Male masturbation in fiction, between the pages and on the screen, has long been celebrated. Portnoy's Complaint, American Pie and There's Something About Mary are all part of this extensive homage to onanism. Will the five times Oscar nominated Black Swan herald in a flood of movies about "flicking the bean" if it enjoys success on February 27?
At the 2011 Academy Awards, how will hosts Anne Hathaway's and James Franco's opening banter deal with the extensive scenes of "self pleasuring" in the Gothic Horror ballet movie? What a pity Ricky Gervais won't be hosting the event.
Love it or hate it, the scenes of Nina (Natalie Portman) "flicking the bean" (the urban slang term for female masturbation, recently popularized by the TV series Californication) have "caused some avid commentary on the Internet". (Time.com, Dec 3, 2010). Now that's an understatement - every film buff blog to Huffington Post has had something to say about those scenes.
Similarly, the hit TV series Mad Men caused the blogosphere to light up in August 2010, with an episode in which the Draper's 10-year-old daughter Sally is caught masturbating while watching David McCallum in an episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. The girl is thrown out of the friend's house in disgrace after the mother catches her in action; the message is clear. Nice Girls Don't.
It's not like we haven't seen sisters doing it for themselves on screen before in mainstream Hollywood movies: Cecile de France in High Tension (2003), Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001), Sharon Stone in Sliver (1993), Kim Basinger in 91/2 Weeks (1993) and even Shirley MacLaine in Being There (1979).
Why, then, all the fuss about Black Swan's - mostly interrupted - masturbation scenes? It perhaps says something about the difference between the two cultures that Australian audiences had no problem with flicking the bean in Black Swan. After all, it was Chrissy Amphlett, the sexy lead of the Australian rock band Divinyls, who sang that joyful 1991 anthem to female masturbation "I touch myself", which was the band's biggest-selling single.
With the hefty line up of Oscar nominations, one must ask if director Darren Aronofsky was being gratuitous - or Gothic - with Nina's many scenes of masturbation and lesbian fantasy. Black Swan is a film about the turmoil of artistic creation and the blurring of reality on stage and off. Trying to unleash the Black Swan from within the sexually repressed Nina (Natalie Portman), Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the dance company, demands she undertake "a little homework assignment ... go home and just touch yourself."
But just as Nina struggles with the darker nuances of Odile, the manipulative and confident Black Swan, she also struggles to pleasure herself successfully. A male critic wrote that Nina "fears sex because her mother has convinced her that that way lies ruination." Her mother (Barbara Hershey) gave up ballet because she became pregnant with Nina (Jan 26, The Sydney Morning Herald). I disagree. Nina fears sex for the same reason she fears food - it is about loss of control. It's the real reason she can rarely climax in her solo attempts.
Food equals fear for the bulimic Nina. When she wins the lead in Swan Lake, she is visibly distressed when her mother sadistically buys her a huge frosted cake. Nina allows herself one timid scoop of frosting.
Likewise, when she goes to an impromptu dinner with her rival Lily (Mila Kunis), she is aghast the sexually charged dancer embraces a meaty burger, alcohol, and men. It takes drugs to lure Nina to shed her inhibitions and take Lily back to her bedroom. There, with Lily's face burrowed between her thighs, Nina finally finds the release she longs for.
In Black Swan, the excessive emphasis on blood reminds us that this is a horror movie about women - and women bleed. Flesh is pierced, cut, torn. There are gaping wounds, bloody scars and blood oozing from where a concealed body lies. Does Nina repeatedly stab dethroned prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) in the face? Smash her mother's fingers in a door? Kill her rival with a shard of glass? This is Carrie with tutus.
In this context, Aronofsky's scenes of Nina both masturbating and harming herself are not at all gratuitous, but Gothic, in that the Gothic has a fascination with the effects of sexual repression, in exploring sado-masochism, extreme behaviors and excessive rhetoric and narrative. In this movie, Aronofsky hasn't been bashful in using all the Gothic tropes - the endless doppelgangers, or doubles, the mirroring of the dancers' movements, the emphasis on mirrors to signify psychological breakdown, as well as Odile/Odette being manifestations of conflicting desires inside the same body.
Nina's death at the end of the movie is for her better than any orgasm she could achieve. "It was perfect," she sighs, a satisfied smile on her face, as she reflects on her performance while bleeding to death.
It's Gothic to the core.