Uncanny Valley Girls

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman in Black Swan | art by Tom Ralston
illustration by Tom Ralston

Idon’t think anyone is fully recognizable to their past selves, and to me that’s a small miracle of our species. Fear is just a sign that something, somewhere, needs to shift.

In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Nina (Natalie Portman), a dancer, hallucinates for the whole film. She’s purpled with want, desperate. Near the middle of the movie, she conjures up a bruisingly intimate sex scene with her dance partner and competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily throws her to the bed, peels off Nina’s jeans and runs her tongue down the inverted seashell of her navel. For most of the movie Nina is small, helpless, all bound feet and bird bones. But when she comes, she tenses even further, furrows bursting open her face almost completely. It’s New Year’s Eve, 2015—or technically New Year’s Day, since we’re watching it at 3 AM. “I’m sorry,” you told me at the club, after you found me histrionic in the bathroom stall. “You’ll have to sleep on the couch. But I’m happy to host you anyway.”

Before we both go to bed, you press play. It’s your favorite scary movie, you say, and you think it would calm me down. You share a small one-bedroom in Bed-Stuy with your other partner—a bedroom that I will move into on my own over four years later, when the pandemic hits. They work as a line cook, so they have to be up early in the morning, you warn me. But we have been dating for just seven months and I would do anything to be near you. I’m trying to convince myself we’ll be together forever. The movie starts, and soon Nina is squawking like a bird.

When we first started talking to each other, we were in Asheville and I was still a scruffy they/them. We met at a poetry reading a friend threw at their apartment downtown; you were wearing vegan Docs and jeans ripped between your thighs, twenty-four to my nineteen. We both loved Yeezus and Edward Said, and several months later you recognized me when I dropped off a resume at the school writing center. After I was hired, I started bringing my lunches into work, even off shifts, because I wanted to be closer to you. Soon, we saw each other more and more: riding our mopeds around town to meet each other (mine a bright creamsicle named Kathy after my favorite writer at the time, yours nameless and a deep periwinkle), crashing events at the private liberal-arts college on a large farm outside town. Three months into knowing one another, I got too drunk at a Halloween party and rushed over as soon as I saw you enter the room, leaving my boyfriend alone by the door to tell you the same cemetery ghost story I’d told three times already. We were wedged between the bookshelves and the walls, and I just wanted an excuse to get close. I was in deep.

At the party, you leaned in at the right parts of the story and gasped at the others. My costume that year was a sexy cat, so I wore pleather pants and eight nipple pasties dotted down my bare chest. Black and orange streamers dangled everywhere and my two nipples, the real ones, pricked up in the cold. You weren’t even dressed up for the evening, just leaning casually against a wall when our eyes locked. Several years later, when we started dating and could actually be honest with each other, you made fun of me. “You made a beeline my way and immediately told the worst story I’ve ever heard,” you said. “It felt like it would never end.”

Horror movies are scary because they depict things like us that aren’t quite us. Instead, they show a world shifted slightly, distorted, made strange and anew. But isn’t that love, too—the slow transformation of yourself into someone like you, but ajar? Doesn’t everything worth doing change you? 

I was crying in the bathroom because I knew I was trans and didn’t know you were too. I still thought I had a cis girlfriend. More to the point, I knew I had to change my life and didn’t know how to include you in it. When I finished my junior year, you left Asheville and moved to Seattle for a year, and your absence sent me spiraling. We wrote letters back and forth, called each other on the phone, but still: that was an absence caused by a move, not caused by me. To change myself, I thought, would mean to leave you, and that was the second most frightening thing I could imagine at the time. Hormones, surgery, whatever: the horizon felt infinite and terrifying in its breadth. So gulping down the cold air, I try not to imagine it. I’m not yet twenty-two. My father hasn’t even died yet.

No, I decided on the car ride back to your apartment, our love was an intense one, one that had already left marks. Because of this, we needed to stay in it. Just months before New Year’s, you accidentally broke your ankle while we made out drunk in a stairwell, and you biked home on a still swelling leg. When I first visited you in New York several months before that, I saw a painting of the Last Supper you wanted in your alleyway and dove through a chain-link fence to get it, tearing up my arm in the process and dripping blood all down your stairway. In the mornings early in our relationship, we’d untangle from your sheets, necks pocked with hickeys and barely rested from the night before. We got hurt on our dates, but it was the sort of hurt that seems to bring people closer together. “I love you,” you had said as we waited for the car outside the club, and it popped out like a marble from your mouth, hard and cold. Neither of us had said it to each other before and its newness ticked through the whole car ride, marking the silence before we got home with its constant uneasy metronome. As we watch Black Swan, Nina flaps a newly sprouted set of wings where her arms were, her own obsession transforming her, in her mind, into something beautiful and monstrous. There is nothing more scary, the movie suggests, than a woman living with abandon.

