“You’re Not Going to Try and Change My Mind?” The Dynamics of Identification in Aronofsky’s Black Swan

Yakut Oktay, Bogazici University (Istanbul, Turkey)

“ . . . where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we should come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” (Campbell 23).

KENNETH BURKE HAS INTRODUCED THE NOTION OF “IDENTIFICATION” into what the Aristotelian approach to rhetoric entails, namely “persuasion,” which provided modern criticism with a wider scope while, ironically, taking a step “back into the world of particulars” from the generalised ultimate (Burke, “Rhetoric” 204). The flexibility identification has created within rhetoric enables it to expand into elements beyond language. As Burke states in “Rhetoric—Old and New,” “Aristotle treated rhetoric as purely verbal. But there are also areas of overlap” (Burke 205).

The Burkeian treatment of rhetoric thus forms the terminus a quo for this article. It will delve into the movie Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, to analyze how the rhetoric of ballet is used as a tool for shaping, and interrupting, the journey of the hero. The movie follows its main character Nina, who is dangerously obsessed with becoming the perfect swan for the new production of Swan Lake, which requires the principal dancer to embody both the White and the Black swans. Through her struggle with identification, this article will try to pinpoint these instances by utilizing the theory of the monomyth, propounded by Joseph Campbell. As the monomyth—or in everyday terms, the Hero’s Journey—follows a rather chronological pattern, by means of which the manifold checkpoints each hero passes throughout a story are noted, I will shape the argument within its boundaries. For the sake of keeping visual integrity, the paper will mostly take the screened version into consideration. As for the ending of the movie, although there exist clashing interpretations of the character’s fate, this article assumes that, as a result of the final act, the main character dies.

As a major area of overlap in rhetoric, and the centerpiece of the movie Black Swan, I would offer ballet as a second-, or rather, third-nature form of art. In Burke’s words, “Human beings have created a new set of expectations, shaped with the norms, to break away from sheer animality. This has become a ‘second nature’ to us; even more natural than the original from time to time” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 13). Within this context, the understanding of second nature includes the common social structures, such as language and basic aesthetic expectations that appear as a challenge to natural inclinations—yet stays within performative limitations. Therefore, in comparison to what Burke initially describes as the second nature human beings have adopted, an art form like ballet that has been established within these very structures, and has developed its own norms and aesthetic which takes expression a step further into particularity, may arguably become the third nature. Under the well-established and ever-improving symbolic structures, ballet facilitates such sub-symbolicity, a strict sub-structure with alternative standards for rhetoric.

However, in order for a minority of human beings to be able to specialize in this area, a persuasion process of the body into the standards of ballet, which push the limits of what is remnant of the “first nature”—the unstructured, uninterrupted inclinations that are granted by evolution and not society or an institution—must take place. This persuasion is expected to keep the body away from the sheer natural, so much so that the further the dancer can bend her body the better the performance. In Basic Principles of Classical Ballet: The Russian Ballet Technique, for instance, Agrippina Vaganova emphasizes this aspect multiple times when she states that “it is necessary to begin a struggle with nature” in the case of bending the Achilles tendon, or describes the turn-out as “the faculty of turning out the knee to a much greater extent than is made possible by nature,” and provides guidance on how “to bring [the arm] into an obedient . . . state” (18, 24, 45).

Darren Aronofsky takes up on this state of obedience in Black Swan, and merges it with the identification process going on at the backstage, which will be discussed subsequently. The film has a documentary-like quality in terms of exhibiting the technical aspects of the art, which is also emphasized by the editor, Andy Weisblum, during the “Making Of” interviews. This style especially dominates the beginning, such as the scene where the audience follows Nina’s morning flexion ritual. The short interval between the dream and the daily preparation sets the primal contrast between on- and off-stage; the graceful en pointe Nina dreams about turns into disturbing cracks of her neck and toes off-stage (Black Swan).

These two sequences generate our first impression of Nina; she is presented as a childish girl who giggles at an inside joke with her mother on “how pink! [and] So pretty” a grapefruit is (Black Swan). The same sequences also provide the first hints of Nina’s perspective on her “occupation”: having dreams about the ultimate role she thinks she can get, and her structured and disciplined manner of stretching before starting her day pave the way to what Debra Hawhee mentions as “passionate blindness,” which “also names a sort of obsessive overfocusing” (99).

