My tough femme public defender sister and I had been waiting five months to see Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, and we were not disappointed. Appropriately sandwiched by an opening title and credit sequence plated in Bodoni (the font that I would be were I a typeface), the film is not only an ode to femininity, it is a medium of femme-bonding. When I’ve talked to boys who’ve seen the film (OK I don’t know that many boys so it’s like three) there was a common denominator to their responses, whether they liked the film or not: they were grossed out by the scenes in which Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers tears into her bleeding fingernails and toenails to make them bleed more. Having been a cutter myself, these scenes were viscerally moving for me. But even my sister, who was far from a cutter as a teenager, did not find them “gross.” We understood as femme beings that tearing into the self is part of the pain with which the character creates herself as a specifically feminine artist. Funny that boys who usually have no qualms about blow-em-up action flick violence, were so disturbed by a close-up of a girl pulling at a loose skin of her finger till it snaps up like a fruit-roll up. This reaction to feminine self-mutilation is gendering in the same way in which Toni Morrison’s Sula powerfully separates her black girl self from white boys:
“She slashed off only the tip of her finger. The four boys stared open-mouthed at the wound and the scrap of flesh, like a button mushroom, curling in the cherry blood....Sula raised her eyes to them [the boys]. Her voice was quiet. ‘If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?’”
Similarly, Black Swan is a text of femininity that takes place at the very liminal regions of the female body. This is a film about girls, but not about their hair, their breasts, their hips, their reproductive organs, their heart, or even their face. This is a film about girls that is about their feet. Duh: it’s a film about ballet.
Early on in the film, Nina, superfrustrated by not being able to perform properly the role of Odile (a.k.a. the Black Swan Queen), turns to her security blanket of bulimia. The scene is blocked so that our view of Nina’s puking is blocked by the wall of the public toilet stall. We only see the base of the toilet, and the tattle-tale ballet-shoed feet: they face towards the toilet rather than away. After she retches, Nina flushes the toilet by stomping on the handle with one foot. This is one of my favorite moments in the movie. Kick-flushing the toilet is such a punk rock gesture, so there is a weird thrill in seeing the stomping foot covered in dirty pink satin rather than black Doc Martens: the pink doesn’t at all dampen the violence of the gesture. But at the same time, kick-flushing is also a gesture that arises from daintiness: you don’t want to touch with your hand the gross handle of the public restroom toilet so you touch it with your foot instead, because as a dainty being, you cannot leave a dirty toilet unflushed. The gesture, like the film, reveals the way in which femininity is a method of self-styling that combines blood-and-guts violence with balletic anal-retentiveness.
Which brings us to the real unsung supporting character of the film: knitted Ugg boots. From the beginning till the end, Nina bounds about, both on sidewalk pavement and backstage floor, in a pair of calf-length Ugg boots made of grey knit (I believe it’s their “Classic Cardy” style). I hate these Uggs, these socks masquerading as boots. I hate them for the same reason I hate flip-flops worn outside of a locker room. Because sloppiness is not the same as indifference. When you’re walking out the house with your hair teased and smashed for that just-rolled out of bed/ just-fucked look, that is not indifference; it is sloppiness. Putting on a dress with torn hems in homage to Baby Jane Hudson or 1991 Courtney Love is not indifference; it is sloppiness. Indifference is having such a big idea of yourself that you think the world ought to be your bedroom or bathroom: hence wearing your pajamas or house slippers outside the boundaries of your own home.
What shocked me about the knit Ugg boots in Black Swan was not so much that Nina wore them (I didn’t think that much about them at first) but that as we were leaving the theater, my sister, my platform-and-stiletto-heel loving lawyer sister, turned to me and said: “I gotta get a pair of those knitted Ugg boots.” I fought her (weakly) on her style decision but her reasons were simple and similar (I imagine) to Nina’s: preciousness about feet. My sister is not a ballerina. But in her work as a public defender, her feet have to have two personalities: sky-high heels for court appearances, but something cushier and kinder yet not trainers, for hoofing about the jails to interview her clients. So I understood her desire for them. Still, even as I agreed to buy her a pair (in black) for our Christmas “gift” trade, I was not convinced of their cuteness.
I’m still not convinced, although after my second viewing of the film last week, I might begrudge them a degree of cute respect. (WARNING SEMI SPOILER) Near the end of the film, when Nina discovers that she has stabbed herself rather than her rival, she slumps down on a chair in her dressing room, filled with the loud unutterable pain of regret. On her feet are those knit Ugg boots. But this time, the Uggs spoke to me in a different way. The boots’ soft knitted body reminded me of the army of stuffed dolls that lined Nina’s bedroom. And although she had just murdered those dolls just hours before, it’s as if they had wreaked vengeance upon her feet: the Ugg’s signature toe—round, hoof-like—renders Nina a kind of stuffed toy, and just as pathetic as that plush cow in tutu that was shoved down the trash chute. The pathetic little girlness of the boots made the scene even more wrenching to me, and actually pushed it to the brink of a classical kind of pathos, which is after all the etymological sister of “pathetic.”
I no longer thought of the knit Uggs as props of brazen, stupid indifference, but those of insulation. The insulation that Nina received as “Sweet Girl” not only of her suffocating mother, but that of her feminine art, which has always (and by “always” I mean historically) demanded a kind of imprisoning preciousness of its women. As much as that “Sweet Girl” persona—pre-lesbian experimentation, pre-masturbation discovery, pre-drug-addled sluttishness, pre-rebellious mother-beating—insulated her in a prison, we realize how its insulation was also protective. It allowed her to practice her craft, to aim towards that supposedly quixotic “perfection” of technique. And for all its apparent devaluing of “technique,” the film weirdly makes a case for the indispensability of technical perfection: because Nina is totally hungover on the day of her big opening, she would not have been able to physically perform the role were her body not trained to perfection. In other words: without her maligned obsession with technique that marked her as an underdeveloped “girl,” she actually wouldn’t have been able to perform in art the black womanhood she’d learned the night before.