Monday, 8 July 2019

''Grande Dame Guignol'': Depictions of Disturbed Mature Women in Horror Films

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
In the late 1950s, American popular culture changed from mainstream productions to narrower audiences. The main focus was the adolescent public since teenagers were considered to be the ‘‘nation’s cultural diet’’(Doherty in Shary, McVittie, 77).  In this context, low budget horror films became a trend, but the novelty now was that the main protagonists were middle-aged or old women who embodied a threat to the society they dwelled within. Even though this characteristic had already been illustrated in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), in which the two enchanting old aunts murder the men they lodged, the portraying of the crimes was comic. 

In the 1960s, women’s crimes were bloody, with scenes of explicit violence. Aged women’s depiction was ‘‘misogynist and radically unsympathetic’’ (Morey, 103), and the terms ‘‘hagsploitation’’, ‘‘hag horror’’, ‘‘psycho-biddy’’ and ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ (which will be the one I will be using in my blog post), were created for this new subgenre. The latter name emphasises an unbalanced antagonist who ‘‘may pine for a lost youth and glory, or she may be trapped by idealized memories of childhood, with a trauma that haunts her past’’ (Shelley). This combined with the gruesome carnage derived from the plays from the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris[i] establishes this female horror subtype, which lasted from 1962 until the mid -1970s.

Former iconic actresses appear in these films, and, they even show some of their best performances. The viewer can compare their previous glamour with the present parody of themselves. The main actresses of this subgenre may be Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (the TV series Feud depicts their notorious relationship besides an illustration of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’), yet many other stars such as Olivia de Havilland, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck or Shelley Winters participated in the subgenre. 

This blog post will analyse the origins of the subgenre, paying attention to Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Psycho (1960). Later on, it will focus on the first film of the new style, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962), and, finally, it will explain how this type of film evolved and influenced current cinema. All the study will take into account the concept of ‘‘grotesque’’ by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as well as Bulgarian-French Julia Kristeva’s idea of ‘‘abjection’’.

Sunset Boulevard and Psycho: The Precursors of the Subgenre

The image of the malevolent old woman emerges in Gothic literature in examples such as Countess Fosco in William Collin’s The Woman in White (1860), Mme de la Rougierre in Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864), or Mrs Danviers in du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) (Horner and Zlosnik, 186). Nevertheless, Charles Dicken’s Miss Havisham from his Great Expectations (1860-1) is Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s main influence in their creation of Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

When Joe Gillis (William Holden) arrives at Desmond’s neglected mansion and he is thought to be the undertaker for Norma’s dead monkey, his first thought is related to the lady in Dicken’s novel: ‘‘It was like that old woman in Great Expectations, that Miss Havisham and her rotting wedding dress and torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by’’ (Minute 12:45-13:00). As Gillis maintains his first conversation with Norma, he realises she is living in the past like Havisham.

This film, alongside All About Eve (1950) and The Star (1952), deals with an actress who no longer interests Hollywood due to her age. Norma, a former star of the silent film era, embodies the ‘‘Othering’’ of a middle-aged woman in the film industry. Although she is not fit to work in the patriarchal standards of youth and beauty anymore, her name serves as gossip in this Hollywood-on-Hollywood cautionary tale. [ii]

The storyline depicts Norma as both a victim of the film business as well as a predatory diva, since she uses Gillis to better her disastrous script for Salome in her intentioned comeback in exchange of accommodation, expensive clothes and food. The ghost-writing, nonetheless, results in tragedy, as Gillis ends dead, and Norma insane. Even though Norma is presented from the beginning as a rich eccentric woman in leopard furs and satins, it is by her intense cosmetic treatments for her return in Hollywood that she becomes grotesque. 

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Anne Morey considers that Norma is ‘‘Mikhail Bakhtin’s pregnant crone, who represents the unity of life and death in a single figure’’ (Morey,109) and that a grotesque body ‘‘is a point of transition in a life eternally renewed, the inexhaustible vessel of death and conception’’( Bakhtin in Morey, 109). While Norma contrasts with Betty Schaefer, the hopeful young reader who desires to be a screenwriter, it is Desmond’s Salome the story that is finally ‘‘shot’’ in the actress’s final moment of insanity. 