On another note, in the same scene, the mother, Erica, is introduced as the first authority figure. Her attitude suggests that she is determined to keep Nina the way she was before puberty; she is overprotective, and from what is heard in most of her dialogues with Nina throughout the film, she makes her daughter nervous, both in terms of her performance and her identity. Within the boundaries of the house, Erica displays and fulfills the role of the caring and benign mother, until she transforms into “the hampering, forbidding, punishing mother” when confronted (Campbell 102).

The confrontation against the mother figure is enabled through creating two main realms in the film to which Nina is shown to belong: that of her house and the ballet company. These two realms, although the boundaries blur as the film proceeds, acquire the context of off- and on-stage for Nina. The house presents the audience the background for the impression Nina gives, whereas the company is where she is required to assert her identity, and when necessary, change it (Goffman 17-76).

The audience is not introduced to the identificatory aspect of the occupation until the Call for Adventure is revealed, namely, the announcement of a new Swan Lake production. Up to this point, the way the dancers are presented in the movie is exactly what Burke despises in American ballet, which he deems to have lost its magic; instead of allowing the body to feel the music, and adapt its movements to it, thus creating a “self,” American ballet “has been made, machinelike, through continual repetition of habituated practice” (qtd. in Hawhee 42). Although it is a part of the daily practice for modern day ballet companies, the extremely harmonized, well-monitored (the mistress retouching the smallest difference of each dancer) exercise is depraved of the Burkeian expectation of magic from dance.

It is during this scene that a second authority figure appears: Thomas the ballet director, who comes up with the fresh and revolutionary idea for the new production, and who is ironically non-American. Throughout the film, both Erica and Thomas struggle to influence the direction Nina will take. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, both act as the mentor; however, after Nina is chosen for the embodiment of both Swans, the two mentors take their roles on “the true-or-false basis”; Erica trying to conserve Nina within the White Swan, and Thomas trying to turn the “beautiful, fearful, fragile” girl into the Black (Burke, On Symbols and Society 90; Black Swan).

The appearance of multiple mentors, and multiple modes of rhetoric, twists the mono-myth from the beginning, shaking the very ground from which the hero has to set out. The disruption is deepened when the main conflict is hinted: the announcement of an audition for the title role—again, with a twist. The Call for Adventure brings not one, but two roads for Nina to take: two parallel journeys that need to be taken simultaneously, with only one body to spare.

The Call for Adventure also brings forth the second aspect of the rhetoric of ballet, which includes the “appropriation of and commitment to a particular identity or a series of identities” (Foote 17). The multiplied processes of identification and transformation Nina goes through build the spine of the film, and the audience is subjected to numerous modes of identification within the multiplicity of personalities.

The first instance would be the scene where Nina watches Beth throwing a tantrum over her “forced” retirement, and sneaks into her room after she smashes the door and leaves. This action puts the audience out of their comfort zone as it creates a contrast with the fragile character we met at the beginning. The uneasiness continues as Nina steals the lipstick that belongs to Beth. Moreover, with the sound that implies some “spirit” in the lipstick, the objective correlative, “[the object] which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion” is identified (Black Swan; Eliot 3). Nina is a ballet dancer, and as she is not trained in the art of verbal rhetoric, therefore she uses materials—such as the lipstick—and her bodily features for identification and persuasion. As Burke expresses:

. . . in mediating between the social realm and the realm of nonverbal nature, words communicate to things the spirit that the society imposes upon the words which have come to be the “names” for them. The things are in effect the visible tangible material embodiments of the spirit that infuses them through the medium of words. And in this sense, things become the signs of the genius that resides in words. The things of nature, as so conceived, become a vast pageantry of social-verbal masques and costumes and guild-like mysteries, not just a world of sheer natural objects, but a parade of spirits. (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 362)

With the help of the lipstick, Nina nonverbally utters her attempt to identify with Beth, the principal dancer in the company. She puts the attempt into action as she wears the very lipstick, “dolls up,” and visits Thomas’ office. It is hard for Thomas not to notice the difference, acquainted with Nina’s stiffness, so he works on this light of change in her. His words “You’re not going to try and change my mind? You must have thought it was possible” openly state a demand towards a strong rhetoric on Nina’s side; verbal or nonverbal. He provokes her for a “means of persuasion available for [the] given situation” (Black Swan; Schwartz 211). Thomas suddenly kissing Nina is his second attempt against the “Beth effect,” which triggers Nina’s identification in turn, and causes the biting reflex. We understand that the persuasion is successful as soon as Nina is chosen for the role.

