The Black Swan Take 2: Sinthomosexual, Immigrants, Monster Girls and some other thoughts

by on Dec.31, 2010

I keep going back to The Black Swan and mulling it over, finding shortcomings in my first post. The biggest flaw in my first reading of the movie I think is the ease by which I equated Thomas, teh choreographer, with Father, ie socialiaty and hierarchy. I read Nina’s unwillingness to comply with getting fucked, becoming natural as a way of eluding this Father’s demand for her to be fucked, to become “natural” like Lily, to become part of the social order.

But then I started thinking: The director is not the typical father! He’s the head of a ballet troupe, hardly the most masculine, typical social hierarchy! Furthermore, he exemplifies in every way my mantra “The immigrant is kitsch”: He’s a foreigner (speaks with an accent, is an expert at ballet, that highly artificial, highly European artform, as opposed to the American Movie), both lecherous and gay-ish (dandy outfits, but funny and threatening.


You can see this figure quite clearly for example in Swedish actor Peter Stormare’s two roles with the Coen Brothers – as a “nihilist” in the Big Lebowski’s who’s ridiculous but threatens with castration, and as the silent idiot in Fargo, who’s hyper-macho and puts the wife trough the tree grinder. The kitschy immigrant is both gay-ish and lecherously ultra-hetero, both feminine (and clothing-oriented) and violently macho.

You can also see it quite clearly in the evil but well-dressed Russian agent Leonard in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest . Lee Edelman uses his trope of the “sinthomosexual” to talk about this character in his book “No Future.” The “sinthomosexual” is the figure who refuses “compassion” and, thus rejecting the future-based social order, becomes a figure of jouissance and death drive. In the Hitchcock movie we can see this in the extreme jouissance of his inventions for getting rid of Thornhill (ie why get a dust-cropper to kill him? Why not just off him?). And his lack of compassion when he stonily refuses to take Thornhill’s hand and save him and Eve when they’re hanging off Mount Everest, instead trying to slowly squash Thornhill’s hand with his shoe. He has no compassion, no soul, no interior.

But he does have a horribly imaginative torture-imagination!

Something I don’t think Edelman talks about is the fact that Leonard does work for a social network – the Russians, if only as a spy who is both thoroughly devoted to a cause (the Russian imperialism) and totally devoid of interest in others. Sinthomosexuals do tend to be part of a rival sociality. The greatest threat of the Russians were of course to our American Individuality, a key part of our social order: the Russians were both undemocratic and a mass, undistinguished, homogenous. (Here one might make a connection with my last entry about MFA students as the threat of the undifferentiated mass.)

Thomas, the director in Swan Lake, is French and ballet is a kind of Russian/French artform (there is reference to the Bolshoi theater). The ballet, the network that the Director leads, is hardly a normal social order: it’s a social order where boys seem sexually uninterested in girls, where girls are forced to remain “little princesses” and where the father fucks them. Ie it’s a social order based on castration and pedophilia. It is not a futurity-based social order: if you have children (like Nina’s mother) you are expelled from the order. It’s not democratic America, it’s a dictatorship where all the girls become the same girl.

If you grow up in fact, you are expelled. Here Winona Ryder’s character is key: she’s forever a “little princess”, never a woman, never a responsible adult member of society. She never grows up, she just hits “menopause” immediately (as the other ballerinas joke in the make-up room), and becomes a monster, brutalized, bloody, a Ringu-like monster/ghost. Foreign Art refuses the futurity-based American social order.

But the ballet company is a social order nonetheless. If the director shares some of the sinthomosexual qualities, so does, more importantly, Nina: she has no compassion for others (she does have a kind of identification with Winona but that’s more like narcissism—they have the same face). She constantly rebuffs the insistently friendly Lily as well as her mother (another “little princess” turned monster). She refuses to let herself get truly, naturally fucked (she’s fucked in art, as I noted in my last post, she’s fucked in fantasies and with a mirror). She, perhaps more than the director, embodies the jouissance of the death drive: the unwillingness to lock into a position.

And so she dies. Like Leonard. The ending can be read, as Laura Mullen suggested in her response to the film, in a variety of ways simultaneously (and frantically). Nina refuses to comply with the natural, futurity-based social order of the US, she refuses to be part of the director’s social order (by killing herself) or she too well complies with both of these social orders. She complies so well with the US futurity order by dying because she is the sinthomosexual figure who must be cast out, and she is incredibly violent! She complies with a Gothic-European Art World where, as Poe suggested, the most poetical perfect subject matter is a dead woman. But she’s not a placid dead girl, she’s more like the violent, feverish, more Ligeia than Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia.

Another question is perhaps: Does the ending comply with that other, non-European art world of the Hollywood movie? According to that convention there should be an epiphany, we want Nina to learn and live, to deal with her abject role in some way, to come back together. And that of course doesn’t happen. Arnofsky doesn’t get us an easy way out of this situation.

