Teenage Girls and Black Swan
February 17, 2011 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I mentor a 13 year old girl who someone saw the movie Black Swan (she downloaded it illegally, I suppose), and she really wants to talk about it. I'm kind of at a loss as to how to even begin this conversation.

I see her once a week, for two hours, and she and I have been mentor/mentee since 2007. I like her a lot, and we get along. She's about as mature as you would expect a 13 year old to be--that is, not hugely (she's a great kid, but she's not a overwhelmingly sensitive or thoughtful; she's just an average 13 year old). When it comes to literature, I would also say she is about at grade level, or slightly below (so she's not really into symbolism). In general, I don't think she should be seeing this movie, because she isn't mature enough, but what's done is done.

She is being raised by a grandmother (who doesn't really speak English), and has a younger sister she is not close with (big age difference) and doesn't see her parents often. I'm the closest adult she has in her life, and I truly am a big role model to her. She also shares a lot about her life with me.

She brought up the movie at the end our last session, and I was blindsided. She likes movies, and has pretty diverse interests (she really liked The Town and Due Date, for example). I wouldn't think something as "weird" as Black Swan would appeal to her, but there you go.

I really got the impression that she wanted to talk about it, but it was so close to the end of our two hours, and I was so surprised, I didn't really follow through on it. I would like to bring it up again (or have something to say when she brings it up again, as she's likely to do), especially since I am really the only adult in her life she is close with, and I want to provide a sort of "framework" for understanding the movie.

IMPORTANT: I strongly suspect that she is on the LGBTQ spectrum, and I think that's one of the reasons she even brought the movie up to me in the first place.

Any advice for this conversation? Questions to bring up? Things that would be especially confusing for a 13 year old? Things that are important for her to take away from it?
posted by Ideal Impulse to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
it was a highly publicized movie and if the ONTD comment sections are to be believed, lots and lots of young teens saw and loved it. i wouldn't try to lead the conversation if i were you. i'd ask her what she thought of the movie and take it from there. have you seen it? i think you should before the conversation.
posted by nadawi at 7:07 PM on February 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I should add, I've seen the movie myself, and I liked it a lot. Part of me wanted to recommend The Wrestler to her.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 7:09 PM on February 17, 2011

then, yeah, i wouldn't worry about "building a framework" - just talk to her. teens can pretty well tell when they're being led and sometimes that'll get them to give the "right" answers instead of the honest ones. if you're worried about all the symbolism stuff messing with her head, relate it to comics - even most kids understand that the xmen aren't real.
posted by nadawi at 7:13 PM on February 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I haven't seen the movie, but I have some sense of it. Something that is unintuitive to some young people is the idea of an unreliable narrator, or a main character that is not supposed to be a good example or who doesn't get redeemed. That might be something to talk about, if you think it's warranted by the movie. Does the movie present any of the characters as good or redeeming? Does it present their choices as good choices? If the movie's showing us characters we shouldn't like, what is the director's purpose in doing that?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:27 PM on February 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Jungian archetypes?
posted by nathancaswell at 7:33 PM on February 17, 2011

Yeah, just listen to whatever it is she wants to say about it. If she has questions, answer them, but I wouldn't worry about it too much. I'm not 13 anymore but I do remember the movies I watched when I was that age, and I don't think Black Swan is anything that would've been over my head at that time. As said above, it's been hyped a lot so I don't think it's weird that she saw such a "weird" movie - Natalie Portman is a really famous actress and that could've been enough to peak her interest.
posted by coupdefoudre at 7:59 PM on February 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just talk to her about what she responded to in the movie. The film contains a pretty rich array of things that anyone, let alone a young adolescent girl, would respond to - high expectations, anxiety, uncontrollable emotions, body horror, untrustworthy people, not being able to trust yourself, eating disorders, developing sexuality, family troubles, the list goes on and on. Come to think of it, it's actually a bit obvious that Nina is an overgrown adolescent, so it makes perfect sense that a 13-year-old would relate to her. I personally think it's a good sign that the movie speaks to her, even though it may be reflective of difficulties that she's facing.

