Black Swan: Duality of Woman- Natalie Portman’s Assimilation of Shadow
By Kristin Grady
August 28th, 2021
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
-Dr. Carl Jung
Seen through the lens of Swiss psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung’s Shadow theory, Black Swan is an allegory about an artist confronting her timid surface Persona with her dark subconscious Shadow self, in order to deliver the perfect Swan Queen performance. Jung described the Shadow as the “unknown” part of our consciousness, where we bury most of our base impulses under shame. Nina was raised as the White Swan, always docile and pure, requiring extreme repression of instincts like aggression and sexuality, stuffing her Shadow down into a tiny cage of resentment. Driven to seek the Black Swan inside herself, the dichotomous roles liberate her wild, creative power and a disturbed, destructive psychosis. Bound to this dark force, Nina achieves her goal by diving to her death, which Jung suggested is our only state of perfection.
“For how can you perfect a thing if it is not complete?”
Encountering the Shadow
Jung presents a dualistic representation of consciousness: Persona (Self/Conscious Thought) and Shadow (Subconscious/Instinct). The parameters of this distinction range from our deepest kept desires to our external social conditioning. The Shadow contains base impulses (aggression, fear, sexuality, etc.) that can cause psychological dysfunction when overly repressed. Jung incorporated the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang into the process of encountering the Shadow. Rather than eradicating all our demons, we can find balance somewhere between the light and dark.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
Nina is confronted by her Shadow in small hallucinations, blips and refractions of herself, a smiling sinister doppelganger creeping up on her as she desperately seeks external sources of perfection. Her Shadow sneaks out in little acts of rebellion like stealing Beth’s lipstick or unconsciously scratching her shoulders. Below the surface, her Shadow is showing lofty ambitions and deep emotional scars. She is either unaware or in deep denial over these compulsions because it would mar her prim and proper ballerina Persona. When she gets the chance to dance the Swan Queen, Nina turns toward her unconscious Shadow, and away from the collective consciousness that instilled her Persona.
One’s outward Persona indicates the condition of their personal Shadow and it’s a reflection of the collective Shadows surrounding them. Political parties, religions, dance companies, the global community, and immediate families; these all have collective consciousnesses (groups of people who think and act alike) that shape our inner-lives. Nina dedicates every waking moment to dance, makes her body conform to a hyper-specific shape, and desperately projects an aura of purity and grace befitting a ballerina. This is the side of herself she wants everyone to see because it’s all she knows.
Nina’s stringent Persona is in part a reaction to the pressures of her collective Shadow, imposed by the dominating forces of her mother and the Ballet world. Her submissiveness, people pleasing, and single-minded obsession with perfection makes sense when we learn she was born as a substitute for her mother’s ballet career. Nina is completely dependent on her mother for love, support, and encouragement, a need which is often met with criticism and resentment. The insular world of her ballet company throws shades of insecurity and petty competition around like frayed ribbons, which only seem to drive Nina further into her shy, unassuming corner… as her Shadow seethes, and waits.
Ballet is the encompassing collective consciousness in the story. The style depicted in the film is descended from the Russian Romantic era, where ballerinas perfected transcendent feats of physical strength and beautiful symmetry en pointe. “Swan Lake” can be interpreted as a projection of the dicotonic Shadow of composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a closeted gay man who put women on an ethereal ivory pedestal, though lacking in agency and steeped in tragedy. The injuries, harassment, and psychological toll in Black Swan seem shocking to anyone outside of the Ballet world because these shameful (and largely true) risks have been historically downplayed in favor of the majestic public image of the dance form. Nina initially seeks the Black Swan in this archaic source, but she ultimately finds it has to come from within herself.
The dual role of Odette/Odile is a right of passage for many prima ballerinas, challenging their most versatile skills as a dancer. Nina lives in a world built on centuries of expectations that have shaped her consciousness. The Collective Shadow nurtured her passive Persona and tamped down her passionate Shadow-self until her highest aspiration was to be Tchaikovsky’s beautifully tragic heroine. Consciousness finds balance through a process Jung called enantiodromia, where what we repress ends up getting projected out in equal measure. The deepest parts of Nina’s Shadow projects itself onto intimidating figures she admires, Tomás and Lily, coaxing out a hidden ambition to perfect the Swan Queen.
