Are you a White Swan or a Black Swan? What would you do when being perfect is not enough? A lot of people have an unhealthy obsession with being perfect. This is especially true in industries where individuals need to look and be perfect both in front of the camera and in real life. We all have a side to us that idealize being perfect. We manifest this by idolizing other people who we think are like that; or by controlling the various aspects of our own lives in order to be perfect.
Many individuals have lost themselves in the pursuit of perfection in their careers. Some of them self-destructed at the peak of their popularity. Others committed suicide and shocked the world as to the reason why. In both cases; their surprising behavior is a result of losing themselves in pursuit of perfection.
Black Swan the Movie: The Pursuit of Perfection
The 2010 movie Black Swan gives us a grim picture of how losing your self to perfection looks like. There are many layers to the story that you can relate to your own real-life experiences, or lack thereof.
The story is about the ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s childhood dream is to play the main role in Swan Lake. Nina’s passion for ballet rules every aspect of her life. When they need a prima ballerina for Swan Lake; she takes the opportunity to get the role for herself. Lily, a rival ballerina, gets the role. Nina eventually convinces the director to give it to her. Nina sees Lily as a rival but at the same time befriends her. Once she got the role, Nina struggles to not only play the White Swan perfectly. She struggles even more to become the perfect Black Swan.
Uncannily, Nina’s journey also parallels the actual story of Swan Lake.
We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the White Swan leaps off a click, killing herself and in death finds freedom.Thomas Leroy
In the end, despite a major setback during the performance, Nina is able to play both roles to perfection. She receives the admiration of her co-ballerinas, her art director, her mother and the audience. It is her best performance. In her own words, it was perfect, she was perfect. It was also her last performance.
The White Swan: Faking Perfection
Nina is the perfect White Swan, pure and innocent. She still talks like a child even when she had the courage to ask the director to give the main role to her. Her mother, a former ballerina, who gave up her dancing dreams to raise Nina; is both a caring figure as well as a controlling one. She has stunted Nina’s growth into maturity. Nina does not have friends as her only focus is on making her dream come true. In a way, her mother is living her own dancing dreams through Nina’s own journey as a ballerina.
This is why, when Nina asks the director for the main role, he tells Nina:
Well, the truth is, when I look at you, all I see is the White Swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, fragile. Ideal casting. But the Black Swan, it’s a hard fucking job to dance both…
In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly right. But I never see you lose yourself. Ever. All the discipline, for what?
Nina answers that she wants to be perfect. She is too focused on being in control of her own performance. But the director tells her that: “Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise your audience. Transcendence. And very few have it in them.”
Ironically, it is her perfect persona that hinders her from playing the Black Swan. The director tells her further: “The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin and I know I saw a flash of her yesterday. So get ready to give me more of that bite.”
During rehearsals, Nina starts to break down as she deals with toxic coworkers, her rivalry with Lily who she also idolizes, and pressure from her mom and her company to perform her best. Her goal of a perfect life starts to break down. She blames herself for everything that goes wrong during practice. The pressure from perfecting her performance for both roles manifests in her delusions. In her delusion, she is bleeding in different parts of her body. She is physically, emotionally and mentally breaking down.
The Black Swan: Destroying Perfection
In the story, the White Swan has to conquer the Black Swan in order to get back her prince. In real life, Nina needs to grow up, fast in order to perfectly play the Black Swan. The director tells Nina that Lily was his first choice because she can play the Black Swan. In this way, Nina thinks of Lily as her rival but also admires her.
Lily was the first one to reach out to her and attempt to befriend her. She takes Nina to dinner and there, Nina realizes that Lily is not afraid of exposing her imperfect self. Lily is also not afraid to express her self as she openly flirts with the waiter. Nina ends up torn between hating her rival and admiring her for being unafraid to do as she pleases.
The director gives Nina harsh guidance by comparing her directly to Lily. He hints that Nina’s perfection is fake. As they watch Lily perform, he tells Nina: “Watch the way she moves. Imprecise but effortless. She’s not faking it.” The director also describes to Nina why Beth, the former ballerina who played the main role, was so entertaining to watch.
Because everything Beth does comes from within, from some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times. But also so damned destructive.
During rehearsal, the director shouts at Nina: “Forget about control, Nina! I want to see passion! Come on! Reach! Board, you’re stiff! Still like a dead corpse! Let it go! Let it go! And, again.”