Moreover, the term ‘‘grotesque’’, which ‘‘derives from the Italian grotte (caves) and entered English as a descriptor of imaginative and incongruous human and animal shapes and unnatural physical and sexual images in sculpture’’ (Encyclopedia, 166), is embodied in Desmond. The aforementioned scenes of her furs identify her with an animal-like woman. Besides, her hand movements, apart from echoing the acting of the silent era, recall the paws of a predator (Mazur).
While Sunset Boulevard introduces a former grande dame and identifies the woman with the grotesque, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), celebrates the grotesque in its maximum. Hitchcock’s motion picture, based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Blotch, can be considered as a precursor of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ genre not only due to its introduction of an evil woman, but also because this female (Mrs. Bates) is not even ‘‘played by a woman’’ (Morey, 103). 
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho
The cross-dressing in Psycho is relevant, as it identifies Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) [iii] with his mother. According to Julia Kristeva, ‘‘the child can serve its mother as token of her own authentication; there is however, hardly any reason for her to serve as go-between for it to become autonomous and authentic in its turn’’ (13). In Psycho, not only Norman cannot separate from his mother, but he becomes his mother. When his mother begins a relationship with a man, the young boy feels threatened and murders them. By the end of the film, Norman disappears so that Mother is his only personality: ‘‘Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all, most unbearable to the son that commits it… He stole her corpse…She was there, but she was just a corpse, so began to think and speak for her…and because he was so pathologically jealous of her (his mother), he assumed that she was as jealous of him’’ (Psychiatrist in the film, Minutes 1:44:02- 1:45:10). Therefore, when Norman feels attracted to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), he stops his impulses by murdering her as he feels intimidated by his own sexual drive thinking his mother will not approve it. Consequently, Norman’s killing of Marion is, in fact, a woman’s crime against another one, as Norman believes he is his mother. The aforementioned antagonism seen in Sunset Boulevard between the Norma and Betty is echoed here as Norman murders Marion, an example of beauty and youth. 

Nevertheless, the employment of the grotesque is not the only connection Psycho maintains with the still-to-come genre of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’. Peter Shelley claims that Sunset Boulevard and The Star influenced What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, yet Psycho, apart from creating a new style which will develop into the slasher film genre, introduced gruesome images and a low-budget creation in a film with huge success. This helped push the ‘‘horror genre into the mainstream and making it a more acceptable genre for actors and directors to be involved with’’. 

The second section of the blog post will focus on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, considered to be the first picture of the subgenre and with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as co-stars. Both actresses will perform in subsequent films of the genre as both the villain and the victim. The grotesque in the studying of aged women will also be scrutinised in the following fragment.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: The Creation of a Subgenre

Peter Shelley considers that the style of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ was produced with Robert Aldrich’s influential film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane since ‘nothing quite like it had been made prior’’. The story of these two former actresses, the child star Jane Hudson and her sister Blanche, results to be a psychologically disturbing motion picture. The process by which Jane tortures, starves and humiliates her crippled sibling contrasts with the pity the audience feels towards both characters as they recall their glorious days back in the late 1910s and 1930s. Aging again is emphasised by the isolation and loneliness these two women live in. Like the abovementioned Norma Desmond, Jane uses a man for her apparent comeback, in this case a musician to perform with her. This return to the stage also underlines her desire of economic independence from Blanche, who intends to purchase a new house with her assistant and institutionalize Jane in a mental hospital. Jane’s insanity is accentuated by her grotesque and camp features, as it can be seen in this scene:

Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie explain that the ‘‘Othering’’ of an aged woman was common in the 1960s: ‘‘Beyond a general anxiety about women, a perennial undercurrent of the horror genre throughout its history, this subgenre reveals anxieties specific to the culture of the period and its shifting social environment’’ (80). They add that the monsters changed from being external (with creatures such as werewolves or vampires) to the everyday person who turned out to be unbalanced (80).These new ‘‘monsters’ , the old women presented in the film, are the attraction and grotesque for the viewers, as Lorena Russell states: ‘‘The conflicted dynamics of desire and repulsion through which the film engages its audience reflects back  on the ambivalences of the Gothic and the processes of abjection, described by Julia Kristeva’’ (220). 

Jane embodies the idea of abjection that Russell analyses, in which ‘‘subjects are produced in large part with what they reject, what they deem as exterior or threatening to the integrity of their borders’’ (220). The threat Jane feels triggers her cruelty towards her sister as well as her delusion.

Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) with her doll

Baby Jane’s doll seen by the viewer from the beginning of the film embodies Jane’s process into insanity. When a drunk Jane hears the song she played as a child from the doll sitting near her, she recalls the music number she performed with her father:

‘‘Now when I’m very good
And do as I am told
I’m Mama’s little angel
And Papa says I’m good as gold
But when I’m very bad
And answer back and sass
Then I’m Mama’s little devil
And Papa says I’ve got the brass
Now I wish that you would tell me
‘Cause I’m too young to know…’’ (Minutes 34:56-35:28)

As Jane says the last line she observes herself in the mirror, yet the scene is shot as if Jane’s childish self was witnessing what she has become in her fifties and she screams in panic. As Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Jane (as well as Blanche in previous scenes of the film) cannot accept the passing of time and her nostalgia overwhelms her. Jane’s doubling between her would-be star versus her reality is emphasised when Blanche uses the buzzer to call her. Jane’s duality is depicted all throughout the film, as she exemplifies both the greatest cruelties alongside the purest naivety. Her final demonstration of innocence is when Blanche confesses that the accident which crippled her was not Jane’s fault, but hers, as she wanted to run over Jane and she spanned her spine.