Horror, the French feminist psychoanalyst Julie Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, is rooted in the truth of our lives. And truth, she says, is a “barren side, without makeup, without seeming, rotten and dead, full of discomfort and sickness, horror.” Horror uses the idea of weakness as a cudgel, inverting its terms: the weak—the rotting—is actually strong, will overcome us, and through that it generates fear. Horror, Kristeva argues, is driven by need but unconcerned with propriety: womanly but not always a woman. “When I don’t see you, I grow crazy,” you wrote me several weeks before the new year. “You’re all I think of. You’re all I need.” When I read her work the first time, I feel the same way, flush with desire for you, and because of that I draw a heart in the margins of nearly every sentence. Horror, Kristeva argues, is rooted in embracing the feminine and rejecting the feminine to equal degrees, and in that sense every horror movie is about girls and what’s done to us. In that sense, horror is how we can make sense of our lives. 

But French psychoanalysis hates me, so as much as I love this theory I cannot make it my own. Catherine Millot, a disciple of Kristeva, wrote a whole book, Horsexe, about the threats trans women pose to larger society. Transsexuality, Millot writes, is psychotic; it’s conservative; it’s delusional. Even Kristeva, of whom no explicit documentation around her transphobia exists, still views horror from the point of view of one sitting in a seat of power. Sickness, she argues, and all that sickness encompasses, is malefic. But sickness—which is a category that transness has been put into many times before, as has mental illness, as has physical disability—is fundamentally neutral. What matters most is not whether we’re condemned to the barren, the discomfortable, or the uncanny, but what we do with that condemnation afterwards. Besides, Kristeva’s and Millot’s us—rich, cis, whatever—never included me. I didn’t know you were trans yet, or how your disabilities would rend you housebound in the years to come, but their us never included you either. Their us never included us.

Look at me, laying out all my points like a pedagogue. I’m weary of being the rational one, a token or object of desire placid in the face of what’s been done to every girl who looks like me. “Your problem is you don’t have any distance from your subjects,” a professor once told me during my MFA. But another word for distance is disengagement, and I don’t trust words that don’t bleed. “Why can’t you tell me what you want?” you screamed on your fire escape back in September, a Parliament dangling from your fingers, during our first fight. But I’ve tried again and again to do just that, so now I am left only with the clearest language possible. If I write about horror, it’s as much about what scares others as what scares me: and if you’re already an other, what scares others is love.

It’s New Year’s Day 2016, and we’re watching Black Swan on your couch. “Our new Swan Queen,” Lily says to Nina. “That’s huge. You must be freaking out.” A year and a half from now, you’ll take the Amtrak down with me to Richmond for my father’s funeral. My hands will be too shaky to apply my eyeliner, so you’ll do it for me. We’ll snap a photo together in my mother’s lavender bathroom; and then we’ll go downstairs, to the wake. “I’ll do anything for you,” you’ll say, and outside will palm me a rosebud cigarette. As I inhale, the smoke will sting like a kiss. Everyone looks at us: your fat body and my trans body both harden the gazes of people, and there you’ll squeeze my hand three times in quick succession like a blood pressure cuff. At the wake you only leave my side to refill our glasses with tangy G&Ts. You will still tell me you’re cis. Late that night you’ll want to fuck and we’ll fight, briefly, when I say no. 

As the movie reels on, this is what I know about our love: it hurts and I want it—and that desire scares me, too. We were friends before we started seeing each other, but really, we knew nothing: not about my moodiness or your spurts of anger, or about the way we’d both be found and betrayed by our bodies in equal measure. I didn’t know about the movies we’d watch together to fill the silence when we didn’t talk, or the congregation of tattoos under your clothes that I would talk about when I did talk about how much I desired you. An octopus. A whale skeleton. A Salinger quote across your shoulder blades you got when you were seventeen. “I’m sorry, J——,” I had said on an early date and then we were fucking, kicking couch cushions as we took turns going down on each other, my mouth salty and filled with you. Then, I was just starting to learn how often I would apologize or how infrequently you would, the ripe plummy taste of the hair under your arms. It’s 2016, half a year into our relationship, and our secrets have only started to breach.