It should be a conversation as organic as any other. Why did she like it? Did she relate to Nina? Did she find it scary - what did she find scary? What did she think of the mother character? Did the scenes in the apartment make her uncomfortable? What did she think of Mila Kunis' character? What did she think of the ending?

Don't turn it into an "academic" talk unless that's a direction she seems genuinely interested in.

If I were her peer, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend her a host of movies in the vein of Black Swan, but I would be careful about recommending relatively explicit movies to a 13-year-old who is not your daughter. Would her grandmother be cool with you telling her to check out The Wrestler? I personally don't see the harm in it, but I'm not her guardian and I don't have kids.

FWIW, I liked plenty of movies that weird when I was her age. I was getting into Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, and David Lynch. I also had plenty of friends who were doing the same. I was going through a lot of rough stuff when I was about her age, as well, and I'm grateful for the fact that dark, strange movies gave me a vocabulary to understand the fear and anxiety that I was going through. Enjoying and studying "weird" movies helped me dissect troubles that were otherwise outside of my control and beyond my understanding.

I wouldn't discourage her from doing the same. Weird, awesome movies are a perfectly healthy way to explore ourselves.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:02 PM on February 17, 2011 [13 favorites]

I guess I'll take a shot at it, having seen Black Swan, tutored children/teens/adults for some time, and having had some fairly strange conversations with them. She's at the age where the biggest gifts you can grant her are talking to her like she is an adult and listening to her as the same. Some of your conversation might go over her head. That's okay, adults get to ask questions when they don't get something, so she can learn to do likewise.

As to the film itself: first, discuss how the director used the structure of the ballet and built his movie around it. This isn't particularly deep but is worth pointing out.

You can mention how deftly Nina's whole character was laid out before the audience in the first five minutes alone and how her relationship with her mother worked. She's obviously a tremendously repressed person with an obsessive focus in a very fragile mental state, immersed in an intensely competitive atmosphere. Nina acutely feels her age as she is surrounded by obviously younger women — will she age out of the role before it is even hers?

The big bit is that the swan is not the correct metaphor for Nina. It's easy to reach for but it isn't particularly well-suited. Instead, Nina is basically a little girl in a woman's body. She lives in a little girl room, is completely unlikely to have had an actual boyfriend, does everything her mother tells her, and so forth. Metaphorically, she's a caterpillar who has spent too long in her cocoon.

Her chance to get the role starts with Thomas. His forced kiss punctures that cocoon. Unfortunately, Nina is not going to emerge as a perfect butterfly. She's been stunted and when she attempts to tap into her sexuality, it comes out ... oddly. If you want to work the LBGTQ spectrum stuff, point out that it isn't uncommon for young women to develop crushes on one another, especially out of admiration. Nina clearly admires and envies Lily (a very "white" name) for her passion and easy fluidity with dance. Is she crushing or covetous? Nina, who does not know herself particularly well, cannot tell.

At every turn when Nina tries to cram years of sexual development (all for a role) into a life ill-suited for it, she develops her psychosis instead. Thomas gets the black swan alright, but she's mad instead of a temptress.

Talk, ask her what she thinks about specific portions of the film. What about the Thomas-Beth relationship? Does your mentee think that Nina has actually stabbed herself at the end of the movie, or is that another hallucination? How has Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) shaped Nina's goals? Ask her about the use of mirrors in the film (Nina constantly examines herself in them; it is difficult to find a shot without one present). Ask her about Beth's lipstick. Ask, if Nina's violence is confined to her hallucinations, to whom is she actually doing violence?

Black Swan is a fairly interesting film and there is a lot that might resonate with someone her age. You might have quite a bit to talk about.
posted by adipocere at 8:03 PM on February 17, 2011 [10 favorites]

Sidenote: since she seems to have such broad taste in movies, it might be interesting to bring up the idea of writing, photography, and/or filmmaking as a hobby for her.