Besides the Gothic atmosphere and the insanity of the main character which relates to Edgar Allan Poe, the film emphasises a feature which will be constant in the future similar films to arrive in the 1960s and 1970s: the camp aesthetic. As Susan Sontag highlights, Camp ‘‘is the love for the exaggerated, the ‘‘off’’ of things-being-what-they-are-not’’ (3), and ‘‘as a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and the strongly exaggerated’’ (4), being one of the film stars she mentions Bette Davis. In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, while Jane’s appearance becomes more and more childish, Blanche’s transformation goes from a serene diva to a cadaver-like prisoner. At the end of the film, under the extreme circumstances they experience, both characters reveal their true selves as it can be perceived when Jane dances like her former self on the beach, and the till-then victim Blanche confesses her attempted crime against Jane. 

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the film

The portrayal of Jane in the film can be identified with Mary Russo’s explanation of the grotesque body: ‘‘The images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from the bodily canons of classical aesthetics… The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing; it is identified with non-official ‘‘low’’ culture or the carnivalesque, and with social transformation’’(8).
The permanence of the abovementioned grotesque body continued in a lot of ‘‘low’’ horror films during the 1960s and 1970s with old women as protagonists. The newly created subgenre which focused on formerly glamorous and now deranged women, and the potential risks they create in the patriarchal society the dwelled in. The last section of the blog post will analyse some of the films created during these years and how some of the current films involving women still maintain echoes of this subgenre.

Grande Dame Guignol: Representations of Mature Women in Film

After the unexpected success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the formula of aged woman either unbalanced or at stake was copied several times even with the same actresses. Several of the films to come even imitated the abovementioned title with questions such as What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (1964) (later named Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, again directed by Robert Aldrich and with Bette Davis), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), with Geraldine Page as a ruined widow who kills her housekeepers to steal their savings from them, or What’s the Matter with Helen (1971), with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, in which Winters has hallucinations and commits several murders. [iv]

The first film mentioned in this section, Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, stars Olivia de Havilland (who also played in Lady in a Cage (1964)) alongside Bette Davis, since Joan Crawford, the initial actress for her role, did not shoot the motion picture. De Havilland plays the evil woman here, while Davis is the insane victim who thinks she murdered her married lover when she young and has been traumatised for it since then. The following scene depicts de Havilland’s dark character Miriam:

‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ names a lost glamour and youth not to be found again, yet two of the other terms employed for the subgenre, ‘‘hag horror’’ and ‘‘hagsploitation’’ echo an ancient fear towards old females.

 Angela Stukator introduces a quote by Joanna Frueh in her essay which explains this anxiety: ‘‘if the feminine is other, marginal and chaos, and, therefore, socially disruptive, then the old(er) woman in her obscene and ugly wretched excess, is even more threatening’’ (52). Stukator also develops how Greer links ‘‘aging to menopause, which occurs around age 50; since the mid-19th century menopause was perceived as a tragedy because it marked the ‘‘death of the womb’’’’(52). Where a young woman symbolises life as she can give birth, an old woman is the ‘‘manager of death’’ when she becomes aged. The term ‘‘anophobia’’, Stutakor explains, is ‘‘the irrational fear of the old woman’’ (52), and it is emphasised by ‘‘‘‘stereotypical grotesques,’’ notably hags, nags, witches, and crones’’ (52). The fear to hags, besides, stems from folklore, as what we nowadays name ‘‘sleep paralysis’’ was once called the ‘‘Old Hag Syndrome’’, in which the ‘‘‘‘Mare’’ or ‘‘Old Hag’’ type of nightmare, characterised by terror’’, an impression of being awake but powerless to move or speak, and sensations of weight on the chest’’ (Oates, 205). The women of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ subgenre suffocate the characters around them until they obtain their death or they are stopped. 