“Yet a persuasion that succeeds, dies: an indefinite courtship which feeds on estrangement and reconciliation is a felt necessity: there is, in other words, a continuing need of interference, a need to discover new modes of transcendence through cultivated division and innovative re-identifications” (Meadows 85). Consumed for the succession to the role, the “Beth effect” dies; Beth’s retirement is officially announced, followed by the traffic accident that ends her career forever. As a result, Nina sets out to look for the innovation, which comes in the form of Lily, the new dancer from San Francisco.

While the identification with Beth has connotations of “deliberate design,” an action taken purposefully and with consequences in mind, the process of identification with Lily is only triggered by the comment Thomas makes during the scene where Nina watches her dance from a distance, and therefore “includes a partially ‘unconscious’ factor in appeal” (Black Swan; Burke, “Rhetoric” 203). “As a process, [identification] proceeds by naming; its products are ever-evolving self-conceptions—with the emphasis on the con-, that is, upon ratification by significant others” (Foote 17). While watching Lily, Thomas does not hide that she would make a better Black Swan, and provides Nina with the guidelines: “imprecise, but effortless,” the opposite of what Nina does, for she is often told by the mistress to “relax.”

“Burke discusses a second process of identification, that of association, which roughly corresponds to Freud’s mechanism of displacement by which one element of dream comes to stand for another” (Wright 1-2). Although Nina seems annoyed by the newcomer and imperfect Lily, unconsciously she is drawn to the contrast. Lily becomes the displacement for, or association with, Black Swan in Nina’s perspective, and with this qualification in mind, she tries to identify with her. This contrast between the two characters, and the Swans that they come to represent, is also emphasized with the color code determined by the costumes department for the movie. While Nina constantly wears shades of white, light grey and light pink, Lily is characterized with dark grey and black. Nina’s identification, therefore, can be tracked via this code; as she comes closer to uniting with the Black Swan, her clothes take darker hues.

The objective correlative that sets a turning point for Nina is the tank top Lily lends her during their night out. Not only is this the first instance Nina is seen in black, but also the tank top being a possession of Lily, the scene implies a foregone conclusion. With the help of a drugged drink, Nina finally “relaxes,” and blends in. Afterwards, as the two Swans enter Nina’s house, the image that is seen in the mirror is confusing; we wonder where Nina ends and Lily begins (Black Swan). And when Nina’s reply to her mother’s question is completed by Lily—yet in Nina’s voice—ambiguity takes over; the parallelism of the two journeys gets blurred. However, Burke argues that

it is in the areas of ambiguity that transformations take place; in fact, without such areas, transformation would be impossible . . . A may become non-A. But not merely by a leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non-A; then we may return, this time emerging with non-A instead. (Burke, On Symbols and Society 142-143)

It is the sequent sex scene that marks the transition of identities. By projecting her identity onto an imaginary Lily, Nina manages to be consubstantial with her, or the Black Swan, in one body through the intercourse, which is also emphasized with the tattoo on Lily’s back changing from a couple of flowers to a set of black wings before her face changing into Nina’s.

The end of this scene clarifies the second step of Nina’s identification with Lily: the process of becoming her. In the Burkeian sense, the dynamic process of becoming is “the basis for growth as the self moves toward a unity of being” (Ambrester 206). However, within the context of this movie, the unity of being is in contradiction with the requirements of the role the heroine accepts. While the identities begin to merge in Nina’s body, one of the ends she has set out for is interrupted. Erica’s rhetoric is eliminated, and The White Swan, or the pure and virginal heroine, that is supposed to be kept intact in the process of acquiring the Black slowly breaks away, erasing one of the journeys. The story proceeds in a way that allows Nina only to transform into the Black Swan, or only to “lose control.” This process of losing the self is indicated through a physical metamorphosis, which is finalized with the full self-loss in Nina’s performance as the Black Swan.

Nina’s struggle to lose control to become the Black Swan is initiated through the Thomas’ rhetoric, who offers an alternative mode of perfection, which is an end Nina strives to achieve, and which she expresses multiple times throughout the film. As the film proceeds, and the audience are better acquainted with the authority figures, or the mentors, it is possible to examine how the rhetoric of each shapes Nina’s outlook on perfection, and triggers the passionate blindness. While the idea of perfection Nina has grown up with is parallel with strictness and technique like her mother advocates, Thomas’ declaration is that perfection is about letting go, like Lily does when she dances. As a result, the words “becoming” or “identification” and “perfection” come to acquire similar meanings as the story approaches to the final performance, or in the context of the journey, the apotheosis.

