Why Black Swan is Not Fight Club for Women (As Some Say)

For Jordan.  PThe Black Swan alter ego emergesoor fool.

Yes, there is the now overused gimmick in both Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Fincher’s Fight Club, the one where two seemingly separate characters are actually one, in some shape or form.  And, yes, a maelstrom of violence circles this second, shadow self.  But, for all intents and purposes, this is about as far as one can relate Black Swan to Fight Club.

In literature, the dual self is nothing new.  Fincher – or, really, the author of The Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk – happened to give it a fully contemporary, socially relevant context that garned his book a good deal of attention and the movie a loyal following.  Other stories of the dual character populate the decades and centuries, from just about any superhero comic (where superheroes have varying control or knowledge of their superhero side) to Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to, implicitly, the widely used template of the hero’s journey that happens to be used in one of the earliest recorded texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh (and this template also happens to echo the fascistic event where one learns his real self through being compelled into action; action and violence bring out one’s hidden abilities and hidden self with all its closeted pain and fear).   Additionally, it was first literature that prompted Freud into developing his broadly accepted theory of the unconscious.  In short, a shadow, hidden self is a motif so old that it seems to suggest that this feature is an innate quality of the human machine and a continual site of curiosity and terror.

What comprises this hidden self in a psychoanalytic context, to put it too simply, is repressed desire.  Fight Club and Black Swan read very easily in this sense: the narrator’s intense desire for a different life, to be a different person who lives a vibrant, meaningful, sex-filled life creates his alter ego, Tyler Durden.  Black Swan’s Nina is perfectly set in a Freudian psychic structure with the oppressive authoritative figure, her mother, as the super-ego, defining what Nina is to want and not want, and Nina’s repressed sexual desire fomenting and eventually spilling out violently into her waking life.  A great piece of support for this apparent structuring is the masturbation scene.

Here, Nina greenly starts touching herself and quickly arches and writhes in pleasure, only for this pleasure to be smashed to a halt by the sudden sight of her sleeping mother in her room.  Nina’s struggle is overcoming this weighty, sex-forbidding psychological force and at once drawing out and satisfying her repressed desire – the Black Swan.

Beside their mediums (dance and sport-fighting), there is one major differences between these two dramas in terms of their shadow selves: Nina desperately seeks to draw out her shadow self, and the narrator frantically tries to stop his shadow self.

That one character tries to push away and the other bring out the hidden self makes for a huge emotional difference in these dramas.  It feels very different to forbid something that one wants (the familiar feeling of re-suppressing) as opposed to permitting forbidden desire and breaking down one’s ethical code and identity (pushing exposure to the point of integration, a new self).  In this sense, the narrator is the child who breaks the rules but is then terrified over what he’s done and so does his best to re-establish the status quo; he re-suppresses Durden and finally kills him.

Nina’s pursuit, though, has a very different effect because she does not shirk away from the Black Swan.  Instead, she pursues it fiercely.  This is the terror of the vanishing self, and, indeed, Nina fully commits to killing her old self with the chilling tag line from the Black Swan ego, “Now it’s my turn!”  The equivalent here would be Durden killing the narrator.  So, we feel terror in Nina’s bloodied changeroom, but we feel some relief when we see Durden die.

Secondly, I hardly need to say it, Fight Club is a political and social commentary whereas Black Swan is claustrophobically personal.  The compositions of Durden and the Black Swan are quite different.  Durden is a revolutionary attacking consumer culture and trying to undo its psychological damage whereas the Black Swan is almost totally sexual in nature, obviously.  We are watching two very different shadow sides.

Conflating these two fine films too closely in terms of their alter egos is, to echo the great Christian Bale, amateur.


One thought on “Why Black Swan is Not Fight Club for Women (As Some Say)

  1. You have some good points which make Black Swan and Fight Club different as far as secondary and contextual elements are concerned. But really, the two stories share the same core element which is a “psychoanalytical” one.

    The major, fundamental similarity between Edward Norton’s and Natalie Portman’s characters is that both have grown up in a context where a motherly figure (which appears in Black Swan but it is also mentioned in Fight club in the famous scene “we’re a generation of men raised by women”) has educated his sons in a way that emphasizes 1) control 2) being nice 3) repressing fundamental instinctual drives and needs like sex, aggressiveness etc, basically all the things that makes us also animal and primitive beings, in addition to caring and intellectual beings.

    Both characters are in fact perfectionist and excessively well-mannered and respectful people.

    What any psychoanalyst, it doesn’t matter from what school, would recognize is that when basic instinctual needs are repressed by our conscience (the “ego”) and/or by the rules that have characterized our eduction (the “super-ego”) and when the ego and/or the super-ego disregard such needs as “bad, evil” or even “devices or the devil” in the case of religious freaks, then such needs and instincts, which we cannot eliminate, because part of what we are, will try to impose themselves, violently if necessary.

    That is exactly what happens in both characters. In Edward Norton’s character’s case this repressed part assumes the shape of a alter-ego that tries to re-educating him, by eliminating all his previous education (in a sentences he actually says that: “you should forget what you know, what you think you know, about life, about me and about our friendship”) and who grows in power while the character’s main identity tries constantly to repress him. In Natalie Portman’s character’s case this character is symbolized by a self-confident, seductive, sexually free external image of herself which she constantly meets in the streets or on the train, and which finds a metaphorical symbol in the “black swan”.

    So, while there are some secondary elements in which the two films differ, in terms of context and how at different stages the two characters react to the two alter-egos or repressed parts of themselves, the message is the same, and it is what any psychologist would tell you:

    the instinctual, animal parts of ourselves must be 1) recognized 2) given sufficient room for expression (e.g. going out with friends, going dancing, having trips, doing sports, understanding ourself sexually and having a sexual life etc.).

    When we fail to do this, then they will impose themselves without asking our conscience for permission, and will assume extreme traits.

    Anyway, nice blog.


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