According to the popular nursery rhyme, little girls are made of two things: sugar and spice. This dichotomized perception of femininity has pervaded American culture for years and leaves girls hanging somewhere in between two ideals — it’s bad to be a goody-two-shoes, but it’s just as unsavory to be promiscuous. Despite being composed in 1876, Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” can be viewed as a commentary on modern society’s contradictory standards for females.
The plot is essentially a glamorized, fairytale version of the inner conflict guys experience when finding the right girl. There’s the girl you bring home to mom and the girl you don’t. Prince Siegfried falls for the pure, virginal white swan Odette, who appears to him in human form only by night. Later, the prince is drawn in by the black swan Odile’s mysterious and seductive behavior. Both swans look exactly the same aside from their white and black tutus. Both are equally beautiful, and both roles are typically danced by the same ballerina. Each one has what the other one doesn’t — the two are polar opposites on the scale of femininity. Because the typical ending of the ballet is tragic, with either Odette and Siegfried drowning themselves in the lake or Siegfried being unwillingly tricked into marrying Odile, it’s never really clear who wins.
Of course, anyone who’s seen “Black Swan” has seen the central tension of the ballet mimicked in the unlikely friendship-gone-sour of the sheltered Nina (Natalie Portman), and the black swan-like Lily, whose reckless ways make for an edgier, dangerous persona.
This same idea has captivated audiences of different media across generations. A few years after the debut of “Swan Lake,” Thomas Hardy published the literary classic “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” in which the sweet and virginal Tess is taken advantage of by a wealthy neighbor and becomes shunned by her community after having his child. Tess lives in a place where there is no middle ground: One either conforms to society’s standards of purity, or one becomes permanently marked with sin. Unable to reconcile two extremes, Tess ends up being hanged for the murder of her neighbor. Though the plot isn’t identical to “Swan Lake,” it deals with the idea that an inability to balance the two aspects of femininity can end tragically.
Fast forward about 100 years, and you have the smash-hit musical “Grease.” The “Sandra Dee” scene is a great example of this perennial theme. Quintessential bad girl Rizzo and her pack of Pink Ladies degrade Sandy and her angelic ways through song and dance: “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee / Lousy with virginity.” In the end, the Pink Ladies convert Sandy with a hot new hairdo and a black leather jumpsuit instead of a tutu.
In 1989, the creators of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” stole a page from the “Swan Lake” book when they had Ursula attempt to stop Ariel’s marriage to Prince Eric by arriving at the castle in the form of a black-haired bombshell with Ariel’s beautiful voice. Again: two beautiful girls, physically identical except for their hair color — one a young, impressionable princess and the other an evil, seductive sorceress. This part of the plotline practically screams “Swan Lake.” Of course, since it’s a Disney movie, Ariel eventually triumphs and finds love with her Prince Charming.
Whether nice girls really finish last is an issue that is still up for debate and has been in the forefront of societal consciousness for a long time. One thing’s for sure: Going to see “Swan Lake” and having the feminine dichotomy represented with gorgeous scenery, tutus and a storybook plotline is a much more enjoyable way to ponder the dilemma than reading an academic analysis of it.