As Nina is back in the arts center for the premiere, and prepares for the first act as the White Swan, her identification with her virginal, pure self, is not successful, which is hinted at her sharp-tongued reply to Thomas: “After Beth, do you really need another controversy?” While she manages to perform until the end, as she sees Lily, and by default, projects her identity onto her, “the doubt of identity creeps in,” and her “action is paralyzed,” for “only full commitment to one’s identity permits a full picture of motivation” (Foote 18). Nina’s doubt eventually affects her passage into the third-nature, and as her technique fails, so does the rhetoric of the White Swan. Nina loses her balance, and falls from the arms of the male dancer, disrupting the persuasion of the audience.

The scene where Nina returns to her room to get ready for the Black Swan performance is where the “projected” and the “internalized” identities clash. Nina sees Lily in the Black Swan dress, and after a brief struggle, kills the imaginary Lily—or the Double, as referred in the screenplay—spitting that “it is [her] turn,” signifying that the identification with Black Swan is no more through the association with Lily. As Burke states, the aim of perfection “shows in the tendency to search out people who, for one reason or another, can be viewed as perfect villains, perfect enemies, and thus, if possible, can become perfect victims of retaliation,” and in Nina’s perspective, the perfect enemy, Lily, is eliminated (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 39).

An imagery of slaying (slaying of either the self or another) [however] is to be considered merely as a special case of identification in general. Or otherwise put: the imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification.

Thus Nina completes her transformation into the Black Swan. However, to use Coleridge’s words, the “Victorious Murder,” indeed, proves a “blind Suicide” (qtd in Burke, “The Imagery of Killing” 159).

Burke equates the rhetoric that aims at perfection with the Aristotelian notion entelechy, and defines the imagery of death as the narrative equivalent of entelechy. As Nina finds out that the imaginary person she stabbed is, in fact, her own body, she proceeds to the apotheosis stage, which enables the hero to perceive the world in a completely different manner, and through his move towards a “mind that has transcended the pairs of opposites,” towards a divine bliss (Campbell 140). Nina, who was up to that point directed by the mentors, and lacked “experiential confirmation,” lives through both Swans, and by sharing the same fate as the White Swan, is able to identify with her once more, for the last time (Foote 19). The childish Nina in the beginning, and the vicious Nina she transforms into, are immolated by Nina herself, and as a successful persuader, she accepts a literal death, which is visualized during the last make-up scene, and is finalized as Thomas calls her “his little princess” like he called Beth upon the announcement of her retirement.

Nina’s death interrupts the Hero’s Journey altogether, for the third stage, or the Return, is never attained. According to Campbell, death is an integral part of the hero’s journey; however,

the individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe (220).

Throughout his argument, Campbell emphasizes a metaphorical death, a threshold passing, which can be symbolized with physical death in a myth, but cannot be realized in other realms. Therefore, the process, the last checkpoint on the full circle, is interrupted by Nina’s physical death, which does not entail a physical rebirth.

In conclusion, Black Swan is a visual tragic poem, which presents Burkeian identification in multiple layers. It utilities this aspect to create the spine of the movie, by multiplying the terms of identification that the heroine is expected to adopt and adapt, and therefore seeding a question regarding the potential practicability of the theory: indeed, identification is required to persuade the observer by creating the right impression, but how can the performer maintain mental integrity throughout multiple terms of expression (Goffman)? On its endeavor to set the question, and offer an answer—a negative one, the film thus takes a different road in terms of the Hero’s Journey, and establishes a journey that divides into two paths, with two mentors that support these different paths, and a heroine that needs to take both paths at the same time, which in turn creates a multiplicity of identities, and eventually, the death of the body through the clash of those very identities. In terms of the tragic mechanism, on the other hand, the film achieves the tragic lyric attitude Poe expresses, which is quoted by Burke: “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, the most poetical topic in the world” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 39). The rhetoric, in this story, proves to be the crucial equipment for this death.


1. The term, and later in the paper, its counterpart “impression,” is used within the context of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959. Print.

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