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Was the Filming of Black Swan About "Discipline," Or Something Else?

Illustration for article titled Was the Filming of iBlack Swan /i About Discipline, Or Something Else?

If you haven't heard, Natalie Portman achieved a Mr. Salty-style level of skinnytude during the filming of Black Swan by eating tiny meals and working out for hours on end. Now some people are celebrating her "discipline." Please.

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A Crushable article discusses "unhealthy relationship with food" portrayed in the movie, in which two incredibly skinny ballerinas vie for a plum dancing role:

"Both Natalie Portman and her costar Mila Kunis are pretty underweight in Black Swan. But as much as Nina is presented as an out of control anorexic, Mila's character Ali is her opposite – a healthy, sexualized, happy ballerina. And for a lot of girls, the lack of distinction there could be very dangerous.

"As it turns out, there's a very fine line between intense discipline and psycho OCD inspired eating disorders. And Black Swan jumps back and forth over that line for about two hours."

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When people start jumping back and forth over that line in real-life, that lack of distinction becomes even more dangerous. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening, as people conflate discipline with what sounds like self-torture.

In an interview with New York Magazine's Vulture, for example, Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied talks about Portman's daily cardio workouts and morning swims as though she were some Iron Man trainer who wasn't already dancing for hours and hours every day. But unlike the Iron Man athletes I've known, Portman didn't eating much to replenish all those burned-up calories. Nevertheless, Millepied gushes, "Even when we went to bed at eleven, she'd get up super-early, work out two hours before getting back on set, just to get herself going for the day, and to tone her arms. It was really very impressive discipline." (Especially if she didn't faint!)

Kunis, on the other hand, didn't have to dance as much and therefore didn't become as "disciplined" or skinny, Millepied points out:

She simply didn't have as much dancing to do; I think that's the way the part was written ... I saw her lose weight throughout the process for the part—she wasn't exactly not thin before. She worked a little bit, but it wasn't nearly comparable to Natalie.

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When I read "wasn't nearly comparable," I heard another, underlying message: "wasn't nearly as good." Because discipline equals good, right? Kunis didn't have to dance and starve as much, so she didn't achieve the same level of "goodness" that Portman did. This idea seems to be reverberating throughout the coverage of this movie; lots of talk about Portman's likely Oscar nominations going on, but not so much talk about Oscars for Kunis. (Maybe Kunis should have exercised more, or eaten fewer carrots.)

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Portman also uses the word "discipline" to describe her daily eight hours of exercise and not-eating. However, she does seem to remember (better than some others) that her character depicts the dysfunction inherent in the pursuit of perfection, not the perceived glory of that pursuit. As she herself explains, the role gave her "that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer." And now that the role is over, she (and Kunis) are back to eating normally again. And even talking about it (some call it "confessing") like eating is maybe okay?

Portman had to do so much to her body to create her performance, so the line separating real-life and work became blurred. She had to pretty much live the part of her character in certain key respects. And now it seems like people are celebrating that fact, when instead they should probably be celebrating that she didn't suffer any apparent physical harm. Because BREAKING: when women undereat and overexercise, harm happens.

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Just ask former ballerina Sarah Young, who responded to Crushable's post about Black Swan with her own story about the sacrifices she made for her art. These included exercising and training for hours on little food, and taking dietary supplements to suppress her appetite. Young now has a heart condition that she thinks was caused by the supplements, which kept her weight down (discipline!) but impaired her health.

It's nothing short of cruel that that these dancers and actresses have to get sick and torture themselves for art's sake. But it sounds like reforming the culture will require the same kind of major sea change that the modeling industry requires—and we all know what's happening with that profession.

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Eat Puke Dance: Black Swan's Unhealthy Relationship With Food [Crushable]

True Story: I Was An Anorexic Ballerina [Crushable]
Black Swan Choreographer Benjamin Millepied on Teaching Natalie Portman to Have Swan Arms [NY Magazine]

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Natalie Portman Talks ‘Black Swan,' Oscars" [Hollywood News]

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DISCUSSION

AndPreciousLittleofThat
AndPreciousLittleofThat

I'd imagine if you were to ask Ms. Portman if she felt compelled by anything more than her own dedication to her craft, she'd likely say that no, she wasn't forced to do any of it.

But I do think there's a chicken-and-egg sort of aspect to the question. This is a woman who acted in "The Professional" at, I think, age twelve. She probably intimately understands what is "expected" of her in a certain performance, even if it isn't stated. And a person doesn't get to the level of stardom she's achieved by not dedicating yourself entirely, perhaps obsessively, to your work.

What matters to me, in the end, is that she has a healthy perspective on what she went through, and can articulate it to others. She had trainers, nutritionists, doctors, etc. looking after her, and I would like to believe she achieved her weight loss in a responsible way. And actors DO mold themselves into crazy shapes (super-buff Ryan Reynolds? Christian Bale in Batman and The Machinist less than a year apart!) to achieve the effects they think is necessary for their performances.

I would very much be interested in a longer interview with Ms. Portman where she can discuss the totality of her experience, and that of ballerinas in general.