How Many Times Did I See Black Swan in Theaters While Closeted? An Investigation

Last week, I convened with a group of friends at Autostraddle writer Christina Grace Tucker‘s home in Philly in order to correct history. Specifically, one friend in our crew of pop culture obsessives was determined to revisit 2010’s Black Swan, a movie that swiftly took over my entire life during my first semester of college, the period of time when I was the most deeply and achingly closeted, even to myself. This friend knew her opinion on the film back then was extremely biased and nonsensical — she decided to hate Black Swan because the second she saw it, she knew Natalie Portman would win the Oscar for it (which she did), and she desperately wanted Annette Bening to take home the prize for her work in The Kids Are All Right. This friend was, at the time, also performing heterosexuality passionately and poorly like myself, going so far as to invent a boyfriend for the internet who did not exist and who no one had even asked about. It’s safe to say that neither of us kids were “all right.”

It was a thrill to rewatch this movie last week with a gaggle of pals who share my propensity for a well timed Gay Gasp and ample absurd commentary during a collective viewing experience. I tend to revisit this movie at least once a year, and last year rewatched it twice in the month of October as research (for once, I’m not using that word facetiously!) for the list of Autostraddle’s 25 Scariest Queer Horror Movie Moments, compiled by me and Autostraddle critic Drew Burnett Gregory. Drew was also in attendance at this intimate and unwell Philly screening of Black Swan, and I was shocked to learn she hadn’t seen it since her days of watching it constantly when she was in high school! This cinematic retrospective was Huge for all of us, even for me, the person who has seen it the most of the group.

“That was more sexual than I remember,” Drew said of one of the movie’s more disturbing mommy issues moments (of which there are so many!).

I remembered all too well. Most images from the film are emblazoned in my brain.

But how many times — exactly — have I seen Black Swan? To answer that question is as impossible as trying to imagine anyone other than Mila Kunis in the film’s role of bad girl ballerina Lily. She’s perfect! No notes! I did think, perhaps, an achievable investigation could be determining just how many times I saw the movie in theaters when it came out. But even that task has sent me down a strange spiral of doubling and fractured memory underscored by a homoerotic hum MUCH LIKE THE MOVIE ITSELF.

It is not unusual for me to have seen a movie multiple times in the theater, especially during the stretch of years when I was closeted. It’s not that I’m no longer susceptible to extreme obsession now in my loud and proud dyke era; I certainly am. But there was something in particular about the ritual of repetition back then that appealed to me and that seems inextricable from the fact that I was burying my most intoxicating desires. In Black Swan, the suppression of desire has intense physical and mental effects. I understand that very well!!!!

I’ve written about this proclivity for repeat viewings in an essay about Inception before. I’ve also written about my history of hoarding digital receipts of my own life. Rather than saving movie ticket stubs, I saved my movie missives, all the chaotic and often all-capsed posts I flung about tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and other digital spaces in a time when I lived most of my “real” life in said supposedly “unreal” spaces. This should, in theory, make it easy for me to triangulate just how many times I saw the movie in theaters, a question I sought to answer just last year, presumably because I wanted to write an essay about it then:

Between old tweets, tumblr text posts, and Facebook updates, I can see that I saw Black Swan twice in the first week it came out. The first time was in Chicago with my longtime internet friend Erin, who posted a reaction photo of both of us on her own tumblr after the first viewing. This was during the trip when we met each other in person for the very first time, instantly bonding over our enthrallment with this movie despite also both claiming to not really be able to stomach scary movies prior to it. The second time was back on campus in Ann Arbor with two friends who were dating. But I have an elusive memory of a third viewing in my hometown when I was back for winter break, seeing it at the theater I’d grown up going to for midnight and repeat viewings countless times. I can’t remember who I was with — if anyone. I was the only person I knew then who went to see movies by myself. But I was also genuinely terrified of this movie, which seems silly to me now as a certified horror lover; considering the movies I gravitate toward now, it’s comparatively tame! And then there’s also a fourth memory I can’t quite reconstruct by way of my digital archives or my own brain. I swear I saw it again in Ann Arbor when I returned from winter break, this time at the movie theater that was slightly farther away from campus with another internet friend who I’m no longer close with and can’t ask about.

I clearly gave up trying to figure out how many times I saw the movie in theaters back in 2022. It could have been just because I got busy and the essay slipped away or because it just wasn’t the right time to write it. Or it could be because I knew I wasn’t even asking the right question. Perhaps a more answerable question — though it wouldn’t have been answerable at all back in 2010 when the then-version of myself was returning to the theater over and over to watch an erotic psychological thriller about ballerinas — is why did I see Black Swan so many times in theaters.

In December of 2010 when the movie came out, I was 18 years old. I was a freshman in college. I’d only seen women makeout on the big screen twice before, and my memories are wrong about which happened first. By my memory, it was the movie Jennifer’s Body that showed me girls kissing girls for the first time. But I also know I saw the Charlize Theron-starring movie Æon Flux in theaters, and it came out four years before. Still, every time I try to stack these memories in my mind, they’re impossibly inverted. In any case, after seeing Jennifer’s Body reluctantly with a friend, I swore off horror movies. I told myself at the time it was because of the gore and the jumpscares, but I think I was scared of something else.

Then I saw Black Swan the following year, and that thin string between fear and desire plucked inside me once more. In one of my tumblr posts, I reference not breathing for a full seven seconds during my second viewing. Which seven seconds? My memory, again, fails. But I can imagine.

There are so many mirrors in Black Swan. Most scenes feature a mirror or a reflective surface of some kind. Nina in particular is forced to look at herself, and when she does, she sees things she doesn’t want to see, sometimes things that aren’t technically even there but that nonetheless feel like a surfacing of something very much there inside her. The doubling throughout Black Swan is meant to instill fear; Nina’s mind is unraveling. She keeps seeing herself — a twisted version of herself — in shadows and in others. But the doubling conveys desire, too. Nina appears to herself during moments of self-pleasure and sexual fantasy. It’s a haunting and a seduction.

No wonder I kept coming back, stacked versions of myself reluctant to look in a mirror but eager to gaze at this film that discomforted me greatly. It’s a different viewing experience now, of course. I can name the parts that I obsess over. I can see the profound impact the movie has had on my own artistic aesthetics, which often straddle the erotic and horror. Some of the most fucked up aspects of the film — Nina’s relationship with her mother, for one — are the kinds of themes I embed in my art, sometimes buried so deep I’m not sure if people pick up on them. I may be out now, but I haven’t shed my tendency toward concealment entirely.

Watching it with friends, especially some who hadn’t revisited it in a while, was a singular experience. We laughed; we Gay Gasped; we startled. My obsessions could be said out loud. Emphasis on loud, in fact; my friends are a rambunctious group of frenzied femmes. I expressed these obsessions as jokes and increasingly ridiculous commentary. It was a decidedly silly evening, even as it stirred up cracked memories of prior viewings. And maybe that’s what keeps me coming back still, over a decade later. I no longer need Black Swan in order to access some disguised part of myself. But every time I watch it, it feels like a repetition and like something new.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 868 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Oh I love this. I only saw it once in theatres with a big group of friends and was like I Can Never Mention This Movie Again. I wasn’t even out in my own mind yet! And yet i was like I have to put this movie out of mind!! I should rewatch it after all these years

  2. somehow i ended up in the theater with my mother and grandmother and as soon as the sleepover scene came on my mother demanded we leave, my grandma didn’t seem too upset but we did

    i’ve since seen it maybe 4 times.

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