Battle Hymn of the Black Swan

By Mike Dorf

[Spoiler Alert: This post gives away the endings of the films Black Swan and The Wrestler.  If you haven't seen the films--and want to--stop reading now, see the films, then resume reading.  Now, on to my post . . .]

I have thus far resisted the urge to remark on the controversy over Yale Law Professor Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.  I'll leave for the seemingly millions of commenters the questions of whether what Chua calls the traditional "Chinese" mother's approach to child-rearing is cruel and/or effective, and if effective, at what.  Here I want to examine the other side of the coin, what Chua characterizes as the contemporary "Western" approach to raising children, with its supposed emphasis on praising children for mediocrity and undue attention to their self-esteem.

Now, I happen to agree with Chua and others that some of the self-esteem business is rather silly and can be harmful in the long run.  Here's one example among many that any American parent could certainly cite: Each of my two daughters received two gold medals per year--one for the "winter showcase" and one for the "summer showcase"--for as long as they took gymnastics; so did every one of the many other kids taking gymnastics.  And because the first wave of children raised this way is now old enough to be showing up in the workplace (and in law school), one observes young workers who need to be praised and rewarded simply for showing up on time.  I've noticed that in the nearly 20 years since I started teaching law school, I've become much gentler in my remarks on student papers and comments in class, as, over the years, I've seen students become (on average) less able to handle forthright criticism.  And I continue to have a reputation for being somewhat tough; many of my colleagues are much gentler still.

But one need not invoke a Chinese or otherwise minority cultural pattern to find a reaction against the self-esteem-promoting permissive style of parenting.  Writing in the Sunday NY Times magazine, Judith Warner correctly locates Chua's position as part of a largely home-grown parenting counter-revolution. And of course, Chua herself is Chinese-American.

At the same facility where my daughters received their semi-annual gold medals, a select few child gymnasts practice for hours upon hours daily, with the coaches heaping verbal abuse on them that makes some of what Chua describes in her op-ed look all warm and fuzzy.

You can see the counter-current in American culture more broadly.  Consider the 2004 animated feature The Incredibles.  In the course of the action, the film's hero repeatedly laments the mediocritization of American life, including the constant award of medals.

If that's too low-brow a cinematic example for you, consider Black Swan. Natalie Portman's "Nina" gradually cracks up under the pressure to perfect her role as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.  On the surface, Black Swan looks like a critique of the Chua method.  In relatively brief screentime, Barbara Hershey, playing Nina's mother, makes clear that she was very much a "Chinese mother" to Nina as a child.  Indeed, the continued obsessive control over, and resultant infantilization of, Nina appears to be a driver of Nina's madness, ultimately leading to her death at her own hand (albeit somewhat inadvertently: Nina hallucinates that she is stabbing her rival when really she is stabbing herself; think Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club).

Thus, one could come away from Black Swan thinking that madness is the price of driving children to excel--much in the way that some wags have opined that Chua's pronouncements of success with her own children are premature: Perhaps she has inflicted long-term mental health costs, they accuse.

But I don't read critique as the only message in Black Swan.  It is a tragedy, yes, but it has another meaning.  In the final scene, Nina dies happy.  She knows that it has cost her everything, even her life, but she doesn't care.  She has finally lost herself in the part and thus has achieved perfection.  Just so the message isn't lost on the audience, Nina actually says that.

The ending of Black Swan thus clearly evokes another film by the same director, Darren Aronofsky: 2008's The Wrestler.  In the final climactic scene in that film, Mickey Rourke's "Randy the Ram" hurls his broken and dying body off of the turnbuckle and into flight, knowing that this will not only finish off his opponent in the match but will end his own life.  He doesn't care.  For him the moment is worth it.  One last taste of glory is everything.  Having seen Randy's inability to thrive outside the ring, the audience understands Randy's choice, even if not fully endorsing it.

I don't pretend that most Americans who went to see The Wrestler or Black Swan came away thinking "Yeah, that was definitely worth dying for."  But I do think the message of each film resonates with a deep current in Western culture: That achievement of excellence or transcendence--in whatever field--is the ultimate satisfaction, that it can justify anything, even the sacrifice of life itself.  From that viewpoint, Chua's values are hardly alien to Western culture.