Anima vs. Animus
Anima is Latin for “soul”, which Jung named the deepest part of our Shadows, the source of life, creativity, and our strongest emotions like passion, terror, and rage. The Anima/Animus is where men hide “feminie” traits like tenderness and women mask “masculine” traits like assertiveness, counter-balancing outward gender presentation. When a man represses anything he perceives as feminine, he becomes an insufferable neanderthal. When a woman represses everything she’s been told is masculine, she can end up with a regressed sense of sexuality, like Nina displays in her girlish aesthetic and demure demeanor. The Anima/Animus is often subconsciously expressed as an idealized romantic partner. Nina’s repressed Animus projects her pent up sexual/romantic energy at her director, Tomás.
Tomás is a collage of collective shadows to Nina. Her lack of a father makes her seek out an authoritative figure, but her feelings are much more complex than “daddy issues”. Nina identifies with the character Odette, who lost her lover to Odile, the Black Swan; thus she idolizes Tomás as the princely archetype, and fears losing him. Tomás stimulates the bitter competition between dancers as a sleazy motivational tool. Not terribly charming, he also resembles the evil wizard Rothbart by creating and manipulating the Swan Queen. Beyond Nina’s fairy tale projections, the attraction goes down to their deepest desires. They are drawn to each other’s duality. Nina seeks the raw ambition in herself she sees in him, and he wants to free the explosive creative force hidden in her Shadow.
Projections of Shadows can end up projecting their own shadows back. Tomás wistfully grieves Beth’s “accident”, expressing his adoration for her artistic passion and alluding to how he built a career on it. He wants to bring that out of Nina because he needs to replace it, for his livelihood and artistic fulfilment. He’s a director, not a choreographer, nor a dancer. He creates art by using ballet dancers as a medium. While Beth’s Shadow seemed to need no coaxing, Tomás gets frustrated by Nina’s neurotic Persona getting in the way of releasing the beast.
Tomás challenges Nina’s Animus by attempting to kiss her. Nina literally snaps, hard enough to draw blood. Instead of slapping him or pushing him away, her feral Shadow Swan bites him like a waterfowl on bread and that’s impressive enough to land her the role of Swan Queen. Still, one bite is not enough to draw out the Black Swan. Tomás encourages her to tap into it by assigning masturbation as homework and eventually forcing an open mouth kiss/grope on her when that doesn’t work.
Nina just seems more confused by these experiences. Repression has externalized all of her sexual agency, projecting it onto men as a masculine trait, so she’s ashamed of expressing any overt sexuality, which saturates the role of Odile. Her fellow dancers exacerbate the problem by slut shaming her. Releasing the Black Swan requires her to pull the powder keg of Animus energy back into herself, by recognizing it comes from her. Lily becomes the catalyst.
Merging with the Shadow
“…it can be difficult to identify characters in dreams—all the contents are blurred and merged into one another…”
Nina’s Shadow projects many of her hidden desires onto Lily. Smoking cigarettes, making sex jokes, and dancing with her hair down, Lily’s Persona and Shadow are joyously conjoined. Lily challenges the stereotype of a reserved, uptight ballerina, showing Nina it’s okay to loosen up. She’s everything Nina wants to be and everything she’s afraid to be: confident, assertive, and talented while maintaining a lot of compassion. Nina seems to be most annoyed by Lily’s ability to have fun, like fun is something Nina has been denied her whole life. It takes some drugs and peer pressure, but Nina eventually opens up to this wild side of herself. Nina lets Lily lead her into an untapped well of sexuality as they embrace on the dance floor, writhing as one creature.
The Black Swan needs Nina to unlock her sexual maturity and merge with her Shadow. After an aggressive first kiss, she lets Lily take over. Kneeling over Nina on her bed, Lily wears garters that make her look like a sexy gunslinger. Her lingerie is fetish in a masculine, gay top way, as is her energy. Lily’s confidence in displaying her well-developed Animus makes it easy for Nina to relinquish control, but this dominance triggers a hallucination.
