Sex and Ballet Slippers: The Themes of ‘Black Swan’

From 2011, following the release of Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller, we explore the thematic nature of sex in the film.
Black Swan Portman
Fox Searchlight
By  · Published on January 11th, 2011

Every time Nina Sayers gets near sex, something terrible happens. It is the focal point catalyst for almost every major event of Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan ‐ where a character is forced to grow up in the most violent way possible.

For a bulk of the film, this character ‐ brought to life by Natalie Portman ‐ is passive about the world around her. Nina’s mother has kept her in a state of arrested development, her boss relegates her to the background as he pleases, and even when she’s given a chance to shine, she is unable to do so because of the psychological barriers she faces.

All of those barriers are brought down by sex. A few more are created because of it.

Even though the film begins with a dream (which is important to keep in mind at all times) and an introduction to a grown woman living in a pink bedroom in her mother’s apartment ‐ it isn’t until a bit later that we finally see the perfect representation of Nina Sayers on screen: her ballet slippers.

When she gets them fresh out of the box, they are perfect, but it’s a deceptive perfection that doesn’t work on the ballet stage or in life. Nina, as she’s probably done thousands of times before, casually defiles their pristine condition by ripping out their insides and scoring the soles so that they’re usable and so perfect in a different way. This, an action that takes mere moments, sums up the entire journey that she takes from an ideal representation of perfection to the gut-wrenching devastation that must come before a change can truly take place.

In order to rip out her insides and allow her feet to gain traction, Nina has to confront what we all have to confront as a part of growing up ‐ our own sexuality and that of others around us.

The first catalyst comes in the form of her boss, the company director Tomas, forcing himself on her. It is a violent violation (both of the girl and of who she sees herself as), and Nina responds equally violently by biting his lip and drawing blood. Of course, it’s this sexual transgression that leads to a massive change in her life. No longer is she the wilting wallflower living off of promises; she becomes the star of the show.

Tomas follows up his boundary-pushing by giving Nina the direct missive to go home and masturbate. During the same conversation, a curious thing happens. Nina admits that she’s not a virgin. This compounds the rest of her psychic journey a bit, considering that it seems to be what she fears the most, but there’s also the chance that she’s lying in order to seem more mature than she really is. It’s unclear, but it’s also fascinating to imagine how she became so regressed in her development even after having sex. Whatever the case, she decides to take her homework assignment seriously. At least part of her does.

Solo sex becomes another important feature in the storytelling because of how difficult Nina finds it to be. When she first tries in her early morning bed, she looks over to find her mother (like a living metaphor) sleeping nearby, and is naturally unable to finish. She tries again in the bathtub but is stopped by her own mind (which is perhaps not ready to cross such a meaningful threshold) when she fearfully hallucinates. These two moments are echoes of an earlier one that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with sex: the scene where Lily’s entrance into the room stops Nina from completing her audition as the Black Swan.

Clearly, the dance (as we’re told continually throughout the film) is sex itself. It’s a seduction. Nina is too formal a dancer to feel the passion of the character, but she’s not even allowed to bring the dance to her own stiff version of a climax because of Lily. It’s Croisée Interruptus.

Plus, the sinew between the act of dancing the ballet and the sex act in the context of Nina’s struggle builds on the theme by adding the inability to perform to the list of representations. Nina’s failure to please herself and failure to perform the ballet go hand in hand.

The third catalyst doesn’t involve sex, but it certainly leads to it. The boldness of Black Swan comes from its storytelling and its willingness to forgo a three-act structure (or at least to create a distorted version of one). The movement into the second act (in which Nina first makes an active choice to change and go on the adventure) happens late into the film when she takes the pill from Lily. In a blur, she wakes up (along with the audience) fervently kissing a stranger who she is instantly disgusted by. The drug use also leads to her finally standing up to her mother and fantasizing about a lesbian encounter with Lily (which is the first and only time she’s able to complete the masturbatory act in the entire film).

The fourth and final sexual catalyst comes after Nina has already abandoned her mother and the innocent girl she used to be. She’s still struggling to reach her potential as a dancer when the lights go out in the practice area, and she’s forced nervously onto the main stage. She’s uneasy, of course, but it isn’t until she hallucinates Tomas and Lily energetically thrusting into each other that she makes a complete psychotic break with reality that leads her to confront Beth (her future) at the hospital, her mother’s paintings (her past), and to transform literally into a swan before blacking out.

Beyond these catalysts, even the language of the film evokes sexuality ‐ especially the way that women are talked about. In an introductory scene, the aging Beth is blasted by a young ingenue as someone “who’s […] approaching menopause.” Her worth is completely summed up and defined in sexual terms.

Plus, there’s the grist-filled world that the insular ballet company deals with on a daily basis. Beth (after the debutante ball-style coming out party) accuses Nina of getting the starring role by sucking Tomas’s cock, and the word “WHORE” is written in lipstick across a mirror while Nina is in the bathroom joyously telling her mother she’s gotten her big break. Even the most positive achievements are marred by a perversion of sexuality, and the myth that it’s use is the only way to succeed.

All of this can be read as a classic application of theme to an unconventional slasher film. Of course, in this instance, Nina is the slasher and the victim, but she both breaks the rules of the genre by giving herself over to sex and fulfills the punishment by stabbing herself. She has lost her innocence (in her own mind) and ends up bleeding (and possibly losing her life depending on your reading of the last scene) because of it.

Sex is the key component to every major plot shift in Black Swan and is the action that most tears out Nina’s insides and scores her soul. She has to succumb to the maturation process in order to progress as an artist and as a human being, and (much like Aronofsky’s The Wrestler) the story of Nina Sayers is one of a performer giving her life and everything in it for the performance (and for the audience).

In the end, the life that she’s leaving behind is one of motherly oppression, schoolgirl crushes, and pretty, pink, perfect new ballet slippers.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.