Post-modernist critique points to the destabilization and fragmentation of the idea of the coherent, unique subjectivity that has led western culture, and subsequently its critique, through time. Cultural objects seem to correspond with the processes of naturalization of gender divisions and the female body. On a literal level, Black Swan gives the impression that it follows this tradition. In this paper I argue that the use of allegory in Black Swan is a conscious choice that emphasizes the discrepancies between the film and its original source Swan Lake, in order to contest the notion of a stabilized female subjectivity. I am also going to contrast stereotypical ways of looking at the female body in the film, exemplified by feminist film theory, and how pleasure derived from the act of looking at the female body is disrupted through specific visual elements. Finally, drawing from Butler’s theory of performativity I contest the idea of the essential female body, while bringing together the notions of performance and performative acts.
Allegory and Postmodern Subjectivity
In the first part of his essay “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism” (1980) Owens discusses how allegorical elements are being employed in postmodern art, parting ways with the romantic and modernist obsession involving originality and the self-proclaimed “genius”. Postmodernism is not preoccupied with originality; in fact it creates art which recites its own eventuality, insufficiency, lack of originality. Since the allegorical work “is synthetic; it crosses aesthetic boundaries producing a ‘confusion of boundaries’”(Owens 75), it corresponds to postmodern needs, where the crossing of boundaries and the conflation of genres lead to the break of defined categories and add to our understanding of works of art as artificial. In the allegorical work, the first level is the literal. At first sight, Black Swan might appear as too obvious, too shallow, perpetuating stereotypes usually met in Hollywood films. According to Owens, this “possibility of perversion” is explained as “what is ‘merely appended’ to the work of art [can] be mistaken for its ‘essence’” (84). More specifically, the premeditated ‘confusion of boundaries’ can be viewed as an unbearable accumulation of clichés. This is why “extreme” critiques of the film as inherently misogynistic or as a ballet movie that “even straight guys might like” appear as adequate responses when the film is interpreted only on a literal level.
Black Swan is viewed or read through Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky ballet. Aronofsky consciously draws connections between the ballet performance and the plot and execution of his film (one can easily see that in the ending credits, where each actor’s name is followed by their part in the film and in Swan Lake at the same time). By quoting Frye, Owens states that the allegorical work “prescribes its own commentary”(69); this is exactly the reason why allegory is being...