2017 Film Essays

When the Male Gaze Breaks: Between ‘The Neon Demon’ and ‘Black Swan’

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When paired with topics like female rivalries, beauty aesthetics or the female body image, the male gaze is borderline toxic and unimpressively objectifying. But when that specific gaze is used to break down the exact purpose for which it was created — producing a superficial image of the female body and spirit, both intrinsically and commercially — then it has to be celebrated as a tool of empowerment and a method for change.

In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, the female body is used in its most delicate and presumptuously feminine form.

In Black Swan, the main protagonist Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer. Dancing is usually associated with women as a sign of delicacy, beauty, class and poignancy (especially ballet). Through Aronofsky’s handling of artistic perfectionism, female objectification and sexual suppression, Black Swan becomes not only a testament to what it means to be a woman in the modern world, but also what it means to be a female artist. Nina is bullied, sexually harassed and pushed to the edge by her male boss and her overbearing mother. In her fantasies, she has oral sex with fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), yet Nina sees Lily as a recreation of herself, which highlights the culture of female self-obsession. Nina’s mental breakdown fuels the dissociation of her “self” into a multitude of characters, bringing her deep-rooted narcissism to the spotlight, and pointing out how it’s been (falsely) associated with the female psyche of self-adoring and self-admiring women. The false image that a mirror presents becomes a reflection of how these women are willing to sacrifice their own precious body en route to physical perfection, even if it only exists on a glass sheet.

The mirror symbolism in Black Swan is a counterbalance to that in The Neon Demon. In the latter film, it’s meant as a symbol of empowerment and self-adoration. Jesse (Elle Fanning) never fails to notice her perfection and self-worth as a beautiful woman, whereas Nina is trapped within her mirror image — reflective glass bounds her to personal defects, mishaps, insecurities and deformities. Mirrors represent omnipresence in both films, but they support Jesse’s pilgrimage in the dark recesses of the The Neon Demon’s modeling world while trapping Nina within Black Swan’s ballet world where she is desperate to be recognized and seen as whole and complete; perfect in her own words.

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In Black Swan and The Neon Demon, bestiality is easily attributed to the female body evolution. It was presented on a grimmer, more artsy scale in Ginger Snaps, where feminine puberty and sexual exploration are linked to bloodthirst and monstrosity. However, in the two films under discussion, it is related to the feminine obsession with physical perfection.

In The Neon Demon, the three rival females comprise an unholy trinity of sorts. There are always three witches in literature and popular culture from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. The soon-to-be-dethroned Queen Bees sniff around Jesse, wondering if maybe she can be part of the coven. In their book of highs and lows (based on the outward analysis of the female body), there’s always a flaw — and if Jesse is flawed, she can get in. The Neon Demon subconsciously borrows from as many female-centric films as possible (even on a self-aware level), all the while staying faithful to its original material. The Craft has similar plotlines, although they are bit more pop culture and kid-friendly. The three mediocre witches (Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle) check the new girl (Sarah) out, and her presence empowers them. Yet, she is flawed, too. In The Neon Demon, however, Jesse is not part of the gang. She draws power from her individuality and self-obsession. The dialogue stirs away from realism into borderline ridicule. It is through redundancy that Refn allows his actors to express themselves in a hyper-realist world. In The Neon Demon, the modeling “verse” is a magnified satire of a more obscure, hard-to-decipher world; a war zone where beauty and physical perfection replace missiles and friendly fires. Yet, it also represents a royal clique for young, female viewers. The exaggerated dialogue symbolizes a fake, hyperaware world, magnanimous in its absurdity and obsession with feminine physicality. It works as an integral component within the context that Refn established for his film.

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In Black Swan, bestiality is correlated with self-mutilation. Nina wears herself out to death. She devours her weakness in the form of body anomalies and mutilations. As she transforms into a newer, wicked self, Nina literally sheds her old skin in the form of dislocated nails and broken ribs. Nina’s body is the setting, not the prestigious ballet academy where she aspires to be the leading lady. Even during the dance routines, when she dances while watching her reflection in the mirror, Nina often becomes reminded of her limited physicality, as opposed to the more abstract, reflective self.

In multiples scenes within The Neon Demon, director Refn emphasizes the objectification of women in the modeling industry. In the casting call scene, the setting resembles an ethereal reality where women are taken for experimentation by mad scientists. The theory of “pink for girls” is used with abundance, but not to stress the beauty of color and fair skin tones, but rather to add a nightmarish hue to the binary system of separating boys and girls into tropes of colors; pink or blue. Jesse’s clothes are usually rose, champagne or fuchsia. When Sarah smashes the bathroom mirror and tries to devour Jesse’s beauty, the setting has a pink basin, as does the lighting when Jesse meets the rival models for the first time. Jesse’s motel room is draped in pink, and the flower bouquet that she faints next to contains roses with the same hue as her dress.

