Precious Swan

[Spoilers included.] There is a painful scene in the critically acclaimed 2009 movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which shows our titular heroine (played by Oscar-nominated Gabourey Sidibe) gazing into a mirror and imagining a slender white girl gazing back at her. In the mind of Precious, a 16-year-old poor, black, obese survivor of abuse, she longs to be someone who is her polar opposite–a figure who is beloved and far removed from the sexual abuse that she suffers.

So imagine, then, watching a more recently acclaimed film–Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, starring Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman–and finding yet another young woman, Nina Sayers, horrified by her own image. Unlike the obese and impoverished Precious Jones, though, Nina is the epitome of beauty and white femininity: an anorexic-thin ballerina, whose chance to shine in the spotlight is nonetheless threatened by darker forces.

Despite their obvious racial, class, physical, and geographic differences (Precious resides in Harlem; Nina lives on the Upper West Side), both women dwell in gloomy apartments heavy with the air of maternal oppression. These heroines could actually be each other’s double–a theme dramatically explored  in Black Swan. See, both Precious and Nina suffer from mother-daughter sex abuse, a topic that few have discussed publicly even though both films received widespread attention when they opened in theaters. How much of our reluctance has to do not only with the subject matter but also with how each film chooses to tell their stories? How do these stories, and our own responses to them, reflect racial constructions around motherhood and family dysfunction?

When Precious opened last year to critical acclaim and big box office, the main debates surrounding the film concerned the demonization of Precious’s mother Mary (played by Oscar-winning Mo’Nique). Black audiences were quick to point out that Mary was a stereotypical distortion of black motherhood, while others chose to view the story through a sociological lens. We could point to the family’s impoverished conditions as the cause for its dysfunction, as well as to the sexist treatment both Precious and Mary received from the absentee father, who took off from the household after twice impregnating Precious and giving her HIV, thus sparking Mary’s envy and resentment toward her own daughter. This is the pathological black family writ large.

But poverty is just part of the problem, as we witness a similar dysfunctional family in Black Swan, in which Nina and her mother Erica (played by Barbara Hershey) live in a relatively spacious and middle-class apartment in New York City. In this story, there is no mention of the absentee father, which might suggest that single-mother-headed households are viewed as deviant across racial and class lines.  However, black dysfunction is often reduced to sociology, while white dysfunction is reduced to psychology.  It’s not surprising that most conversations about Black Swan focus on how “crazy” and “psychotic” Nina became towards the movie’s end, while few have named the source for her mental decline. In other words, few recognize Nina as a victim of incest, the way we immediately recognize Precious’s victimization.

Granted, it’s rather difficult to not talk about Mary as a sexual predator when director Lee Daniels left little to the imagination (depicting Mary in bed pleasuring herself before calling for Precious to “come take care of Mama”), while Aronofsky overwhelmed Black Swan with surrealism, Swan Lake allegories and ambiguous shots. As a result, the abuse that Nina suffers can only be hinted at (such as depicting Erica calling out to her daughter, “Sweetie, are you ready for me?,” right after we witness Nina exploring ways to keep her mother out of her room).  Even here, the racial differences in the heroines are highlighted. Precious is expected to serve as the sexual aggressor while Nina is expected to be passive as she awaits her mother in bed.

Moreover, there is a certain ease in blatantly depicting a black mother as monstrous and depraved, while the pathology of the white mother, whose interaction with her daughter is one of suffocating love rather than outright hatred, can only be suggestive and viewed as “creepy” (as in, she is definitely “not the norm,” even if Aronofsky invokes ethnic stereotypes of “pushy Jewish mothers”).