In Black Swan, Nina is crazed with desire to be the only one, the best dancer at the expense of everyone else. She is urged on in this regard by the predatory male director of her dance troupe. Imagining fucking her competitor is a way of vanquishing her, too, confronting the jealousy she feels and transfiguring it into pure want. But her goals fail: throughout the whole film, the main thing you notice is how completely alone she is. Even in her hallucinations she only sees doppelgängers. How sad, to only see yourself when conjuring up what you fear most. How sad, to be by yourself when envisioning danger. Your arm curls over my shoulder. We watch in silence. The clock ticks onward. When you rise from your bedroom in the morning, several hours before I do, you will take a photo of me sprawled unconscious, hair maned across a pillow, and later that afternoon you will text it to me with a purple heart emoji. I’ll still be dreaming of the movie. “My swan,” you’ll say.

When Kristeva wrote her 1980 study on horror and abjection, Powers of Horror, she was looking to find a way to purify the abject. That was her language, to purify. Art, she felt, was the most total way to do that, and according to her the most pure forms of art made the abject beautiful. But to purify is to sanitize, and to sanitize is to exterminate. Even as she engages with the abject, Kristeva uses the language of eugenics. And I refuse to hold anything close that says the miserable, sick, or frightening needs to be exterminated. I refuse to be horrified by anyone who is like me, or you—or Nina, who, crazy and lustful and scared of the changes she needs to make in her life, is maybe like both of us. That was what I didn’t realize in the bathroom stall: we were like each other after all, and that still wasn’t enough to keep us together in the end. 

One of the main flaws of Black Swan is its inability to even consider Nina having moments of lucidity. She sees things that aren’t there and the movie, lazy and cruel, assumes she’ll never know they aren’t there. She stumbles between emotions with no space for reflection in between. But my moments of greatest abandon have always been followed by realizations of what’s wrong, whether or not I listen to them. After you pulled me out of the bathroom and we waited for our Lyft outside, you wrapped your jacket around me. I still hadn’t gotten a good coat for the New York winter and was shivering, tears freezing on my face. “You’re safe,” you said to me, “you’re safe.” As I drift asleep on your couch, I wonder if you felt scared about where we could go next, too, after the drunken, damaged year we had together. I wonder if you wondered what would happen when we sobered up. I wondered what a version of Black Swan would even look like that held that complexity, too. 

Maybe it’s not a question of the abject at all here; maybe it’s a question of survival. Maybe survival, in the end, is the only question. In the morning, as you’re about to take the picture of me, I will turn on the couch to face you, although I won’t open my eyes. It’s dark still, although starting to get brighter, and you won’t need the flash. It’s New Year’s Day, and we have six and a half years left. Love, I believe at the time, is all there is. Fear, I think, is only what exists in love’s absence. And between the two is us.

Black Swan is a movie about someone whose art is so pure it annihilates her. Or maybe Black Swan is a movie about someone who is persuaded to believe in an art so pure it can annihilate, and in doing so makes it true. When Nina dies—because of course she dies—it’s in triumph after finishing her performance, and the movie presents this as a triumph too. Maybe it believes death is the reward for her art, the one way she’ll be remembered. Maybe the movie believes death is the best thing those like us, who live under otherness’s umbra, can get. Black Swan is streaked with hate like a bee’s nest is streaked with honey, but you loved the film, so when I speak of it, I must speak of it with love too. I’m asleep, and you’re nowhere near me. In several hours, you will rise, and then I will. I will leave, and you will text me the photo. There will be no evidence I know I am being seen, no guardedness, no poise. There will be no evidence you are there. 

I’ve remembered the dead over and over again, so when I speak now, I want to speak only of those I love who live. I’ve remembered whole legacies of hurt, so when I speak I want to speak of lives happy from the jump, horizons unflecked with fear. But to remove fear is to remove pain and to remove pain is to fumigate the cracks in which we live until nothing can live, and I refuse that cruelty too. I can’t fully reject Aronofsky’s film; you loved it too much. But I can still redirect my love elsewhere, back onto you. In the background, the sun starts to warm, flecking the tips of my hair with orange. You click the shutter. Soon I will wake up. Soon, I will leave. But for now, my eyes are still shut tight, and the morning is starting to break. Just out of range dances the future, swan-like, as slow and desperate as we are in the gradually dawning light.