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The same theme is vividly expressed in Black Swan.  Nina’s tight, almost child-like bedroom is all pink, along with the cake that her mother buys for Nina after landing the Swan Queen role. Shades of pink dominate Nina’s wardrobe, even her lingerie is a lighter shade.

In both films, women are not purposefully exploited to insinuate their sexuality and thus expose them, rendering them more vulnerable and attainable by heterosexual viewers. In The Neon Demon, nudity for Jesse — the “empowered” alpha female — is not shown onscreen. Even during her audition at the casting call, her body is not completely displayed for lustful audiences. But through the careful use of medium shots, Jesse is shown from head to shoulders. On the other hand, the “naked” women on full display — such as Gigi, Sarah and Ruby — go full-frontal in some of the more disturbing scenes. After eating Jesse and thus acquiring her feminine power, Ruby — the witch — menstruates profusely. Gigi and Sarah take a shower after they eat Jesse, their naked bodies drenched in blood. The Neon Demon associates nudity with the macabre, and the only cases where women are allowed to go naked onscreen is after they committ acts of violence or perverse sexual behavior (Ruby’s necrophilia).

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In Black Swan, nudity is an integral part of the narrative. Nina, however, barely enjoys the empowering state of the Naked Alpha Woman. Her mother strips her in a humiliating scene, exposing her vulnerability to check on her self-mutilating habits. During Nina’s steamy (imaginary) sex scene, she is under Lily, who turns out to be her “other”; a more empowered and vicious self. It’s not only a double-esque dilemma, but more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like tale with feminist themes. The division of women into good girls and bad girls has been a valuable segregation method ever since the dawn of structured filmmaking. In Black Swan,  everybody pressures the docile Nina into becoming the more sexually liberated “Black Swan.” Since the decision is not spontaneously hers, Nina succumbs to mental and physical deterioration instead of gaining empowerment.

Both films tackle a patriarchal society where women are encouraged to be mirror images of each other. In The Neon Demon, the unholy trinity is in awe of Jesse. The act of “eating” Jesse, with its ritualistic backdrop, doesn’t seem so ridiculous when interpreted in the metaphorical and mythological sense. In certain tribes, cannibalism was sought as a method of gaining power from the devoured individual. The bloody countess believes that bathing in the blood of virgins will restore her youth. Eating Jesse was no fetish-like fantasy, but more of a ritual where women await the death of one another to reach desired perfection.

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In Black Swan, Beth overshadows Nina, like a fate she is doomed to have no matter how brave she may be. Beth loses the principal dancer throne to Nina, all at the hands of Thomas, who treats his dancers like disposable tissues, getting rid of them after he squeezes the juice and life out of their decaying bodies. Nina is obsessed with Beth, who seems to represent perfection in all its forms. When Beth loses, Nina is both sympathetic and content. However, when it becomes obvious that Nina is being prepared to take Beth’s place, Nina begins to fear Beth’s fate as Thomas’ little princess. But she does nothing to fight it. Instead, she walks in her footsteps with the same gullible, self-destructive pride that her female ancestors expressed at the hands of the patriarchy.

In a patriarchal society, women are encouraged to compete against each other to reach a so-called perfection, and to win the ultimate prize (which is usually the alpha male’s attention). In Black Swan, the male prize is Thomas, the egotistical, chauvinist director of the ballet company. In The Neon Demon, however, it’s not a single male, but rather a myriad of characters who dominate the industry, judging women, tossing them aside and picking one over the other (after a series of humiliating experiments). Even a winner, like Jesse, is submissively brainwashed into believing she reached top of the hierarchy, yet she’s just a tool being molded for the male guardians of the Perfect Women Planet.

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These seemingly two “perfect” worlds are portrayed in the most demeaning, destructive ways, especially in their treatment of female aging and body dysmorphia. And while Black Swan tackles the topic from a personal, self-destructive road to perfection, The Neon Demon creates a sense of external destruction, breaking down perfection all the way to the eyeball (no pun intended).

In the end, the fact that Darren Arnofosky and Nicolas Winding Refn chose female protagonists for the first time in their diverse film careers speaks volumes of their ability to build female-centric tales. The Neon Demon and Black Swan are definitely not aesthetically or artistically similar, but they are a valuable addition to the feminist library, omnipresent male gaze aside.

Jaylan Salman (@Jaylan Salman) is a young, Egyptian feminist who believes firmly in gender equality and racial diversity. She is a film critic, poet, translator and a novelist. Her first short story collection “Thus spoke La Loba” was published in 2016 by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture after winning a national prize, coming first place and gaining critical acclaim. One of her poems “Poof, Vagina” won first prize in the “Bleed on the Page” competition held by “TheProse.com.” Her writing contributions include various international and local publications, including ZEALnyc, Africiné, Guardian Liberty Voice, Elephant Journal, Synchronized Chaos and many more. She was recently selected as part of the Official Selection Jury for Woman & Film Festival (Dona i Cinema) taking place in Valencia, Spain.

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