Even more telling in the conversations we are having about Black Swan is the fetishistic treatment of white women’s bodies, which distracts us from some of the deeper themes explored. For instance, the infamous lesbian sex scene, which had audiences buzzing even before the movie debuted, is a cover for the sex abuse Nina experiences. It’s important to note that, after this scene (which is later revealed to be an Ecstasy-induced fantasy), Nina’s attitude towards her mother changes from fear and resentment to outright disgust,  leaving us to question if she had been having sex not with Lily (played by Mila Kunis)–another dancer whom she views as a rival–but with her own mother. It is this disgust that leads to her mental deterioration, her rage (which I interpret as a “healthy” response to abuse) and her eventual embrace of the passionate and sensuous Black Swan role that she must master in her debut performance as the Swan Queen.

Because Nina’s abuse remains an unspoken and haunting presence in the film, she cannot find healing. And this is where the narratives in Precious and Black Swan diverge.  Even as they tell similar stories of how some daughters suffer unspeakable abuse at the hands of their mothers, we tend to romanticize the story of the black survivor and the white victim. If Precious can find salvation and liberation in an alternative school, where she learns to write and encounters self-empowered women such as her teacher and other students like herself, Nina’s education leads to the exact opposite: She can only find self-destruction in art, similarly abusive authority figures (such as her ballet instructor) and female rivalry versus feminist support and friendship. Lily comes closest to being a friend, except Nina’s paranoid fantasies, which confuse Lily with her mother, turn her into a threat.

While I realize Aronofsky would rather eschew feminist liberation for his nihilistic fixation on death and madness (a recurring theme throughout his movies), I prefer my own imagined alternate ending for Nina. In my story, she survives her deep wounds, seeks psychiatric treatment and eventually joins a New York City survivors group.  There, she might encounter a Precious–both women automatically dismissing each other at first as being too different from themselves. Then they share their stories and realize how easily they could be each other’s double.

Photo of black swan in Lake Monger, Australia, by Flickr user JoshBerglund19 under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. "…There, she might encounter a Precious–both women automatically dismissing each other at first as being too different from themselves. Then they share their stories and realize how easily they could be each other’s double."

    Now THAT would a movie I would definately love to see done!

  2. How do we know that Nina's father was an "absentee father?" Was her mother divorced or was she widowed? They never mentioned it the movie, from what I remembered.

    • I describe Nina's father as "absentee" because he isn't there at all, nor is he even referenced in memory (and only vaguely referenced when Nina's mother talks about ending her career to have a baby). Why also do you immediately assume that the single white mother must be "divorced" or "widowed"? She may have been abandoned by Nina's father or she may have chosen to have her child on her own without marrying at all. Either way, the father is "absent." That Nina doesn't even think about him (either in memory or as a future figure she might one day meet) shows just how completely she is controlled by her mother.

  3. Has that story been done? It certainly has potential. Thanks for your comment! :)

  4. Dr. Kathleen Young says:

    Janelle-

    This is a fantastic analysis of both movies and how the sexual abuse theme is presented. I am honored that you have linked to my post on the subject.

    "Because Nina’s abuse remains an unspoken and haunting presence in the film, she cannot find healing." This statement of yours really resonates for me and is surely the case for trauma survivors in life as well. Thank you for helping to raise awareness!

  5. Thank you, Dr. Kathleen Young, for your comments and for also contributing to this discussion and helping to “speak the unspeakable” about such films.

  6. Thank you for the feminist approach… it's really illuminating

  7. In reference to Nina's "absentee father", I deduced that there was no father-figure ever and that Nina's mom was impregnated by a "Thomas"-like character, the artistic director, while she was attempting to rise to fame.

    Something else I noticed was that Susan/Sue in the ballet's office was extremely quick to volunteer information to both Lily and Nina's mom. Just a thought.

    This film shook me on the inside. The ballet world is full of double-standards, infantilization and fetishization of women and their bodies.

  8. Lucy Hightree says:

    I am pursuing that the film may not be all about abuse, but more so of inward pain and how to deal/cope with it. Whether one is driven to madness, or one successfully survives the problems that afflict them, both are honest consequences of human frailty. I do not believe one may be "better" than the other, or that they should be in competition with one another. Can't they stand on their own as individual films that share some commonalities?

