‘Black Swan’ and ‘Perfect Blue’: The Feminine Quest for Perfection

Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar award winning ‘Black Swan’ and the late great Satoshi Kon’s anime classic ‘Perfect Blue’ have more in common than you might think. In fact, although Aronofsky denies that it was an influence on his visceral 2010 hit, after watching the two it’s kind of hard to believe him, especially considering the rumours about him buying the rights to ‘Perfect Blue’ in order to recreate some of the scenes for 2000’s gloomy ‘Requiem for a Dream’. You can read more about it in this cracked.com article and also in this video that points out a lot of the similarities (although some of the comparisons seem to be stretching it a bit in my humbly frankest of opinions) But all this is a whole other blog post, and things that other people have addressed already. For this I’ll be focusing on the similarity of the themes, specifically the unattainable expectations of perfection for women in society, and the ways both films address this.

Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman) a ballerina who takes on the task of portraying both the white swan and black swan roles in ‘Swan lake’. The black swan role is something that puts her under more pressure than ever before. In ‘Perfect Blue’ the story centres on a young woman called Mima (Nina and Mima? C’mon Aronofsky…) who quits her job as a singer in the very marginally successful pop idol group ‘Cham’ to pursue a career as an actress. For both protagonists a change of image is in order, one that is at odds with how they see themselves (More so in Nina’s case) and the public perception of them (more so in Mima’s case). In both films the idea of perfection is ultimately associated with destruction. Being perfect is unattainable, and if it is attained it is fleeting, and at the cost of many things. For Nina, trying to live up to these expectations ultimately ends in a mental breakdown and self-destruction The impossibility to maintain this level of perfection and success is portrayed by ageing ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder) and Mima’s manager, Rumi, both women were once a success in their younger days and  have now been pushed to the side for a younger model. So central to the film also is the theme of the effects that aging has on women in society. IT TURNS THEM INTO HOMICIDAL SELF HARMING MANIACS. Typically speaking, ya know yourself. Societal expectations manifest in them hating younger women who they see as having taken their place. They blame them for their own problems instead of looking for the societal root of the cause and finding a solution.

The issue of female sexuality is the narrative catalyst for both films. Nina is encouraged to try balance her image as a sweet girl while attaining the vampish sexuality of the black swan role. Mima is pushed from her sweet image as a pop idol into one that is the direct opposite. She does this by taking on a rape scene not long into her acting career, causing her previous fans much disappointment. In a society that teaches women to be frightened of their sexuality, giving into it for their roles is not an easy task for both women, especially when the expectations are at odds with the expectations of purity. It is a hypocrisy that is at the centre of society. Nina finds it difficult to find a balance between the virgin/whore binary impossible because it doesn’t exist. Even Freud noticed this fuckery! Freud addresses this double standard in ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’. Here he discusses how men can only see women in terms of binaries; they cannot marry a woman who they truly desire sexually. The wife is for child bearing and taking on the role of motherhood, while the mistress/whore figure is simply someone who he can act out his true desires with;

“He is assured of complete sexual pleasure only when he can devote himself unreservedly to obtaining satisfaction, which with his well brought up wife, for instance, he does not dare to do. This is the source of his need for a debased sexual object, a woman who is ethically inferior, to whom he need attribute no aesthetic scruples, who does not know him in other social relations and cannot judge him in them. It is to such a woman that he prefers to devote his sexual potency, even when the whole of his affection belongs to a woman of a higher kind. It is possible, too, that the tendency to choose a wife of a lower class as a permanent mistress or even as a wife is nothing but a consequence of their need for a debased sexual object, to whom, psychologically, the possibility of complete satisfaction is linked”

Indeed, it’s an old quote to use while addressing contemporary attitudes. However it’s still so clearly relevant today. One only has to look to The Daily Mails and Heat Magazines of this world to notice the hypocrisy. One day to the next women are celebrated for their sexual liberty while a few days later will be lambasted for their sluttiness by the same publication. YOU JUST CAN’T WIN. And here lies the difference between Black Swan and Perfect Blue. While in Black Swan Nina does fully take on these hypocritical expectations and succeeds it is at the expense of herself. In Perfect Blue, Mima eventually realises the sexist bullshit that has served as the catalyst for her problems throughout the film and rejects it.