Illustration depicting the ''Old Hag Syndrome''

In order to face with their ‘‘anophobia’’, Stukator claims that some women experience the so-called ‘‘passing’’, that is, they try to maintain their juvenile appearance by means of surgery, makeup, fashion, hair style, etc., just as Norma Desmond does in the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard.
With the illusion of maintaining a long-gone youth or not, the women portrayed in this genre depict the idea of female characters who fight for their own interests, whether they are evil or not. The characters range, among others, from housewives, as in the case of Joan Crawford in Strait- Jacket (1964), who kills her husband and his lover with an axe; nannies, as the scary housekeeper Bette Davis in The Nanny (1965), or actresses, such as Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling! (also known with the title of Fanatic) (1965), where she plays a religious zealot who tortures her dead son’s ex-fiancé. Nevertheless, the subgenre of the old women became so camp, that there were parodies of the films as it can be seen in the January 1966 issue of the magazine MAD 100[v]

Although the subgenre itself disappeared in the mid-70s, current cinema depicts influences of the anxieties aged women can illustrate. Later films such as Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name (1974), resurrects the concept of fanatically religious evil mother, embodied by actress Piper Laurie. Furthermore, the motion picture Flowers in the Attic (1987), with Louise Fletcher and Victoria Tennant, and based on the Gothic novel with the same name by V. C. Andrews, narrates how an evil mother attempts to murder her own children in order to obtain an inheritance. The story in this case depicts both an evil grandmother as well as a criminal mother. With a stereotypical setting of a Gothic manor, the female characters represent a threat to the youngest generation. The adaptation of the film in 2014 with Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham maintains these malicious women. 

The portrayal of malevolent mothers is recurrent in other recent films, as for example, Mommie Dearest (1981), in which Faye Dunaway plays the role of Joan Crawford, one of the main actresses of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ genre, and which gave Crawford a notorious reputation as a mother; or Barbara Hershey’s asphyxiating mother in Black Swan (2010), again another Miss Havisham dreaming of her youth and suffocating her daughter. 

There are other depictions of unbalanced aged women who are not mothers, such as Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (1990), again based on a novel by Stephen King (1987), a psychopathic nurse who tortures famous novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in her remote house.
As it has been explained before, all these women represent a threat to the society they dwell in, they are not an external monster which murders, but the alleged aged woman living nearby who assassinates to obtain what she wants. Even though in the films from 1980s onwards the camp features of the female characters disappear, the characteristic of vileness is emphasised.

This blog post has analysed the development of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ subgenre from its precursors Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, to its complete creation with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to the motion pictures that came after the unexpected success the latter film achieved. Besides, it has explained some of the films which appeared once the subgenre was considered to be finished. Within the study of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ films, the concepts of ‘‘grotesque’’, ‘‘camp’’ and ‘‘abject’’ have been considered as they are present in the description of the aged women in these films.

[i] For further information about the theatre, I recommend this website:

[ii] For further reading on the film, check out this excellent article:

[iii] For more information on Psycho, this essay is really interesting:

[iv] There are more titles explained in this essay:


Aldrich, Robert, Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, 1964, motion picture, 20th Century Fox, Los Angeles.
---, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, motion picture, Warner Bros. Pictures, Los Angeles. (Accessed 28th June 2019)
Hitchcock, Alfred, Psycho, 1960, motion picture, Shamley Productions, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles.
Horner, Avril, Zlosnik, Sue in Women and the Gothic (ed. by Horner, Avril and Zlosnik, Sue) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
Klein Martins, David, ‘‘‘‘We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes. Haven’t You?’’ Psycho and the Postmodern Rise of Gender Queerness’’ (Accessed 25th June)
Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) (Accessed 27th May 2019)
Mazur, Matt, ‘‘The Devil is a Woman: Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond, and Actress Noir’’ (Accessed 8th June 2019)
Monster Fan Club, ‘‘‘‘Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been’’ or ‘‘What Ever Happened to Good Taste?’’ (Accessed 27th June 2019)
Morey, Ann, ‘‘Grotesquerie as Marker of Success in Aging Female Stars’’ in In the Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity (ed. by Negra, Diane and Holmes, Su) ( New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011)- via Google Books
Oates, Caroline, ‘‘Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heatburn’’ in Folklore, Vol. 114, No.2 (Aug., 2003), pp. 205-225 (Accessed 26th June 2019)
Russell, Lorena, ‘‘Queering Consumption and Production in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’’ in Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear (ed. by Hantke, Steffen) (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2004)-via Google Books
Russo, Mary, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012)- via Google Books
Shary, Timothy, McVittie, Nancy, Fade to Gray: Aging in American Cinema (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2016)- via Google Books
Shelley, Peter, Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009)- Kindle Edition
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2014)-via Google Books
Sontag, Susan, ‘‘Notes on ‘‘Camp’’’’ (1964) (Accessed 20th June 2019)
Stukator, Angela, ‘‘Hags, Nags, Witches and Crones: Reframing Age in ‘‘The Company of Strangers’’’’ , Revue Canadienne d´Études cinématographiques/Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Vol. 5, No.2, Special Issue: Centenary of Cinema in Canada ( Fall/automne 1996), pp. 51-66 (Accessed 15th June 2019)
The Terror Trap, ‘‘Ladies of the Grand Guignol: An Essay on Actress Exploitation Films of the 1960s and 1970s’’ (Accessed 20th June 2019)
Wilder, Billy, Sunset Boulevard, 1950, motion picture, Paramount/MPTV, Los Angeles.

