I went to see the movie Black Swan last week. Skip this post if you have not seen the movie and do not want to read about it in advance. Full disclosure: I had previously read Faith Allen’s review at Blooming Lotus. I wondered if I too would interpret the movie as centering around an underlying theme of mother-daughter sexual abuse. I left wondering how anyone could not see this theme. And yet many do not.
Why might this be? For one thing, our culture continues to overlook child abuse and its impact in general. As I have written before I think of this as our cultural dissociation:
“You are only as sick as your secrets”. If the oft repeated 12 step slogan is true then our culture is indeed sick. The refusal to acknowledge the link between childhood trauma (big T and little t) and mental health issues of all sorts in adulthood seems to me to be a kind of cultural dissociation. We would rather blame the victim, or in family systems terms set up the “sick” one as an identified patient, who has bad brain chemistry or has come by their mental “illness” in any way other than as a result of their childhood experiences.
On top of that, I see our culture having a huge investment in the idea of the “good mother”. That mothers can be neglectful or outright abusive seems hard for many to grasp. That mothers can even be sexually abusive: unthinkable. And yet of course it happens. Survivors of abusive mothers may have even more stigma hurdles to overcome in their own healing path, both in terms of being understood by others and even believing themselves. If a movie like this generates any conversation about abusive mothers (and it is) I am all for it.
Faith Allen and the commenters on her post, Black Swan: Movie about Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse, are doing a great job exploring and elucidating the not always overt theme of sexual abuse in this movie. So check it out but as always be mindful that this is a potentially triggering topic.
I want to add a few observations of my own about the sexual abuse theme, but mostly elaborate on a topic that is under-discussed: the emotional abuse that often accompanies sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse does not occur in a vacuum. This may be especially true when we are talking about incest, which requires the context of a dependency bond, as Sue Blume writes in Secret Survivors:
incest can be seen as the imposition of sexually inappropriate acts, or acts with sexual overtones, by – or any use of a minor child to meet the sexual or sexual/emotional needs of – one or more persons who derive authority through ongoing emotional bonding with that child. -Blume, 1990, p. 4
When sexual abuse occurs in such a relationship, in this case the mother-daughter relationship, the child’s emotional needs are obviously not being met. Instead, the child is being used to meet the mother’s needs. This type of emotional abuse can also occur without the sexual behavior component. It is sometimes referred to as emotional or covert incest, to underscore how the impact can be very similar. Others in the field object to these terms but that is the subject of an upcoming post. Whatever you call it, I see in addition to the sexual abuse undertones a very particular type of emotional abuse demonstrated by the mother in Black Swan.
Sometimes emotional abuse can take the form of neglect or verbally abusing the child. While emotional abuse of all types can be hard to pinpoint, it becomes even murkier when it is of the “too close” variant. In psychology speak we call this enmeshment: a relationship characterized by unboundaried bonding, in which the parent uses the child to meet her own needs versus supporting the child in developing into her own, separate self. This enmeshment exists in varying degrees of toxicity. It has been popularized in the term “codependency” and may be spoken of lightly. Have you heard adults referred to as “momma’s boys” or “daddy’s girls” or heard a woman describe her mother as “my best friend”? Certainly not all these relationships are as pathological as the one in Black Swan, but they may suggest something worth looking at. And again indicate the way our culture trivializes traumatic childhood experiences.
In Black Swan, we see extreme emotional enmeshment: the mother is not allowing her daughter to be a separate individual, instead she sees Nina as a reflection of herself (wanting her to pursue same career) and someone who exists to meet the mother’s own needs. Boundaries are violated or rather seem to never have existed (Mother intruding into the bathroom and bedroom, looking at Nina’s self-injury on her back, demanding that she remove her clothes). Nina is both infantilized and sexualized (the crooning of “my sweet girl”, the room full of stuffed animals, Mother tucking her in and turning on the music box at bed time). These are all acts that might seem appropriate, if Nina were a young child and if not delivered in such a sexualized manner.
We also see Nina exhibiting symptoms that are common in survivors of incest. These type of boundary violations whether physical or “only” emotional often result in eating disorder behaviors (we see signs that Nina restricts, for example her seeming fear about eating any cake, and purges), self-injury, social isolation, extreme passivity when faced with authority and fear of/preoccupation with sexuality. Whether fantasized or real, Nina experiences sexual advances/being sexualized in almost every relationship while at the same time being characterized as frigid and undesirable. I wonder if that is her defense against her fear: attempting to present an asexual image lest she be sexually used by any/everyone…an understandable fear if this has occurred with her early attachment figure.
We see evidence that the mother uses Nina to meet her needs both in her attempt to live vicariously through Nina’s dancing but also in her undermining of Nina becoming too successful (which may translate as independent to the mother). Nina actually excelling in her own right, especially in a role that requires her to claim her own sexual self, to act as an empowered sexual being versus everyone else’s object, threatens the equilibrium of the enmeshment with her mother. Both mother and daughter become more symptomatic, more unstable as the movie progresses. We are left to interpret the final outcome: is death the result of the pathological quest for perfection? Or is death the only imaginable escape from abuse, Nina’s final effort to free herself? What do you think?