Psychology Paper: Analyzing the Psychological Disorder Presented in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan

Research PaperPsychology
Aug 26, 2021

Black Swan is a 2010 psychological horror movie about a ballerina’s mentally destructive journey towards perfection. The story focuses on the life of the protagonist Nina Sayers, a talented ballerina, and her dream of performing in the Swan Lake play. The movie has dark overtones and explores Nina’s psychology. Throughout Black Swan, Nina transforms into a different person as she attempts to achieve perfection regarding the roles of the White and Black Swans. This psychology paper will critically analyze Nina’s psychological symptoms and discuss her potential psychosis.

Nina's Personality

Establishing a brief overview of Nina’s character is integral to understanding her psyche. Nina is a 28-year-old ballerina who lives with an obsessive mother. Despite Nina’s age, her mother continues to treat her like a child, preventing her from fully growing up. Nina’s passion, and potentially an escape from reality, is her profession as a ballerina. She is a talented dancer with skills that many cannot match. However, her audition for the role of Swan Lake’s protagonist, which requires playing both the White and Black Swans, posed a challenge to her skills. Since Nina aims for perfection, her movements are calculated which tends to seem mechanical. This was fit for the role of the White Swan but a direct contradiction to the Black Swan’s characteristics.

Despite getting the lead role in Swan Lake, Nina had to learn how to portray the Black Swan through her movements. This became Nina’s primary goal and the set up for the important events in Black Swan. As Nina struggled to learn to be the Black Swan, she slowly fell into a psychological experience that led her to act differently and dangerously. She began experiencing hallucinations and delusions which eventually led her to mortally wound herself. These experiences came from Nina’s obsession with perfection, as well as the mental prison from her mother’s obsessive actions. When Nina was lying and close to death, her last words were “I was perfect”, further indicating her obsession with perfection despite its consequences.

Nina’s Potential Dissociative Identity Disorder

Despite the movie’s focus on psychological themes and mental health , it did not provide a conclusive diagnosis for Nina’s condition. This means that viewers are free to speculate regarding Nina’s mental health, leading to different and contrasting theories. One diagnosis is that Nina had dissociative identity disorder or multiple personality disorder. Advocates of this diagnosis claim that Nina’s change in appearance, altered behavior, and hallucinations indicate signs of dissociative identity disorder (Sugesti, 2014). Furthermore, Nina’s other symptoms; such as amnesia, confusion, and delusions, were also indicative of dissociative identity disorder (Saddock & Saddock, 2007; NAMI, n.d.). From these symptoms, it seems rational that Nina suffered from a dissociative identity disorder.

However, the problem with this claim is that dissociative identity disorder includes multiple personalities. An individual suffering from dissociative identity disorder will have one or more alternate personalities that possess distinct characteristics from the original individual (Rehan et al., 2018). Alternate personalities or “alters” tend to have different names, ages, genders, memories, habits, backgrounds, and other personal traits. This is lacking in Nina’s case since the movie never showed an “alter”. Even during the scenes where Nina was acting differently, she still used the name “Nina” and had the same background and aspirations. The only change she experienced was regarding behavior, which is a symptom of different mental disorders. The scene where Nina saw her face on another dancer’s body may have inspired this claim. Still, that scene portrayed two Ninas and there was no alter. This evidence suggests that Nina did not have dissociative identity disorder but another mental illness.

Psychosis Diagnosis

Aside from dissociative identity disorder, many viewers also speculated that Nina was suffering from schizophrenia. The World Health Organization (2022) defined schizophrenia as a mental disorder that causes significant and persistent impairments in an individual’s perception of reality. They experience persistent delusions, hallucinations, memory problems, and behavioral changes, which fit Nina’s psychological symptoms. However, Lamberti (2010) claimed that Black Swan did not present schizophrenia accurately and psychosis is a more accurate diagnosis. One reason for this is the persistent symptoms of schizophrenia which Nina lacked. Nina did not have persistent delusions and hallucinations, instead, they were episodes spanning the whole movie. If Nina had schizophrenia, she would have experienced more severe hallucinations that lasted longer or did not end.