  9. Swan Queen says:

    Sorry ppl, but what exactly is your definition of sexual abuse???!
    Because I don't see any in the movie "Precious" nor in the film "Black Swan".
    I see massive emotional abuse- but no sexual one, so please enlighten me:
    what is your definition of sexual abuse??

    • snobographer says:

      You didn't see sexual abuse in Precious? Her dad impregnated her at least twice. He raped her on the kitchen floor in one of the earliest scenes of the movie. It couldn't have been less ambiguous.

      • Swan Queen says:

        No, that sexual abuse was MORE than obvious.
        I meant the sexual abuse by the Mother.
        Hence my question for Balck Swan and Precious, since I can't find SEXUAL abuse by the Mothers (other types of abuse most definetly):
        how do you define sexual abuse?

      • Swan Queen says:

        Dear Snobographer,
        of course I did not mean the sexual abuse by the father which was MORE than obvious in the film "Precious"- I meant the sexual abuse by the Mother!!
        Because I do not see it in Swan nor do I see it in Precious, so please tell me:
        what is your definition of it?
        I am not asking this out of provocation, I really need to know!!

  10. As an middle class African American female survivor of sexual, emotional, physical and spirtual abuse at the hands of an African American mother, I found the “surrealism” in “Black Swan” a more realistic depiction of the aftermath of overt sexual abuse and how it manifest on the covert level as a the child progresses into adulthood. My mother stopped physically touching me at age 10 but the covert stuff went on until I was in mid-thirties and finally got a restraining order against my mother. She would repeatedly physically attack me if I did not comply (as an adult). And I got tired of having to fight her. Like Nina when I would visit I would have to block the bathroom door with the hamper when I took a shower. I would be asked instrusive questions about my sexual life (how many times I came when I had sex, if I’d been with more than one man, what were my favorite positions, when I masturbated, exactly what would I do to myself. I’d be critized by my mother and other family members for wanting to use the bathroom with the door closed. I engaged in self-mutilation by picking at my face. Self-injury is very common among sexual abuse survivors. i have always been extremely hypervigiliant. By the way if you don’t think my examples constitute sexual abuse or think what I’ve described is no big deal or that I’m being too sensitive then you’re probably a survivor too. There is a lot resistance to believing that a woman can hurt her child but as a society we need to get over that. Women are capable of as much depravity as men and once we as society began to acknowledge that then we can start to save some lives.

    I get what the writer is saying about the assumed “pathology” Mary. That rings true. But in many ways Nina’s character was more true to the actions of actual survivors of mother daughter sexual abuse who haven’t had any type of recovery no matter the color. And her mother’s behavior was very typical of these type of mothers with their adult children. “Precious” for me represented what I experienced as a kid. “Black Swan” represented what happened to me from my teen years through my adulthood.

    I’m a member of a mother daughter sexual abuse message board and when “Black Swan” came out it was extremely triggering to most of us who’ve been through this horror. Not so much with “Precious.” I think because the abuse in that film was so in your face. Sexual abuse operates on so many subtle levels

    Thank goodness, science has finally caught up and there have many, many reputable studies showing how early trauma and abuse actually reshapes the brain creating a lot of the symptoms that are PTSD. So it ain’t a matter of just getting over it but with therapy, groups (there is a 12 step group for survivors called Survivors of Incest Anonymous) and self nurturing one can try to get through. But a lot of the damage will never be undone.

    Both of the mothers depicted in the film were monstrous for me. To me they were the same.

  11. Janell, Making Daughters Safe Again is thrilled that you posted about mother-daughter sexual abuse, a topic that remains dangerously outside of most people’s consciousness. We would love to share with you our documentary film, Who Will Love Me? Four Stories of Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse. Please email us for a free copy, and thank you for speaking the unspeakable!

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