(I would not use a Black Swan conversation to bring up the idea of dance as a hobby, but hey, whatever works!)
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:16 PM on February 17, 2011

Keep in mind that some of the things that you see in the movie will be things that a 13 year old doesn't even perceive yet. So, just to echo others, let her lead, and don't assume that she's even noticed some of the more disturbing or complex elements.

If she wants to talk about issues around sexuality, just do what you should always do - be open and supportive and not judgemental.
posted by Kololo at 8:17 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

If she wants to come out to you, she'll do it in her own way. I wouldn't worry too hard about the Nina/ Lily sequence being the focus of the conversation.

(If you really want to throw her, go read this analysis of the original script vs. the film, written by an industry colleague of mine, and bring up the entire issue of whether or not Lily actually exists, or is just sort of Nina's Tyler Durden. ;)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:25 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what you're trying to brace yourself for here. When she says she wants to 'talk about it," she could mean anything -- wanting to talk to you about the LGBT stuff, or the plot, or the world of ballet, or the story structure itself, or how pretty Natalie Portman's dress was, or how it reminded her of another story she read that used a similar surreal technique, or...

Just talk to her. Let her kick things off, and let her direct the topic and go from there. No reason to try and figure out what your "framework" for the discussion is when you don't even know what kind of discussion she wants it to BE yet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:47 PM on February 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

who someone saw the movie Black Swan (she downloaded it illegally, I suppose),

I assume you meant "who somehow saw the movie..." My advice is: get rid of the idea that it's bizarre that she would have even seen this movie, let alone that she'd want to talk about it. Assume she's just a normal person who did something extremely commonplace: watched a movie. This doesn't call for any explanation at all.

I agree with the other answers. Don't focus on explaining the movie to her (which would require you to come up with a "framework"). Make it your goal to find out what she thinks about the movie. You don't need to let her know anything about your own opinions.

Here's a trick I've used with my two little brothers. Very often, one of them will ask me a question. I know that most adults would automatically try to answer the question for them. But if possible, I don't do that. I ask the question back to them. (Or maybe I ask a related question designed to lead them to an answer to their original question.) "Why do you think ____?" What usually happens is: they answer their own question; they seem quite satisfied with this; and they forget that they ever asked me for the answer. I assume that their answer is better than mine would have been.
posted by John Cohen at 10:23 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

First off, you must be doing a great job as a mentor. For a teen to be willing to discuss such an intense movie with an adult shows a lot of trust.

Second, the timing of her question shows you her ambivalence. This happens in therapy sessions too - when there's something that someone wants to talk about but is also scared to, they'll sometimes bring it up *just* when time is up. Planting seeds in a way. Don't be too surprised if she doesn't bring it up again. She may be waiting to see if you'll do it.

Finally, I'd suggest that, instead of *talking* about the movie, that you *ask* her about it. Like if she says "what was that thing when she pulled feathers out of her skin?" you say something like, "yeah, that was so strange! What did you think it was about?" Then listen to what she says and validate it or differ with it or elaborate on it, or whatever. Just try to structure things so that, in general, she's leasing the talk, as opposed to you "telling her" what the movie meant.
posted by jasper411 at 11:21 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that some of the things that you see in the movie will be things that a 13 year old doesn't even perceive yet. So, just to echo others, let her lead, and don't assume that she's even noticed some of the more disturbing or complex elements.

Yeah. I've been on a mission to find movie for my daughter to watch that have some female characters that stand out, and I dimly remembered seeing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as a 13, 14 year old, loving it. I remembered the little girl driving the narrative forward, that Robin Williams was an annoying fuckhead, Uma Thurman was gorgeous, and it was a fantastic, in both senses of the word, film about reality and fiction. Whee, great I thought. Luckily I re-watched it before showing it to my four year old, because my teenage me had completely elided the harem, the torture organ, and a whole bunch of stuff that's not even close to age-appropriate.

What an adult takes away can be very different to a teen.

