Many of us, myself included like to give the impression that we can do it all. This idea that we can work, live and look amazing is drummed into us from an early age. We want to have the perfect body, to be the perfect parent, the perfect employee, the perfect partner the list goes on and on. I think that women in particular prescribe to this notion of perfection. The phrase never let them see you sweat springs to mind. We like to believe that if people think we can do it all than somehow this makes it true. I personally think it’s very damaging and we need to change it. The sooner we realize that it’s impossible to do it all the better off we’ll be.
I am a big fan of the writer and researcher Dr Brene Brown. I always get something new from her work even if I have come across it before. Brene tells a very interesting story about the movie Flashdance that I think best illustrates the notion of perfection and how it is perpetuated. First just let me say that Flashdance is the second highest grossing dance movie of all time. It made a staggering 150 million dollars at the box office. For those of you who are not familiar with Flashdance it’s an 80’s movie about a young women called Alex Owen who is a steel worker by day and an exotic dancer by night, yeah seriously!
She aspires to be a professional dancer but has no formal training. She is of course naturally an amazing dancer. The movie follows her journey as shy tries to work up the courage to apply for a prestigious dance school. Her audition scene at the end of the movie became the most famous part and it was also used in the music video What A Feeling by Irene Cara. The song is featured on the soundtrack and it too became a huge hit.
In this scene Owens, played by Jennifer Beals performs the most stunning dance routine to a panel of very stern looking judges, who she eventually wins over of course. They are completely wowed by her performance. During the routine she break dances, she does classic ballet, she flies through the air with grace and elegance. All the while looking phenomenal in her black leotard. The reality of that dance sequence is however somewhat different then it looks. Beal’s did not do it all by herself. Even though the audience might think she did. The real truth is it took several people in order to pull it off, not to mention choreographers, editors and all the others it takes to make a movie. French actress and dancer Marine Jahan as well as Gymnast Sharon Shapiro were both brought in as body doubles to complete the sequence. As well as 16-year-old Richard Colón, aka Crazy Legs who performed all the break dancing scenes.
The story goes that Colon was hired to teach Beals the moves. The producers had hoped not to have to use him in the actual movie but the back spins were so complex that in the end they were forced to. Careful editing created the illusion of the perfect final performance. Some people say that Jahan never received the credit she deserved because the filmmakers wanted the audience to believe that it was all Beals. Her name never even appears in the final credits of the film. I’m all in favor of taking your passion and making it happen as the song says but I think we all know it’s not as simple as it looks on the big screen.
Another example of this is in the movie Black Swan. The psychological thriller stars Natalie Portman as Nina the prima ballerina who is on a quest to win the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Portman received an Oscar for her performance in the film but controversy arose surrounding how much of the dancing she really did. Her body double Sarah Lane, who was a trained ballet dancer for more than twenty years claimed she had done most of the dancing which ended up in the final edit. She believes that she really deserves more credit for her work in the movie.
Lane went on to say that Portman’s portrayal of the character was brilliant but most of the shots that made it to the big screen were really of her body and not Portman’s. She said that when she first spoke out the studio called and asked her to stay quite on the matter because they were trying to create an image that Natalie had done something extraordinary. Something impossible, which is to become a professional ballerina in a year and a half. Lane insisted that this cannot be done. The studio hit back saying that although they were grateful for Lane’s hard work it was totally untrue and that Portman had performed most of the dancing by herself. Footage was put up online and then taken down again. Both sides went back and forth over the next few months on the issue and numbers such as 95% and 5% were thrown around in connection to how much dancing these ladies really did. Portman stayed pretty quite during the whole debate.
I cannot begin to tell you how depressing I find it that we are debating whether or not Portman did 5% or 95% of the ballet in this movie. The fact is it would still be really impressive if she had even managed to do 1% of the dancing having only studied ballet for such a short time. We should be able to congratulate both of these women for what they contributed to the movie but instead we choose to dissect them. Ironically one of the major themes of the movie is the never ending search for perfection and how destructive it can be. Perhaps they should all read the script again.
Now before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I too am having a go at these two actresses or the movies they’re in, I assure you I’m not. I really don’t care what percentage they did or how many shots their in. I do however think that these stories are a powerful metaphor for the pressure we feel to do it all. The truth is it’s never really as easy as it looks. Sometimes we do need a bit of help because we are just one person. Believe me when I tell you there is no one in the world who would like to think we can do it all on our own more than me but we can’t. Unfortunately there is no body double at the ready to come in and take over for us. No one who can do all the hard parts for us. Therefore we must accept that we have to do them imperfectly or not at all. There are no outtakes or dress rehearsals and we can’t edit out the parts of our lives that we don’t want other people to see. Most of us are not born knowing all the steps. There are many complicated metaphorical back spins that we have to contend with. Our lives don’t look seamless or polished and most of the time neither do we. So I’m just suggesting we all give each other a break, admit the truth and carry on living our messy lives. Who’s with me?