Parodies of the subgenre :

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Double In Darren Aronofsky's ''Black Swan'': Reflections of Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky

Black Swan Movie Poster
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) is a psychological thriller whose plot is about Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballet dancer from the New York City Ballet who succeeds in achieving the main role in Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1875-1876), the company’s new production. Nina is perfect for the White Swan character, as she is fragile and innocent, yet she struggles to perform the lustful Black Swan, since she lacks her sensuality and freshness. Her obsession with perfection leads her to her descent into madness and death. 

The film depicts Nina’s psychological duality throughout its 108 minutes, and, it employs different sources to illustrate her opposite behaviours. The motion picture has been frequently compared with Satoshi Kon’s anime film Perfect Blue (1997)[i] for its similarities in the plot and the blurring of reality with hallucinations. Nevertheless, filmmaker Aronofsky claims that he ‘‘was reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, which is about a guy who wakes up and his double is trying to replace his life’’, and he was wondering how to do it when he ‘‘went to see Swan Lake’’ and that he ‘‘didn’t know that one dancer played two roles’’, which inspired him (FoxSearchlight Minute 0:06-0:26).
This blog post will scrutinise this display of dichotomy in Aronofsky’s work through the analysis of the abovementioned Swan Lake and The Double (1846) as well as the use of mirrors when Nina is on screen. In order to understand the protagonist’s twofold conducts, the characters of Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), ballet dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), and former first ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) will be taken into account. Both psychoanalytical and philosophical approaches will be considered to clarify Nina’s dualism.

Becoming Tchaikovsky’s Black Swan

Aronofsky introduces his protagonist with Tchaikovsky’s prologue of Swan Lake. This way he advances the forthcoming events since the audience can see the ballerina in danger as she becomes a swan, even though in this case she transforms into a white swan. This foreshadows the impact of being The Swan Queen on Nina; she will be the vulnerable White Swan in jeopardy. 

Experts Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell explain the story of Swan Lake:

The ballet’s libretto is based on German folk tale elements and tells the story of the Princess Odette who is turned into a swan by the magician Rothbart. She and her companions can only restored to human form if a man swears true love for her. One night she is met by Prince Siegfried hunting by the lake- she tells him her story: he falls in love and vows to rescue her. Back at his castle, Siegfried attends a ball where he is expected to choose his future bride. Rothbart appears with his daughter Odile who is disguised as a black swan and appears to be identical to Odette… Siegfried is dazzled by Odile’s trickery and begs to marry her. Once his vow to Odette is broken Rothbart and his daughter triumphantly reveal their true identity… (Wulff, 530)

The ending of the ballet varies as, depending on the production, the Prince fights with Rothbart or dies with Odette and, thus, the spell on her is broken. 
Mikhail Vrubel, The Swan Princess, 1900

Tchaikovsky employs the folklore of the swan-maidens; or, shapeshifters who can transform into swans, to compose his ballet. In these tales, male characters observe these female creatures and steal their feather garment so that the maidens cannot run away, and the men force the maidens to marry them (Thompson, 88).

In the case of the ballet, the curse on Odette transforms here into a swan by the magic of a man. And only a man’s love can safe her. This ‘‘male gaze’’ by which the women are perceived also affects Nina at the beginning of the film. When the director Leroy gives details of the upcoming production, he emphasises the duality the main ballerina must portray and scrutinises the female dancers of the company: ‘‘Which of you can body both swans? The white and the black?’’ (Minute 10:09).

As Efthimiou considers, ‘‘Nina and Thomas may not physically have sex but he arguably penetrates and colonises her female interiority in the ultimate way- by freeing her erotic impulses, but only within the parameters of male desire and fantasy, as in lesbian passion, making her the quintessential male fetish object’’ (6). 

Nina’s ambition makes her meet Thomas in his office, and, when she refuses his advances and bites him, she is the one who seduces him, and, therefore, is given the role of the Swan Queen. Consequently, the discovery of her sexuality and her entrance into adulthood will trigger Nina’s obsession and insanity. Besides, as Leroy explanation that ‘‘perfection is not only about control, it’s also about letting go’’ (Minute 20:28) will kindle Nina’s desire of self-accomplishment regardless the pain.

This perfection becomes Nina’s fixation, and she focuses on the female characters around her to obtain it. James clarifies that ‘‘every woman who surrounds Nina is, it seems, both a rival and her double –including suicidal, washed-up former principal dancer Beth; the seemingly friendly, sexy rival Lily, who wants to take Nina out clubbing; and even her jealous mother Erica, who’s terrified of Nina growing up and having a real success that she cannot share’’ (James in España, 135).

