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“Black Swan” and the Recovery of the Shadow Self

At the opening of Darren Aronofsky’s wonderful new film Black Swan, we see Nina, a young ballet dancer, with her mother, who once danced in the corps herself. The decor of Nina’s room is juvenile, in pastel shades, with a herd of stuffed animals on her bed; the mother treats her as if she were, in fact, a young child.  The atmosphere feels asexual and repressive; beneath the false and saccharine sweetness, one has the sense of emotions unacknowledged, words not spoken.

Both mother and daughter seem high-strung and fragile.

Nina has clearly disowned an important part of her emotional experience, undoubtedly because her false and brittle mother couldn’t tolerate its expression. 

After Nina is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake, the mother buys a huge celebratory cake that looks like what you might serve for an eight-year-old’s birthday party; when Nina says she doesn’t want to eat any of it, the mother gets angry and tries to make Nina feel guilty by threatening to shove the cake into the trash can (echoes of Beth in Ordinary People — another brittle and emotionally incapable mother — scraping her son’s french toast into the garbage disposal when he says he’s not hungry).

As soon as Nina capitulates and lets her mother feed her a bite of cake, the mother reverts to her former cloying manner.  The message is clear:  you must remain an obedient little girl in order to be accepted.

At rehearsals for the ballet, we soon see how the disavowal of her “darkness” has enfeebled Nina: the choreographer tells her she’s perfect for the role of the white swan but lacks the passion needed to dance the  black swan with real conviction.

Under the emotional and sexual pressure he exerts in an effort to arouse her passionate side, Nina’s disavowed experience begins to break through.  She bites him when he kisses her — the first sign of aggression we’ve seen.  Obviously still a virgin, she begins to masturbate one morning as the choreographer suggested, then breaks off in terror when she realizes her mother is asleep in a chair mere feet from the bed.  The expression of sexuality cannot be tolerated any more than anger or independence.

As I discussed in my earlier Tolkien posts, this kind of psychological splitting cannot hold.  The projected or split-off aspects of the self inevitably seep back in.  The disowned part of Nina’s experience — what Jung would have called her “shadow self” — shows up as a twin, a mirror image of Nina that she glimpses in passing.  Lily, a newcomer to the company, also appears to have two different sides: one kindly and supportive, the other competitive and undermining of Nina.

The notion of splitting and duality pervades the entire film: white swan/black swan, good Lily/bad Lily, and pristinely perfect but frigid Nina who is threatened by the emergence of her dark, sexual and murderous shadow self.

I won’t spoil the plot for you — I strongly urge you to go see Black Swan — but what happens over the course of the film shows how we are empowered by reclaiming split-off and disowned parts of our experience.

Only by embracing her passionate sexuality, jealousy and murderous feelings of rage can Nina grow into her role as the black swan, becoming a whole and independent woman in the process.  Viewers will debate which portions of the film are fantasy and which events truly happen; to me, it doesn’t matter because the film accurately portrays states of mind and psychological reality in a way rarely seen.

The writer and director have given us a visually stunning film with an important message:  It may be terrifying and socially unacceptable to experience “black” feelings, but when we try to be all “white,” we only end up weak and frightened, incapable of passionate engagement with our world.

“Black Swan” and the Recovery of the Shadow Self

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2010). “Black Swan” and the Recovery of the Shadow Self. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Dec 2010
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