Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Black Swan and Burlesque


A boy from my sons' school moved to Moscow this year to dance with the Bolshoi. When I heard this, I felt that familiar parental stew of conflicting emotions: selfish relief that my sons aren't involved in such a demanding activity, mixed with a tinge of useless regret that I've already missed the boat on turning them into professional dancers. I remembered a conversation during my prenatal yoga class with a woman who fondly recalled her mother rising at 4:30 a.m. to drive her to the skating rink; patting my belly, I said, "If this child wants to be a professional skater, s/he'll need to find another mother." My companion was a bit shocked, but I both knew the genetic package I was bequeathing my child, and could anticipate, even then, the limits of my maternal support.

Erica Sayers, the mother in Darren Aronofsky's new horror film, Black Swan (2010) is, by some measure, a more supportive mother. Barbara Hershey plays the role as a specter: she hovers over her daughter, Nina -- a skeletal but mesmerizing Natalie Portman -- brushing her hair and helping her dress, her hands fluttering over her daughter's body like fidgety birds. The camera finds her lurking in the corners of Nina's room, watching her sleep. Erica seems never to leave the house, filling her room with portraits of Nina, which creepily watch over or weep at the ungrateful daughter. Erica holds her breath waiting for a report of Nina's day and exhales with relief when it's good news, as if she's breathing with her daughter's lungs. To say she lives through her daughter is an understatement; her ballet career ended when Nina was born, and she's been trying to resurrect it via her daughter's life ever since.

Of course this never ends well (in movies or in real life), but it can be a lot of fun to watch. Aronofsky's film starts at a heightened dramatic pace and never lets up. There is no normal here; even a seemingly peaceful domestic scene of Nina sitting with her mom, breaking in new toe shoes, is laced with melodrama as the camera lingers menacingly on her lighter, nail file, and scissors. I loved the details of the dancer's life, though, this attentive focus on her tools -- both her shoes and her feet, which she stretches and cracks in warm up -- even if the camerawork and soundtrack sometimes made me roll my eyes (when I could even bear to watch). And the scenes of dancing -- both rehearsals and performances -- are enthralling.

That's what makes this winter's other dance movie -- Burlesque (Steve Antin, 2010) -- so much fun, too. The script is so obvious I was mouthing lines before the actors, but once Christina Aguilera and the rest of the cast start dancing, who really cares? Unlike the tightly-bound bodies of Black Swan's ballerinas, the burlesque dancers are joyful and free; no less athletic than the ballerinas, but bigger, curvier. Burlesque makes you want to dance -- and better, makes you think you could; Black Swan makes it look far too painful -- emotionally and physically -- to contemplate.

That's a shame, because ballet can be so full of grace and joy. What we see of that in Black Swan comes only from the "bad girl," Lily (Mila Kunis), who rehearses with her hair down and eats a burger afterwards. The contrast between her and the bulimic cutter, Nina, is an overblown stereotype, the film unable to offer any revelations about women, or dance, or competition -- it just puts the women in their tracks and watches them dance to their separate conclusions. Burlesque offers plenty of its own stereotypes -- that artists can't sustain relationships (Tess, Jack); that real estate developers are evil (Marcus) -- but it's enough fun to watch that I found myself feeling less critical.

Of course, it helps that the only potential mother in the film, Cher's Tess, is much less tortured (and torturing) than Erica. Aside from singing one long and indulgent power ballad, Tess is all snappy dialogue and strong opinions, and it's frankly fabulous to see the 64-year old Cher still rocking it in a bustier. I can only dream of looking so strong in 20 years. She falls into her role as foster mom to Christina Aguilera's Ali in one sweet scene when she sits and does Ali's makeup, offering some motherly advice as she does. Ali's real mother died when she was a little girl, and is preserved in a framed photo Ali treasures in her move from Iowa to LA. But because Burlesque is such a fantasy, Tess gets to avoid any of the complications of mothering or foster mothering; after doing her best to ignore Ali -- who arrives at Tess' club and just starts waitressing before proving herself a terrific dancer -- Tess winds up leaning on the younger woman. In fact, they are mother-daughter most strongly in the way that Ali behaves toward the aging dancer, helping her to solve a long-standing problem and to plan for a time when she will no longer dance.

Ultimately, that's what stayed with me most in both films: images of two strong, young women asserting themselves in the face of aging mothers, insisting they can dance and taking our breath away when they do. I didn't relate to any of them; in fact, I was relieved to feel too young to see myself in Erica or Tess and glad to feel too old to connect with Nina or Ali. For once, it felt good to see myself in the middle: my kids still young enough -- my mothering still young enough -- that we could still shift gears if we needed to. I could push harder without turning into Erica, dial back without being as casual as Tess. And then maybe, in fact, the Bolshoi isn't even entirely out of reach. But for now, we'll stay home, crank up the music, and dance.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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>Ultimately, that's what stayed with me most >in both films: images of two strong, young >women asserting themselves in the face of >aging mothers I haven't seen Burlesque, but I didn't see Natalie Portman's character as a strong young woman insisting on dance. It was more like she was possessed by dance and the role of the black swan, and was too weak to define it or resist it, even in the face of her bat-shit mother. Especially given the ending, which I won't spoil here. On the upside, your column made me realize that I identified almost entirely with the youthful, gorgeous, talented Natalie Portman, and not one iota with Crazy Mommy, who was surely Norman Bates' aunt. So that'll be a nice nugget to chew on. Thanks!
You make me want to see both films. Thank you! As always, your keen eye is a treasure for your readers.
what a great article! I had been avoiding both movies because the trailers pull out all the things I don't want to see...I will reconsider, thanks for another very well-written point of view! =)
Wow, Caroline, you hit the mark on at least one count....I only saw The Black Swan 0 didn't see the other film, and your insights are so right-on. Thanks for that. I personally loved the movie on a psychological level. I enjoyed the light/dark, yin/yang aspect, and especially the idea of the "shadow" self (Jung)so well represented by the dark swan and the "bad" girl in the movie. And now I want to see Burlesque....even though I tend to avoid Cher movies that are soft-focus filtered and shot through gauze with gold lighting (I'm so catty). We can all look that good at 64 if we have the right cinematographer and/or photo shop! Not to mention, personal trainer, personal chef, stylist...etc.etc.etc.
"The contrast between her and the bulimic cutter, Nina, is an overblown stereotype, the film unable to offer any revelations about women, or dance, or competition -- it just puts the women in their tracks and watches them dance to their separate conclusions." TOTALLY AGREE!
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