In order to convert into the Black Swan, Nina requires to destroy the three aforementioned women. Beth embodies flawlessness, and Nina begins to commit small misdeeds to resemble her: she enters Beth’s dressing room and steals her lipstick, earrings and nail file among other belongings. Nina confronts Beth during Nina’s presentation as the new main ballerina, and, finally, when a key scene occurs shortly before Nina perfectly performs the Black Swan. When the young dancer visits the injured previous ballerina in hospital and returns all her belongings to her, Nina claims: ‘‘I was just trying to be perfect like you’’ (Minute 1:19:15), to what Beth answers: ‘‘I’m not perfect. I’m nothing. Nothing! Nothing!’’ and begins to self-harm with the nail file. What the viewer can witness at this point is Nina’s face on Beth’s; hallucinations are blurred with reality and the audience doubts of what they see. Nina suspects she has wounded, or even, murdered Beth, yet this information is not clarified.

Interestingly, Nina’s transformation and self-doubt about her actions, are represented by the duality colours white and black throughout the film. She wears pinkish/white clothes most of the times in contrast with the dark outfits other characters dress. As it has been portrayed in the dream scene above, black surrounds Nina to depict her constant state of danger. Nonetheless, as the story progresses, her clothes are grey or black.
Poster for Black Swan

The beginning of the motion picture presents Nina at home, in an everlasting childish lifestyle under the strict control of her mother, Erica, a former ballet dancer who quitted the profession to raise Nina. Erica is the quintessential evil mother who annihilates all possibility of development to Nina. As Julia Kristeva illustrates in her psychoanalytical theory of the abjection, ‘‘the difficulty a mother has in acknowledging (or being acknowl- edged by) the symbolic realm—in other words, the problem she has with the phallus that her father or her husband stands for—is not such as to help the future subject leave the natural mansion’’ (13). Consequently, Erica perceives Leroy as a menace, since she is aware of his relationship with Beth, and she understands that Thomas will try to make Nina lose her innocence. Erica even guards her daughter in her sleep, continues having a room with cuddly toys, and is present when Nina attempts to masturbate and advance into adulthood. Her endless phone calls to the dancer, and her minuscule nourishing of the latter, create an oppressive setting in which the Swan Queen dwells. Only Nina’s challenging Erica when she goes out with Lily and before her excellent performance liberate her from the excessive influence of her mother.

Nevertheless, Lily is the main ‘‘double’’ Nina has to deal with; Lily represents all the sexual liberties Nina wishes for,yet cannot reach. From almost the beginning of the motion picture, Nina’s duality emerges in the figure of Lily, imitating Dostoevsky’s The Double. The following section will focus on the dualism Nina undergoes in comparison to the Russian’s novella.

Dostoevsky’s Double in Black Swan

The first hint of the existence of a double in Black Swan can be seen when Nina commutes on the underground. She notices that a girl in black (Lily) resembles her, and that the young woman’s movements occur simultaneously to hers (Minute 5:08-5:24). This first blurring of personalities takes place before Nina encounters her dark twin in black who smiles at her (Minute 14:53-15:16). Actually, every time Nina meets her double a laugh can be heard. This meeting with herself echoes Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, confronting his double, the so-called Mr. Golyadkin junior later on.

Dostoevsky’s novella, set in St. Petersburg, is about a government clerk who unexpectedly meets his double or ‘‘doppelgänger’’, a man with the same name as his and who, besides, comes from the same region. The shocking encounter leads to an alleged friendship, yet Mr. Golyadkin senior soon discovers that his double’s intention is to replace him from his life. Both men seem to be opposite in their personalities, and the confusion between what is real and what is not is present all throughout the plot, in a similar way to what the audience can find in Black Swan.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves, watercolor, 1864

The term ‘‘doppelgänger’’ ‘‘emerged around the same time as the Gothic novel, appearing for the first time in Johann Paul Friedrich Richter’s Siebenkäs (1796)…The term describes a duality of the self in which a shadow, or an alter-ego, manifests itself to the original subject, and the subject has a simultaneous consciousness of being both his present self and the external other observing himself’’ (Marquette University).

Katherine Bowers explains how the doppelgänger in The Double ‘‘appears after a metaphorical death. This progression is a mirror image of a common nineteenth-century spiritualist belief about doppelgängers, that the double’s appearance is an ill omen that often prefigures death’’. The metaphorical death refers to Golyadkin’s feelings after being expulsed from a birthday party he attended without being invited: ‘‘Mr. Golyadkin was killed-killed entirely , in the full sense of the world’’(Dostoevsky, Chapter 5), and, soon afterwards he begins to consider that there is a conspiracy against him: ‘‘They are simply plotting to frighten me, perhaps, and when they see that I don’t mind, that I make no protest, but keep perfectly quiet and put up with it meekly, they’ll give it up, they’ll give it up of themselves, give it up on their own accord’’(Chapter 5).

Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank clarifies that The Double ‘‘describes the onset of mental illness in a person who is not aware of it, since he is unable to recognize the symptoms in himself, and who paranoiacally views all his painful experiences as the pursuits of his enemies’’(27). The feeling of being attacked by other characters is also present in the figure of Nina, yet, as Leroy states to her, ‘‘The only person standing in your way is you’’ (Minute 1:24:04).

Bowers clarifies how by ‘‘analyzing E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann” in “Das Unheimliche” (1919), Freud describes the sensation of uncanny, or unheimlich as something not foreign, but strangely familiar, creating cognitive dissonance’’. This disturbing encounter with the double not only depicts the unease of self-recognition of the darkest side of the person, but also of how others perceive that individual. In Black Swan, Nina fears observing her repressed self, and begins to develop the threatening personality nobody considers her to be able of possessing. Leroy claims that ‘‘the real work will be your (Nina’s) metamorphosis into your evil twin’’ (Minute 26:40), her mother is constantly calling her ‘‘sweet girl’’, and Beth insults asking her what she did to get the role and saying that Leonard always considered Nina to be a ‘‘frigid little girl’’(Minute 33:52), which contrasts with the orgasmic breathing of Nina on stage when she transforms into the Black Swan completely. At the end of the film, the audience can witness how Nina rebels against her mother and kisses Leroy.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan


While in The Double Golyadkin converses with a double who resembles him, in Black Swan Nina speaks to Lily, a dancer who shares similarities with the Russian evil twin. From Nina’s point of view, Lily’s intention is to obtain her role as the Swan Queen. Nina observes Lily when she dances as Leroy says ‘‘Watch the way she moves. Imprecise, but effortless. She’s not faking it’’ (Minute 28:05). Nina becomes obsessed with the new dancer of the company, as she embodies all the qualities the Black Swan must possess yet Nina lacks. Lily even has a tattoo of two black wings on her back, though the story leaves untold whether that is another hallucination of Nina or not. Furthermore, the allegedly fragile Nina imagines Lily having sex with Leroy (Minute 1:17:22), though she later witnesses her own face smiling at her. Nina also sees how Lily flirts with her colleague Moreau (Benjamin Millepied), who plays the role of the Prince.  

The fact that Lily tries to replace Nina in the company echoes how Golyadkin believes his double attempts to weaken his position at work when he gives some papers to the Director after cheating him and shows excellent social skills Golyadkin senior lacks. After being insulted in front of his co-workers by his double, Dostoevsky’s protagonist ponders: ‘‘Recognizing in a flash that he was ruined, in a sense annihilated, that he had disgraced himself and sullied his reputation, that he had been turned into ridicule and treated with contempt in the presence of spectators… Mr. Golyadkin senior rushed in pursuit of his enemy’’(Chapter 8). And the idea of a plot against him is repeated as in the scene from the film shown above.

At the end of The Double, the protagonist, about to enter an asylum, is in a carriage with Dr. Rutenshpitz, who appears earlier on in the story and recommends that Golyadkin increases his social interactions. The doctor, however, can be interpreted as the doctor’s double since he is described as ‘‘two burning eyes staring at (Golyadkin) in the dark, shining with a sinister, infernal glee’’(Chapter 13). This demon-like appearance is echoed in Black Swan, when Nina eventually transforms into her evil twin completely and her eyes become red.

Nina symbolically destroys the characters close to her who suppose a threat to her search of perfection. Her deterioration into madness and the aforementioned figurative murders she commits are represented throughout the film by the use of mirrors. Reflections serve to illustrate Nina’s doubling at first, yet they continue to depict several natures in her as the plot progresses. This last section of the blog post will focus on the employment of mirrors to explain Nina’s evolution.

Nina’s Evolution in the Looking Glass

The scene here shown is significant to understand Nina’s metamorphosis into the Black Swan. She arrives at her changing room disappointed because she makes a mistake as the White Swan while having an hallucination. This already explains her inability to be absolutely virginal as the role implies since she is not the innocent and pure young woman she was before. Nonetheless, the event also depicts how Nina finally faces the Black Swan outside of the mirror[ii], Lily is sitting next to her, it is not Nina seeing herself in her animal transformation anymore. Nina faces Lily and the mirror becomes the weapon to end with her enemy and, therefore, complete her alteration into the Black Swan.

Consequently, the doubling in the film is basically present through the character of Lily and mirrors, as Aronofsky clarifies: ‘‘The film is also about doubles and your reflection in a mirror is a double, so mirrors became a really important part of the film’’ (Aronofsky in España, 128). 