Psychosis, which is also a symptom of schizophrenia, fits Nina’s experiences throughout the film. Psychosis causes individuals to lose touch with reality, leading to delusions and hallucinations, mostly during psychotic episodes (Calabrese, 2022; James, 2010). From this definition alone, one can see the resemblance of psychosis to Nina’s mental condition in Black Swan. Delusions and hallucinations were Nina’s primary symptoms, as she begins to believe and hallucinate that she is physically transforming into the Black Swan. There were also scenes that the movie later revealed as hallucinations, such as Nina and Lily’s amorous scenes and Nina’s violent argument with Lily.

Self-harm is also a possible consequence of psychosis. According to Calebrese (2022), psychotic episodes tend to put a risk on the well-being of a psychosis patient, as well as on the individuals around them. Black Swan portrayed this through Nina’s behaviors when arguing with her mother, her director, and with Lily. The most prevalent portrayal is during the hallucination where Nina stabbed Lily, who had the same face as Nina during the scene. This showed that Nina’s psychotic episodes can lead her to harm others and herself, which the movie further highlighted at the end when Nina realized that she stabbed herself.

Cause of Nina’s Psychosis

The cause of Nina’s psychosis can be various factors, including stress and her already poor mental condition due to an obsessive mother. Psychosis can develop either from neurodevelopmental abnormalities in utero or from environmental factors (Calabrese, 2022). Since Nina’s mother treated her like a child, she suffered from developmental issues that could have contributed to her psychosis. She may have also experienced the detrimental effects of sports on children’s mental health when she started dancing. Aside from the poor mental environment she had growing up, one can also speculate that she has a neurodevelopmental abnormality. Lamberti (2010) stated that unless psychosis is from a neurological cause, an individual will only suffer auditory hallucinations. Since Nina experienced visual hallucinations, it can then imply that she has a neurological abnormality.

The primary factor that may have led to the manifestation of Nina’s psychosis is the pressure and stress to play the part of the Black Swan. As mentioned earlier, Nina strives and obsesses over perfection. This meant that her continuous failure to capture the essence of the Black Swan affected her psyche. Stress is a cause of psychosis, and to an individual who wants to be perfect, continuous failure can be mentally devastating. Nina’s experiences, from her overbearing mother to the pressure of being the best performer, placed pressure on her that her mental endurance cannot handle.

Conclusion

Black Swan portrays the mentally-tormented life of a talented ballerina who eventually succumbs to a psychological disorder. Beginning in her personal life, Nina suffered mental infantilization from her mother which could have caused abnormalities in her development. In her professional life, Nina experienced immense pressure as she strove to perfect a role that contradicts her personality. The combination of these factors caused Nina to suffer from stress, leading to psychotic episodes and her potential psychosis. Black Swan showed how mental suppression and an obsessive pursuit of perfection can lead an individual to suffer psychologically and harm themselves.

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References

Aronofsky, D. (2010). Black Swan. Cross Creek Pictures 

Calabrese, J. (2022). Psychosis. StatPearls Publishing. Available at https://www.statpearls.com/ArticleLibrary/viewarticle/27978. Accessed: August 28, 2022.

James, S. (2010). ‘Black Swan’: Psychiatrists Diagnose Ballerina’s Descent. ABC News. Available at https://abcnews.go.com/Health/Movies/black-swan-psychiatrists-diagnose-natalie-portmans-portrayal-psychosis/story?id=12436873. Accessed: August 28, 2022.

Nami.org. (n.d.). Dissociative Identity Disorder. NAMI. 

Rehan, M., Kuppa, A., Ahuja, A., Khalid, S., Patel, N., Cardi, F.,...Tohid, H. (2018). A Strange Case of Dissociative Identity Disorder: Are There Any Triggers? Cureus, vol, 10(7). Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132594/. Accessed: August 28, 2022.

Saddock, B. & Saddock, V. (2007) Kaplan and Saddock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Science/Clinical Psychiatry. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Sugesti, L. (2014). Nina's Dissociative Identity Disorder in Aronofsky's Movie Black Swan: a Semiotic Analysis. Jurnal Illmiah Mahasiswa Fakultas Ilmu Budaya, Universitas Brawajaya, vol. 6(8). Available at https://www.neliti.com/publications/205090/ninas-dissociative-identity-disorder-in-aronofskys-movie-black-swan-a-semiotic-a#cite. Accessed: August 28, 2022.

Who.int. (2022). Schizophrenia. World Health Organization. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/schizophrenia. Accessed: August 31, 2022.

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