Both the director and Lily personify the harsh reality of the world that one confronts when growing up. They also serves as a wake-up call to Nina. Both are telling and showing Nina to let go of her desire to be perfect; to let her passion for dance take over her performance instead. To not be cooped up in her own imperfections but to accept them as part of her.
In a way, both are encouraging Nina to break down her walls and let her flaws show through. But Nina refuses to do this and sticks to her desire for a perfect performance. She can’t reconcile how to maintain her perfect persona while at the same time wanting to be like her rival Lily, the perfect Black Swan.
From White to Black: Losing Yourself to Perfection
Playing the main role for Swan Lake requires the ballerina to embody both the pure, innocent, White Swan as well as the dark, evil, Black Swan. Nina is able to play the White Swan to perfection. However, in the last part of the performance, when she is about to transform into the Black Swan, she makes a major mistake on stage. Luckily, her partner picks her up and continues the performance.
During this time, her major breakdown starts but she also starts to break out from her perfect persona, except in a destructive way. Instead of blaming herself, she blames her partner for the mistake. When she goes to her dressing room, she finds Lily in the Black Swan costume. In her delusion, Lily tells her that it’s her turn to play as the Black Swan. Nina fights back and ends up stabbing Lily. She quickly hides Lily’s body and changes into the Black Swan costume. This signals her perfect transition to becoming the Black Swan.
Back on stage, Nina finally let’s go and loses her self in the performance as the director advised her to. She even gets a standing ovation. She is so engrossed in her character that she actually kisses the director as she takes a break from the dance. Her old, innocent self would have been too shy and embarrassed to do that.
She returns to her dressing room to change her costume to that of the White Swan again for the final part of the show. By this time, she is almost in tears but she still goes on with the show. She receives a standing ovation and her director and other dancers congratulate her. We see Lily as one of the dancers and she is the one who notices that Nina is bleeding. It was Nina’s delusion that she stabbed her rival but she actually stabbed herself.
In order to become perfect to play the Black Swan, Nina embraced her dark side completely. She needed to make the transition fast. The only way she thought of doing that was to kill her innocent, child-like self. To play the Black Swan, she had to get rid of the White Swan.
The Danger of Perfection
Nina’s stunted growth made her miss out on many life experiences. These experiences could have helped her to thrive in her career without sacrificing her relationships to her self and to others. Most of all, she missed the biggest lesson in life; that nobody is perfect, and you don’t need to be. This is not just Nina’s fault though. Her mother also contributed greatly to how Nina views the world. When Nina finally found the courage to speak up for what she wants; it was already too late.
In her perfect world, she only needs to perfectly perform and her life would be perfect. She had to confront her inner demons on her own. Until the end, she held on to her idea of perfection. When she is able to perfectly perform her childhood role; she declares that she was perfect.
Symbolically, because she has attained the perfection that she wanted; her life’s goal was complete. She did everything she could to make her performance perfect. Even to the extent of killing a part of her self. She has successfully transformed herself into the perfect Black Swan. Thus, Nina’s perfect performance was both her best performance and also her last. After all, in Nina’s perspective, once you have achieved perfection; what other goal could you have?
Self-Acceptance is A Process
There are times in our life when being perfect is not enough. We need to utilize our flaws or weakness to transform ourselves into someone better. The major lesson in this movie is not only that we should accept our flaws and so-called “guilty pleasures”. We also need to learn to do so gradually. Self-acceptance is a process that takes time. Discovering our shadow and shedding parts of our persona does not happen over night. It crops up at different points in our life. It is during this process that you learn how to handle bigger challenges in your journey through life. Each time this happens; we gain more knowledge on how to manage our inner and external demons. We learn how to make us of both our strengths and our weakness. This is the missing part in Nina’s journey.
Her lack of personal relationships stunted her personal growth. That’s why all she sees are her own flaws. No one is there to appreciate and show her the beautiful side of her. She only sees her shadows and is unable to appreciate the other parts of her. She fails to realize that she does not need to be perfect to play the White Swan and the Black Swan. Nina never considered that both the White Swan and the Black Swan can co-exist. She has never even learned how to love her self.
Another lesson to learn is to develop various goals and different interests. This way, when you experience a setback in one of your goals; you have other goals to inspire you. Nina had only been focusing on one goal her entire life. When this one goal was threatened; she did everything to make things perfect again. It was the only thing that she lived for. She had many chances to change her perspective but by then it was too late. Her unhealthy obsession lead to her own destruction.