What Is Really Going On in Sia’s “Elastic Heart”?
The pop singer's latest depicts 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler and Shia LaBeouf in an odd pas de deux that has some crying "pedophilia." But who is really sexualizing the young girl?
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Last week, singer-songwriter Sia released the latest video (see below) from her album 1000 Forms of Fear. Like “Chandelier,” the previous video, this one has frankly astonishing 12-year-old pretzel-person Maddie Ziegler prowling around like a plasticine demon. It also features Shia LaBeouf in his long-lost “surprisingly non-gross” form. That combination—adult man and young girl, doing a dance routine that requires physical exertion and occasional contact—has led some on Twitter to call the video “disgusting” or say it “smacks of child molestation.” The outcry was consistent enough that the singer issued a series of tweets, apologizing to people who were triggered.
I’ve seen the video several times, and while I like Sia’s music and Ziegler’s spider-baby routine, I watched it without any intention of making excuses. I know it’s hard to step outside of the cultural pressure to sexualize and objectify women; I’ve seen people I like get tripped up in it before, and I’m happy to hold their feet to the fire. But insofar as sexualization is happening in “Elastic Heart,” it’s being imposed from outside, in direct contradiction to anything in the video. And as far as I can tell, there’s only one reason: The video juxtaposes a female body with a male body, and viewers don’t know how to process that relationship without assuming it’s a sexual one. This is an incorrect assumption in the context of the video, and a dangerous reflection of the culture at large.
Let me say up front that if you have a traumatic background and found the video triggering, I’m genuinely sorry about that and I’m glad Sia said she was sorry too. Triggers are personal, idiosyncratic, and not susceptible to logic, so believe me that I am not trying to talk you out of feeling a strong negative reaction to the video. I hate that you were hurt, and I hate that you can be retraumatized by media that should feel safe. But people without a personal history of abuse are also seeing sexualized overtones in this cage match between a brute in boxers and a tiny witch-sprite. And that’s a problem.
I’ll admit that LaBeouf’s butt is looking juicy here, but if he were cage-fighting with a male dancer, I very much doubt there would be outcry about the gay sensuality in the piece. The supposed sexual overtones come from the presence of Ziegler’s body, not LaBeouf’s fully grown one. That body is unsexual in that she’s preadolescent, and unsexualized in that her dancing is furious and tender but wholly unerotic. But it is female. And for some people, that’s enough.
That assumption—that the presence of a female body is both necessary and sufficient to make a situation sexually charged—is the engine behind “she must have wanted it” and “she shouldn’t have dressed that way.” But the certainty that this is wrong—that having a female body does not qualify as a sexual invitation—is, to my mind, kind of a major tenet of feminism. So while I share Sia’s sympathy for anyone who was triggered, I’m much more troubled by the people calling “Elastic Heart” “perverted” than by the content of the video itself.
Granted, Sia and choreographer/co-director Daniel Askill would have to be dumb not to anticipate objections—and, according to Sia’s tweets, they did. They knew casting a hulking man and a little girl would play into cultural attitudes about gender, and that the video’s power relies on the inescapable host of associations evoked by pitting these two against each other. The dancers are manifestly not meant to represent humans: Ziegler moves like something that just got exorcised from Regan MacNeil, while LaBeouf is at times bestial, at other times childlike. Sia’s tweets say that they are representing two parts of her personality, and I think this is the transparent interpretation. But, metaphor or not, these physical forms have cultural freight, a host of associations with “bearded man” and “girl child.” The casting decision both uses and complicates those gendered assumptions in order to pinpoint the two parts of Sia: the one small and pliant but feral, the other physically powerful, surprisingly gentle, and ultimately trapped.
I doubt that Sia and Askill made their decisions without being at least somewhat conscious of these associations, or without considering the relationships implied by casting a man and a girl: father and daughter, teacher and pupil, lovers, abuser and victim. I think the best evidence that they did consider these implications is the fact that none of the obvious relations apply. There is physical conflict, but the girl seems more powerful and frightening than the man. There are moments of almost paternal tenderness, but the feeling is more like detente. There is—I swear—no erotic frisson whatsoever. By exploding your assumptions about who these characters are and how they relate, the video fine-tunes your understanding and emotional response. It knows that you’re going to jump to conclusions, and it’s trying to use them to steer your experience.
So yeah: Seeing Ziegler and LaBeouf interact onscreen carries a lot of gendered weight. But stalling out at “pedophilia” implies at best an incomplete reading, at worst a fixation on the assumed sexuality of a prepubescent girl. The objection assumes treatment of Ziegler as a sexual object—and as far as I can tell, this assumption stems not from her dancing, or LaBeouf’s, or the plot of the video (such as it is), but solely from her presence as a female-bodied person. That’s not enough for me, and I don’t think it should be enough for anyone.
I’m not saying the video is great art. “Two parts of me are locked in a cage and fighting each other” isn’t the freshest of metaphors, and “Elastic Heart” isn’t the strongest song on Sia’s album—which is an album I happen to love, but what do I know? But in drawing out these objections, it lays bare our cultural conviction that mere femaleness constitutes a sexual invitation. That’s a lot more than most music videos manage to do.
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