I haven't, I confess, seen Black Swan, but what I've read of it actually makes it sound really apropos for a teen girl in many areas - the struggles with expectations, family, body image, pressure...
posted by rodgerd at 12:33 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

For whatever it's worth, I felt a lot of deja vu while watching Black Swan because it reminded me of being a teenage girl. Nina's insecurity and anxieties reminded me of myself.
posted by autoclavicle at 3:51 AM on February 18, 2011

I know almost nothing about this movie. But the 13 year old mind is just starting to look for a place that they fit into the world. They are begining that "phase" where they choose an archetypal look/clique/attitude that they think they understand, and clamp onto it with everything they have, because it is comfortable to have *something* that makes some kind of sense when faced with the "oh crap, I'm not a kid anymore" realities.

I would take the opportunity to guide her about some of that. Not that she shouldn't do those things, but that she shouldn't rely on them as crutches to avoid reality, or a final solutions for life. Going "all in" to almost anything is a recipe for sadness. Teach her to recognize this and never tolerate any weirdness that might come along: her identity as herself is more important than her group membership. Things will come along that she wouldn't want her grandmother (or parents or whatever) to know about her doing. She needs to learn the difference between those things that are private and those that are wrong. Because they both feel almost the same, which is mostly embarrassment. If she is kissing another 13 year old of her own free will, that's private. If she is shoplifting, that's wrong. She likely knows what is wrong, and has to make the decision whether getting in trouble is worth less than maintaining group membership. It never is, but it never feels that way to a 13 year old.

Teach her to take the long view. To play things out to their likely conclusion.

The movie seems kind of like it might be instructive on this. You choose something you like or love, devote yourself to it, and all of a sudden you are stuck in it and instead of giving relief, it traps you.

Echoing 1000%: talk to her like an adult. You are probably already doing this, or she wouldn't have bonded with you. Just saying.

Ask her to tell you about the movie, and prod her to ask questions about things she didn't understand. As a former 13 year old, I probably wouldn't like this to get very specific. "What did this exact scene say to you?" seems a little too Socratic/psychoanalytic.
posted by gjc at 6:34 AM on February 18, 2011

A topic that I don't see as much discussed with that movie, but potentially important for a teen to think about, is that the movie brings up/questions the idea of the tortured artist. Does an artist need to go dark/experience it all to understand a dark character? There's an idea in American culture of "I'll try anything once" that gets some people into trouble. Talking about experimentation and how it can be healthy/unhealthy (I'm talking about crime and taboos, sex, drugs, etc.) is important especially for teens.
posted by davextreme at 6:48 AM on February 18, 2011

What an adult takes away can be very different to a teen.

Just to emphasise this point: I saw Crash (the Cronenberg film version of the Ballard book) in my early teens and re-watching it later made me realise how much of the vast quantity of explicit sex I had edited out of the movie in my head. For a movie that is basically about fucking and car crashes, I only remembered the things that, for whatever reason, my teenage brain had fixated on. The only way to know what resonated with her about Black Swan is to ask her.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:36 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want to work the LBGTQ spectrum stuff, point out that it isn't uncommon for young women to develop crushes on one another, especially out of admiration.

Please don't do this. It's incredibly patronising, and doesn't send the message that you're respectful of her and her sexuality. As a gay teenage girl, sentiments like these made me feel more isolated and self-hating.
posted by Acheman at 7:48 AM on February 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

If you want to work the LBGTQ spectrum stuff, point out that it isn't uncommon for young women to develop crushes on one another, especially out of admiration.

Well, of course not, because it's not "uncommon" for young women to be gay or bi or queer or pansexual.

Yeah, I am glad that this movie wasn't out when I was 13 because it freaked me out even at age 46. It really does hit all the hot buttons, from "what do I want to do with my life" to "should I listen to my mother" to "do I like boys or girls or both or both and" to "starving myself--good idea, or BEST IDEA EVER, or my brain trying to kill me with the help of the larger culture" to "can women be friends with each other or are they all demons trying to kill you" to "why is it that one has to make nice with super-creepy guys to get ahead professionally."

On the other hand, maybe she just found it an interesting movie. As everyone has said, let her lead the way.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

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