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The French call the orgasm the little death, and Nina Sayers’s (Natalie Portman) final climax can be likened to her long-sought-after orgasm in “Black Swan.”  Throughout the film, we see an innocent, childlike Nina struggle with perfecting her art and exploring her sex, making the story as much about her madness as it is about her sexuality.  Because Nina kills herself (here think masturbation) she takes charge of her life and her sexuality, but this is both powerful and problematic in a feminist reading.

Claiming her life and sexuality is powerful because Nina resists Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the dominant male figure that tries and fails to seduce Nina.  He tries to corner her into having sex with him in order for her to get the role as Swan Queen, but Nina bites him, which he reads falsely as sexy and enticing. He reads her resistance not as female power but as female play (i.e. her playing hard to get).  He plans to “use” that bite and coax out of her the fiery attack performance he wants on the stage, a performance from which he and his dance company will profit (here, we see the familiar story of a male profiting from female sexuality).   Nina is, instead, focused on her art, not on Thomas’s sexual advances and power games.  She concedes his direction to “go home and touch yourself” but even when she tries to touch herself she is stopped by her mother (sitting asleep in her room when she starts to masturbate) and her own mind (she hallucinates the sex scene with Lily).

Nina’s art is therefore her singular form of expression and means of satisfaction, and this is powerful because men do not know what to do with women who own something more and other than sex and desire for men.

I have a theory here about the heterosexual male’s obsession with lesbian sex:  like Thomas who misreads Nina’s bite as play instead of power, straight men misread lesbian sex as sexy instead of sexual.  They do not have a visual sense of where they fit in lesbian sex and can clearly see that they have no place in it because the women find satisfaction with one another, so men, who cannot accept or understand that women can have sex without them, reduce the lesbian experience as sexy, something men can consume.  In other words, straight men need to find some personal profit or use for lesbian sex rather than accept that lesbian sex has nothing to do with them.

This heterosexual preoccupation with lesbian sex problematises a feminist reading of the film.  Rather than let Nina simultaneously own her art, her sex, and her sexuality, writer Mark Heyman and director Darren Aronofsky force Nina to choose among the three.  Nina struggles between her art, her sex (by which I mean her sexual relationship with herself) and her role as a female sexual being.  Choosing one leads to the death of the others.

Also, the power of Nina’s “hand” is metaphorically placed in Thomas’s hand.  It is only after he gives Nina “direction” (read permission) that Nina explores masturbation.  She is quickly made to feel ashamed of her private exploration as the male writer and direct choose to put Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) in the room with her.  (There are issues here, too, of female jealousy in the mother-daughter relationship, but I won’t explore that in this piece.)  Also, Lily (Mila Kunis) is placed in the role of aggressor who verbally and physically seduces men (consider the sexually intense banter with the waiter) and women (consider the kiss she gives Nina on the dance floor).  As aggression and power are usually situated in male characters, Lily fulfills her position of controlling a woman’s relationship with sex by shaming Nina over “having a lesbian wet dream” about her.  Nina, therefore, cannot have her orgasm, because it is in Thomas’s hand and then in Lily’s (exemplified when Lily puts the drug in Nina’s drink).

Nina’s stabbing herself, then, is the closest she gets to touching herself.  Her climbing up the platform as the Swan Queen acts as her reaching her climax, and her falling to her death is her release, her orgasm. Her performance, her creation, she utters breathlessly, is “perfect.”  She achieves that which she has sought; in fact, she gives her life for it.

That Nina must fall to her death is typical of many stories about women’s sexuality:  a woman who can manifest power within herself without the sexual prodding of men, or a woman who freely expresses her sexuality, is often killed.  For example, Clare Kendry, the seductive character at the center of Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, also falls to her death.  Ruth, the strong, sexually-charged antagonist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, dies after her body is literally used up.  A heterosexual male dominant society does not quite know what to do with a woman like Nina, a woman that resists male attention and thrives instead on her own production of art.  Such a woman is cast into madness, a madness men claim can only be released through sex (a hetero-simplistic response to female sexuality), and if it is not released through an orgasm, la petite mort, then the woman must die, thus reaching her final climax, la vraie mort.  It does not have to be thus.

Final word:  At last night’s Academy Awards, Natalie Portman won Best Actress for her performance in “Black Swan.”  In her speech, she thanked her fiance Benjamin Millpied, also her “Black Swan” choreographer and co-star, for giving her “the most important role of her life.”  She was referring to her pregnancy.

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One thought on “Nina’s Final Orgasm: Female Sexuality in “Black Swan”

  1. Nina’s Odile coda seemed a lot more like a manifestation of power to me than an expression of sexuality. It was as if, as an artist, she actually triumphed over Leroy: he wanted to see his own version of the Swan Queen onstage, but she found an interpretation that was entirely hers, one that was less about sculpting herself into a sex object than becoming an independent creature who could truly trust her own instincts. She only grows wings when she accepts that she has a side of herself that’s capable of disappointing or hurting others, of being something they don’t necessarily want to see.

    We all bring our own interpretations to the table, but personally (as someone who’s had to struggle with the idea of being a disappointment and of taking necessary risks to make art) I think the film’s climax was a lot more about integration than release.

    Also: there was a blind item on Gawker just before Natalie Portman announced her pregnancy–something along the lines of “which closeted star is going to have to tell her partner she’s pregnant?” No idea if that was Portman or not, but if it was, it lends a kind of extra bittersweet layer to the context of the movie.

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