stress of biopower and slowly takes on the appearance of a swan-woman hybrid. While clearly a way of visualizing Nina’s mental instability, the transformation also produces violent sensations in us as viewers. This sensation of violence, then, is what shakes loose any predetermined sense of Nina’s subjectivity and allows for a transformative understanding of the violence Nina directs toward herself.
Rather than being a good subject under conditions of biopower, Nina instead becomes a bad subject, choosing to radically and violently reconfigure her own body in order to escape the violence of biopower. While one might read Nina’s performance as a submissive act, an act where she submits to the expectations leveled against her, it seems more in keeping with Nina’s own wishes and desires to read that performance as breaking free from social constraints. Throughout the film, Nina struggles with aligning her mother’s desires and her own and increasingly her own desires take center stage. She demands privacy from her mother’s prying eyes and total control, while also learning to fulfill her own desires. There is a distinct difference between the unsatisfying masturbation scene that Nina really only does to please Thomas, the exuberance of her night out with Lily, and the subsequent rejection of her mother.
Significantly, the swan body manifests in the sex scene between Nina and Lily, simultaneously disrupting the male gaze and correlating with Nina’s more emancipatory attempts. As far as the male gaze goes, the sex scene rejects the easy objectification of either of the women. Their bodies become unruly as formal elements disrupt the stability of their bodies: An ominous tone unsettles the mood and as the women undress we also hear the faint fluttering of feathers. These avian sounds are accompanied by hints of prickly, bird-like skin on both bodies, punctuated finally with Lily’s face turning into Nina’s at the height of orgasm. The uncanny sensations induced through these forms indicate to me that this scene is not about traditional visual pleasure projected to the implicitly male gaze. Rather, this scene represents the volatility of Nina’s body and her attempts at rejecting her mother and Thomas’ predetermined notions about how Nina’s sexuality should manifest. In other words, the scene is one example of how Nina corporeally rejects biopower by forcing her body to take an alternate form. Expressed literally, or what Sobchack terms “sensual catachresis,” Nina’s body figures this bodily emancipation (2004: 82).
The climax of Nina’s bodily transformation comes at the peak of her performance. Not only does she confront Lily, killing Lily and thereby symbolically killing her own meekness, she also chooses to break free from other people’s expectations of her and dance the black swan the way that she wants to, even if it kills her. Once again figured as a bodily transformation, Nina’s transformation into the black swan queen is presented as a nonhuman transformation. I regard this transformation as going beyond the allowed limits of her body, rejecting the constraints set by biopower and fulfilling Nina’s own wishes.
The transformation is disturbing for us as viewers because Nina steps out of her prior behavior and subjectivity to perform, both literally and figuratively, a new subjectivity that does not conform to the social pressures. In this way, Nina becomes a “scary woman” in Sobchack’s phrase (2004: 36ff). Not because Nina becomes a beautiful woman through the cosmetic surgery of cinema’s special effects but rather the opposite. Nina becomes a terrifying non-woman, or in some way a superwoman, who rejects the pain of gendered violence for a kind of ecstasy of transformative pain. The pain of her self-transformation is directed at herself, she accepts whatever pain and consequence she has to, in order to become the subject she wants to be. The finale is a moment of becoming even as it is a moment of death.
While it may seem peculiar to celebrate Nina’s death as a victory, the point here is that Nina finally sets her own terms and is no longer subject to forces outside or inside of her. I use the term ecstasy to refer to Nina’s transformation precisely because ecstasy comes from the Greek ekstasis, meaning to stand outside oneself. This is precisely what Nina achieves and is what turns her from the victim of gendered violence into a volatile subject in charge of herself. While it may sound paradoxical that Nina can only become herself by standing outside herself, it is this change between the two selves that effects the transformation. So, the self that Nina stands outside is the self defined by biopower, while the self that Nina becomes through her transformation is a subject momentarily free from biopower. Nina’s transformation also produces a cinesthetic subject momentarily outside biopower, a subject that mimics Nina’s ecstasy.
Nina’s transformation becomes our fragile, brief transformation. Because we have followed along with Nina’s struggle, because our bodies have articulated and sensed the violence against Nina, and because our sensuous being has been reduced, we are also part of the transformation. Black Swan presents a different understanding of biopower and gendered violence, and it does so through the sensation of pain and mimetic innervation. For this reason, Black Swan is not an easy film or a pleasant film. While some argue that any representation of violence against women is violence against women, I urge a different argument. Because films produce sensations in us, these sensations may just easily be seen as productive, of new ways of understanding and grasping things we cannot otherwise understand, simply because films make us feel, rather than just think. We are made to feel with Nina, not only for Nina, which is a more powerful effect.
I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for many helpful ideas and connections that allowed me to make arguments I would not otherwise have recognized.
Several articles have been published that point to the misogyny of the film (e.g., Gonzalez 2011, Macaulay 2011). These articles all recognize the violence against women in the film, but fail to see the way the film’s aesthetic works to turn the violence against the viewer, thus critiquing gendered violence. Of course, other critics and reviewers do recognize the complicated workings of the film (e.g., Valenzuela 2016).
ElsaesserThomas. 2012. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” In The Film Genre Reader IV ed. Barry Keith Grant432–462. Austin: University of Texas Press.
GonzalezEd. 2011. “Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Actress in a Leading Role.” Slant Magazine21 February. http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/oscar-2011-winner-predictions-actress-in-a-leading-role (accessed 30 November 2016).
MacaulayAlastair. 2011. “The Many Faces of ‘Black Swan,’ Deconstructed.” New York Times9 February. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/10/arts/dance/10swan.html?_r=0 (accessed 20 November 2016).
O’TooleLauraJessica R. Schiffman and Margie L. Kiter Edwards eds. 2007. Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: New York University Press.
ValenzuelaGabriel. 2016. “Reclaiming the Black Swan for the Feminist Movement!” Hysteria16 October. http://www.hystericalfeminisms.com/voices1/2016/10/16/reclaiming-the-black-swan-for-the-feminist-movement (accessed 30 November 2016).