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One way to move forward from these unpleasant alternatives might be Aylin Bloch Boynukisa’s story “I Have Nothing to do with Birds” (which features a cameo from Lee Edelman himself), where the girl Cathy from Hitchcock’s Birds become Kathy (Acker perhaps) and moves to San Francisco. Here’s the last bit:

12: The girl-child is named Cathy. Play with the idea: the name is foreshadowing and everything will have a happy ending. Cathy turns around, she doesn’t see who’s pushed her. The girl-child suspects that it must have been the grown-up boy-child in the shape of a brother and immediately feels better. It’s like this it has to be.


13: To San Francsico you can move, flee or dream. Play with the idea: the girl-child Cathy will grow up and change the C into a K, and escape from home one beautiful day. Somewhere in The Bay Area Cathy with a K will make her plans. Nobody will know exactly where Cathy is living, someone has heard something about New York or Kyoto. This is a fantasy about the future before it has happened and the future is located in place just before the future-free utopia.


14: San Francisco is a beautiful place. It’s impossible to count all the birds in San Francisco.”


Lee doesn’t play with the thought in his office, but considers it with the highest degree of seriousness. The book will be finished and it will be a great success and many will certainly feel offended or be knocked out. Lee laughs and wraps the balloon sky around his finger, wraps it around his finger like a hurricane. The birds circulate, rise and crash in order to rise again. if one looks very closely one can sense a kind of laughter in the corners of their eyes.
“For the future-free utopia I have prepared a garden where nothing happens, I turn the soil up and down, up and down when the wind blows I blow. The children hang around my hips and demand my time, their faces are full of horror but my gaze is dark and erotic in an inexplicable way. I am from San Francisco, she searches for me, sees me through the window at the same moment I see her. Nothing happens. Then it happens.
15: She comes to me. In her green bird outfit. None of us look like birds. It’s treacherous.”

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In the comment field to a previous post Adam Strauss suggested that Nina is a lesbian, but I think that’s making her too stable. She seems exploding with sexual energy – the director, a guy, can bring it out of her by merely touching her thigh – but it is not directed at any one person, it’s best suited for her anguished masturbation scenes. She’s full of un-directed sexual energy, sexual energy that hasn’t been brought into the social order (any of them).

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Lily is a different kind of pan-sexual. She is a liberated wild child from California. The ultimate American “natural.” She’s the character who might end up a happy member of society. But of course her naturalness is kind of fake – she takes pills and smokes in order to feel natural, to feel sexually relaxed. The whole Romantic binary of the natural, sexual vs the frigid, artificial is upended. It seems here that the natural is fake, and the fake is the most sexual of all.

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The role of “Old Europe” and the Immigrant is a key figure of both The Black Swan and Arnofsky’s first movie, Pi (which I yesterday re-watched for the first time since I saw it when it came out in the 90s)

In both movies, Europe represent both a kind of origin that must be transcended, cast aside if one wants to become normal, ie not be stunted, ie not an artist.

In Pi, the Hassidic Jews (another anti-group, dictatorial rather than democratic) represent the old Europe and they, as the main character’s mentor puts it, have turned math into numerology, ie the occult, black arts, by being too fervent, obsessive in their pursuit of God. Of course, the mentor is also a European, but he not only dies, but when he’s dead the main character also finds out that he’s been secretly obsessing about the same math formulas. The main character would no doubt be best off if he just accepts the offer of the big US Corporation and become part of capitalism. Then he could be more relaxed and maybe go out with that other foreigner, the Indian, very female, very hot, very maternal woman who keeps baking him samosas out of compassion (she’s of course the flipside of the immigrant is kitsch: the immigrant as authenticity kitsch). Just like Nina could be a more normal person if she got fucked, so we wish the main character of Pi could just be normal, could just be fucked.

And of course he, like Nina, gets fucked in a weird, masturbatory way: he performs some kind of lobotomy on himself. And voila, suddenly he’s relaxed, enjoying life, sitting on a park bench next to an (asian) girl who does math, but he can no longer figure out the math problems. Unlike Nina, he’s become normal and happy, no longer obsessed with his dark art.

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Can I just say one more time: Nathalie Portman was really fantastic in this role.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    I think the masturbation scenes are likely the best ones in the movie. Happy New-Year’s Eve!

  2. Aylin B

    Wow. After reading all the posts and comments about Black Swan here and then watching the trailer, I can barely wait for the movie to come to theaters in Sweden.

  3. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    …I think also, the Svengali archetype has always been a bit queer… in terms of this pathology of men sublimating homosexual desires and then acting them out via their cooptation of women’s bodies, often through triangles. The scene in the RED SHOES where Lermontov jacks off a phallic point shoe statuette while conversing w/ Craster. I am wondering now if there is any overlap in writing/theorizing abt the sinthhomosexual and the svengali.

  4. Johannes

    Interesting point. The svengali suggests a fraud or hoax as well. The “coopint women’s bodies” suggests a lack of interiority, a contigious (?) rather than psychological relationship to others.
    Johannes