Nina is shocked when her sinister doppelganger looks up from between her own legs! Shame makes her think sexual pleasure comes from some evil inner-version of herself. Lily applies more feminine tenderness, calming Nina’s ever-present anxiety, softly kissing her inner thigh, and smiling before going down on her with an open mouth. Tomás opened the loop of Nina’s sexuality by insisting she open her mouth and accept his tongue, and Lily completed it by performing what is essentially a juxtaposed gesture. Nina apprehensively sinks into a feeling of wholeness, allowing a woman to help her understand her body.
Lily wraps her arms around Nina’s thighs, licking upward, hard, finally giving her the clitoral stimulation she needs to have an orgasm. Nina has a true breakthrough moment, screaming and convulsing like she’s being eaten alive, she melds with her Shadow, awash in the euphoria of a little death. Connecting with her Shadow Sexuality blew open the floodgates, and the Black Swan burst free.
Right after this triumphant peak, Nina’s evil doppelganger pops back up and smothers her with a pillow. That’s the downside. Her Shadow was so repressed, it mutated into a violent, aggressive, and self-destructive pathology.
Assimilating the Shadow
Nina is ready to conquer her fears and become the Swan Queen, but suddenly releasing a starved Shadow is like being handcuffed to a wild animal, disaster will ensue. She needs to wade through the writhing shadows surrounding her on the way to perfection, while dragging an angry, hissing beast along with her.
Lily may be fun loving and carefree, but she’s still a ballerina, inherently competitive. She says “I thought she was sick, she was supposed to be sick!” like she wanted Nina to get a hangover and not be able to go onstage for rehearsal. Lily wasn’t trying to fuck up Nina’s chance at the opening performance, but she wants to be there, ready to go on as her alternate, if Nina cracks under the pressure. It’s left rather vague as to whether their sexual experience was Nina’s dream or if Lily is showing an ugly shade of her Shadow by gaslighting Nina into thinking it didn’t happen. Either way, Nina takes it as a challenge and goes onstage as the White Swan, after a lifetime of preparation. Her newly merged Shadow gives her the self-confidence to sprint towards the finish.
Before dancing the Black Swan, Nina’s agitated Shadow projects a full hallucination of an evil Lily doppelganger trying to take her part. The untamed Black Swan takes a broken mirror shard and stabs Evil-Lily, subconsciously convinced she has to eliminate a fictitious rival in order to pull off the performance. The Black Swan seeps out through Nina’s skin as prickly feathers and deepens her eyes blood red. Nina absolutely slays as the Black Swan, whipping through the powerful movements, seducing and dominating all those who are lucky enough to watch. Nina prances off stage and grabs Tomás by the face, kissing him harder than he had kissed her, smearing her black makeup on his cheek, marking him with her liberated shadow. This is the Nina he wanted to meet all along.
When Nina returns to her dressing room, Lily pops in, totally fine, enthusiastically praising Nina’s performance! Turns out Lily’s intentions weren’t as bad as Nina assumed, and it was Nina’s repressed insecurity that projected the hallucination. Plucking the broken glass from her solar plexus, Nina discovers she had stabbed herself, and reality clicks into place. A ticking clock gives her a reason to go on. Bleeding to death beneath her fluffy white costume, Nina gathers the strength to finish her perfect performance.
Ascending the stairs during the spectacular finale, Nina balances precariously on her tip-toes, tears streaming down her face, there is a last glance of terror… then she sees her mother, Ericka in the audience. Ericka is sobbing, clutching her handkerchief, the happiest she’s ever been. Nina extends her arm out to Ericka, their tearful eyes meet, like they had been waiting for this moment their entire lives. Their conflicted mother/daughter Shadows find harmony at the last possible moment…
As soon as Nina hits the mattress, she’s at peace. Complete. Perfect.
“…for how can you perfect a thing if it is not complete?”
Carl Jung conveyed the Shadow as a malleable, vacillating, and lifelong psychoanalytical process. Shadow work can lead to fulfillment of an artist’s utmost potential, but the extreme demands of a profession like Ballet tends to enable insecurities that can lead to debilitating mental illness and even death. Being confronted by such a repressed Shadow drove Nina into a delusional psychosis, through which she still managed to pull off a flawless performance. If her struggles had been met with care and compassion by those around her, she may not have been swallowed up by her Shadow so soon.
Dedicated to doranne “emily” crable, who forever unfurrows my brow…
Follow Kristin Grady on Twitter! @YesShesGotMoxie