Nina’s attempt is ultimately at the expense of herself because the personae she wishes to embody are not her own. Who can really exist while trying to be two completely different stereotypes? Instead of realising this like Mima, Nina tries her hardest to achieve the impossible, making a rival out of Lily (Mila Kunis) in the process. There is a binary set up by Nina and Mila Kunis, but it is set up in Nina’s mind rather than  in reality. Neither really embody either of the virgin/whore archetypes in reality. In Lily, Nina sees the traits that she doesn’t possess, or is too frightened to acknowledge she possesses. Because of her creepy stage Mother’s weird coddling and insistence that she is a “sweet girl”, Nina can’t see herself as anything else but this. Nina finds Lily suspicious while at the same time sexually alluring. However her suspicion isn’t based in reality, which is made clear to the viewer. Lily is a perfectly nice character who reaches out to Nina and attempts to be her friend. She projects what Beth says about her and Tomas onto Lily, her (crayyyy!) hallucinations reflecting this.. This is where the rivalry/attraction comes from. She simultaneously wants to know her while wanting to beat her.

In ‘Perfect Blue’ there is a contrast between the expectations from Mima’s agents and from her fans, a sort of a parallel to the expectations from Nina’s mother , Tomas and the criticism she gets for it. Mima and Nina share an inner struggle between what others want from them, what they want for themselves and what they feel they need to do to achieve this. The otaku fanboy reaction to Mima partaking in a rape scene in her TV drama serves as a big indication as to the male expectations of women in Mima’s environment. They call her a “filthy woman”  who now has a tarnished reputation. They feel that she has become an alternate version of herself. They all insist that they were never Mima fans in the first place. We see her creepy stalker with disappointment practically dripping off his creepy face. Even though it wasn’t real, the fact that she put herself in such a position means she is dirty because they see a rape victim as someone who has been tainted. Her “debasement” not only provides Mima with fresh worry and self-consciousness, it comes with the added bonus of dangerous and deadly results for these involved in the production. After all, to a crazed fan their ideal Mima wouldn’t do this. A way of rationalising her behaviour is to conclude that she must be getting forced or tricked.  She is merely a helpless girl tricked into being a sexual being. Those who taint her need to be punished, as does her new tainted self, which must be an imposter. The deranged fan who is stalking her is projecting his own misogynistic ideals onto his favourite pop singer. The fake blog site ‘Mima’s Room’ creates a persona for Mima that never existed. Nevertheless the pressure forced upon Mima to become this ideal causes her to break down and question her own identity. She begins to black out and can’t tell one day from the next. She begins to lose her sense of reality, like how Nina’s subconscious begins to take over in Black Swan, ‘Mima’s Room’ begins to take control.

Mima, unlike Nina, ultimately accepts herself for who she is, whoever that may be. She can only do this by letting go of what is expected of her and by realising that the Mima she was haunted by never existed. At the end when she is confronted by her crazed manager and her ridiculous notions she finally realises this and screams, “Like I care? I am who I am!!”. She will no longer allow herself to be swayed by those around her. Nina on the other hand is weighed down and destroyed by expectation. She cannot let go of the unattainable perfection that she so desires and in her mind she literally becomes the black swan. Ultimately, both films reflect how difficult it can be for a woman to know herself and to forge her own identity in a world that will both judge her for her sexuality and her lack thereof.

– Cora

3 thoughts on “‘Black Swan’ and ‘Perfect Blue’: The Feminine Quest for Perfection

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that it was helpful to you, I hope everything goes well with what you’re going through. I guess just try and remember that perfection doesn’t exist and that what is deemed as ideal in society is arbitrary, nobody can live up to it.

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  1. That is a great article! I finally understood what the last scene of Perfect Blue means, when she says something like “I’m the real one”. As usual, I enjoy Satoshi Kon’s work more than any other works “influenced” by his animes….. The two works are definitely ight on something : it’s damn hard to find your identity as a woman out there

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