Black Swan Research Paper

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Black Swan: A Study in Hollywood Psychology

The film Black Swan was noteworthy in the way it explored the dark side of ballet, including eating disorders, psychological manipulation, and how the pressures of achieving perfection can wreak havoc with the developing psyche of a young woman. The central protagonist Nina is a rising star in a prestigious city ballet company. She is given the task of dancing the lead role of Swan Lake. This is one of the most technically and emotionally demanding of all roles in ballet. The White Swan Odette, is supposed to embody purity, while the Black Swan Odile, embodies all that Odette is not and thus temporarily seduces the prince and the audience with her sexuality and bravado. Nina is told early on in the film by the ballet company director that while she is technically proficient she lacks the qualities needed to embody the Black Swan. The company head is also shown letting an older principal ballerina go, illustrating the short nature of a ballerina’s career and the pressure to get ahead quickly.

Like many Hollywood films about dance, Black Swan suggests that there is a fine line between artistry and madness. Whether this is true or not, of course, is much disputed. Furthermore, when a number of psychologists and psychiatrists were asked to review the film, they noted that its treatment of the dancer’s psychology was problematic as well. “The film took liberties with a host of anxiety disorders: anorexia, bulimia, cutting and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)” said one psychiatrist (James, 2010, par.23). Rather than focusing on a single disorder, the film preferred to use a constellation of them. Ballet is shown as giving rise to a variety of psychoses in a diffuse manner. This paper will provide an overview of possible diagnoses for Nina and also note why they are problematic to fully explain the behavior she exhibits on film.


Given the dissociative nature of Nina’s disorder, schizophrenia might seem to be the most logical explanation for her most outlandish behavior.
Schizophrenia often develops when someone is a young adult, particularly after going away to college or experiencing another traumatic or high-pressure event. Nina is dancing her first major role. Moreover, she is continually pitted against Lily, her rival in the company who is much less disciplined but appears to innately embody the Black Swan’s qualities. Nina feels anxious and depressed early on in the film, rather than happy, and pressured by her mother, who lives with her and wants her to succeed as a dancer. Nina deliberately tries to lose herself in the role of the Black Swan Odile, taking greater risks in her personal life to ensure that her performance is adequate. She comes to identify with both the swan and with Lily. She is at first convinced at the end of her opening night performance that she has killed Lily but later the viewer realizes that she has actually cut herself.

This does not necessarily come as a surprise dramatically, given that Nina is repeatedly shown cutting herself throughout the film as a form of stress release. But cutting one’s self is not necessarily a behavior typically associated with schizophrenia, at least not in the manner in which it is depicted in the film (James, 2010). Rather than a psychotic break, Nina is shown using cutting as a method of stress release. The film does—accurately, according to psychiatrists who viewed the film to critique its accuracy—suggest that Nina’s use of the club drug Ecstasy helps trigger her psychotic break (James, 2010). The fact that Nina is asked to play a dual role, that of the two swans, would seem to satisfy a Hollywood trope of psychosis being a breakdown of the psyche into different compartments or personalities, although it should be noted that multiple personalities is not a symptom of schizophrenia (James, 2010).

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James, S. (2010). Black Swan: Psychiatrists diagnose ballerina’s descent. ABC. Retrieved from: portmans-portrayal-psychosis/story?id=12436873

Kernberg, O. & Michels, R. (2009).Borderline Personality Disorder. APA Bulletin. Retrieved from:

Tyagi, H., Patel, R., Rughooputh, F., Abrahams, H., Watson, A. J., & Drummond, L. (2015). Comparative prevalence of eating disorders in obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders. Psychiatry Journal, 2015, 186927. Retrieved from:

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