Charles Allan Gilbert, All is Vanity


Mirrors are not the only means by which Nina’s hallucinations are portrayed in the film, as her mother’s paintings and photographs also reflect her emotions and it can be heard ‘‘It’s my turn!’’ (Minute 1:20:30) shortly before she alters into the Black Swan in her room.

Nonetheless, mirrors echo Nina’s evolution from a fragile childlike woman to a sensual ballerina. Apart from the scene shown in this section, there is another key one in which both Nina and Lily’s reflections on the several glasses Nina has at her house depict this evolution. In the case of the protagonist, her aim is to reach perfection and she needs Lily’s sexuality to accomplish it. When they enter Nina’s house and Erica appears, Lily seems to be saying the words Nina speaks. Lily separates from Nina and the mirrors depict how they are two different beings. The sexual scene with which the story continues illustrates how Nina achieves orgasm and suddenly Lily while saying ‘‘Sweet girl’’ transforms into Nina (Minute 1:07:17-1.07:21) before she places a cushion over Nina. With this action Nina becomes a mature woman, the ‘‘sweet girl’’ no longer exists and, therefore, she does not need Lily anymore and allegedly murders her later on.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claims that ‘‘the mirror stage is a phenomenon’’ to which he assigns ‘‘a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image’’ (Chanter, 10). In his theory, Lacan explains how infants begin to recognise themselves in a mirror when they are about six months old, yet his hypothesis also emphasises the aspect of duality, of the Ego and the body, and the Imaginary and the Real. In the case of Nina, she does not recognise herself in the mirror as she fantasises of being someone/something else throughout the visual narrative and her visions highlight her distortion of reality.

When Nina appears in front of a mirror, all that the audience can witness is her continuous duality: ‘‘virgin/whore, grotesque/beautiful, child/woman, human/animal, and masculine/feminine’’ (Efthimiou, 20). Nina wishes to be ‘‘perfect’’, she desires to be a complete being, and, thus, ‘‘to master both the White and Black Swan means to achieve mastery of both the feminine and masculine self –to be able to inhabit and embody each persona. Only then can one potentially release this intense sexual (and ultimately existential) anxiety and transcend to a unified state’’ (Efthimiou, 21).

Nevertheless, the use of the looking glass in Aronofsky’s film can have a philosophical approach: Michael Tal explains how Austrian philosopher Martin Buber ‘‘maintains that any person needs another person to obtain confirmation of what she is and is born equipped with the ability to confirm her fellow-person in the same way’’. In his concept, Buber distinguishes between ‘‘two types of inter-personal relationships: ‘I-it’, characterizing the relation of a person with an object which serves her needs; and ‘I-thou’, where one positions oneself across from another person and both make each other present’’ (Tal).

Interestingly, Tal employs this theory in the analysis of several pieces of work which use the figure of the ‘‘doppelgänger’’. One of the narratives he studies is the abovementioned The Double by Dostoevsky. Tal claims that Buber’s inter-personal relationships fails when it comes to terms with a being witnessing and speaking to his/her own self, as the person does not interact with another. Buber considers a ‘‘dialogue’’ with another necessary for the awareness of one’s other. Therefore, Mr. Golyadkin, as well as Nina, maintain monologues in which they fancy they converse with other individuals. It is significant that in The Double mirrors are also present, although not with the relevance they are given in Black Swan. This fact can be read from the beginning of the novella, when, looking at himself in the mirror, Golyadkin states: ‘‘what a thing it would be if I were not up to the mark today, if something were amiss’’ (Chapter 1). In the case of Nina, her dream foresees her journey, and soon afterwards mirrors commence to depict her fears both at her house and at the ballet.

Nina and her Double in  the Mirror


Furthermore, there are two occasions in which Golyadkin meets his double and he is not able to distinguish the mirrors: ‘‘In the doorway of the next room, almost directly behind the waiter and facing Mr. Golyadkin , in the doorway which, till that moment, our hero had taken for a looking-glass, a man was standing’’ (Dostoevsky, Chapter 9). Nina also blurs reality with her imaginary world, in her case she cannot discern whether her own image in the mirror illustrates her evil twin or not.

In conclusion, though many more subjects can be analysed in this film, this blog post has focused on the figure of the double by means of explaining the White and Black swans of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as well as Dostoevsky’s The Double. The employment of mirrors has also been scrutinised as it is vital to comprehend the protagonist’s evolution and her fall into madness in her search for perfection. Furthermore, other characters from the film such as Lily, Beth, Erica and Leroy have been used to clarify Nina’s journey into adulthood.

[ii] For further information about the use of mirrors in the film, I suggest this video:


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Mikhail Vrubel, The Swan Princess, 1900