All the Rage

When Does Our Cultural Fascination with Teenage Girls Cross the Line?


We have a long history of fetishizing young girls. But from Sia’s “Elastic Heart” video to the recent story of the 17-year-old dating her dad, we seem to be leering at them more than ever.



“Thank heaven for little girls,” sang Maurice Chevalier. It sounds like a total pedophile anthem, but when you listen to the whole song, you realize that after the quick wink to the appeal of innocence, helplessness, and sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice, it’s really an elegy to the sensual charms of grown women. That’s sort of charming, but also a bit disturbing, and perhaps that tension is why the song became a standard.

Thank heaven for little girls

For little girls get bigger every day!

Thank heaven for little girls

They grow up in the most delightful way!

Those little eyes so helpless and appealing

One day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling.

The young girl—I’m talking precocious adolescent or teenager here—is having a bit of a cultural moment. A rocky cultural moment, mind you, but what about the female experience isn’t a bumpy ride? On the bizarre, sensational side of the news, we have the 17-year-old engaged to her once-estranged biological father. On the more contemplative cultural front, we’re seeing the lingering effects of heated response to the performance of 12 year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler in Sia’s video for the song “Elastic Heart.” In the video, Ziegler, who first became known as a breakout talent on the reality show Dance Moms, performs, wearing a shecky blonde wig and a tiny nude leotard, a tortured movement duet with creepazoid Shia LeBeouf, and their performance sparked a nifty little firestorm over whether their animalistic pas-de-deux evoked pedophilia.       

In “Elastic Heart,” Ziegler re-creates a character that originally appeared in Sia’s 2014 “Chandelier” video, and I’d argue that that video was more likely to attract creepers, because she appears alone. The video stayed with me for weeks. The song, though, didn’t need help being memorable, for it’s an enduring earworm—much to my dismay. The waltzy 1-2-3, 1-2-3 Go lead into the chorus was okay looping around my head for days on end, but the anguished, keening, avant-operatic chorus “Iiiiii want to swing from the chandelieeeeeeeeeeeeer” has a piercing quality that could rile every dog in the neighborhood (Lassie, come quick! Someone’s doing horrible things to Björk!).

As a character, as a little rampaging urchin, I get it. She lives within all of us, and Maddie, her body at once spindly but fleshy, exemplifies her perfectly. Through every move, she’s strong and stunning her prowess, looking like a disjointed doll crossed with one of those scary Louise Bourgeois spider sculptures come to life. Alone or tangling with Shia, she weaves a tangled web of anger and power and if there’s any sugar and spice here, she’s serving it on terms of her own choosing.

Over a series of three tweets, Sia both explained and excused herself, quite diplomatically. “I anticipated some ‘Pedophelia!’ cries for this video. All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play these two warring ‘Sia’ self states. I apologize to those who feel triggered by ‘Elastic Heart.’ My intention was to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody.”

Little girly-girl aesthetics can mean many things, of course—anyone who was an eager participant in the whole 1990s F-You “girl power” style of kiddie barrettes, clunky Mary Janes, and plaid miniskirts worn over torn tights will understand this. What looks like reinforcement of infantilization can really be a reclaiming. Kinderwhore for the win. But as with anything, the popular interpretation doesn’t always match the intent.

In truth, I was upset by both videos—initially. My first thought, before, even, Wow, what an incredible dancer, was Jeez, cover up that kid. I got that Sia and the video’s director were trying to make an artistic statement about  “thin skin” or “rawness” or “being stripped down” or something, but couldn’t they put Ziegler in a rainbow Spandex body stocking, like one of those luge uniforms? I pictured a million Humbert Humberts hitting the refresh button on YouTube. But I don’t think she owed me, or anyone else, any kind of apology. If you want to create emotional content, well, why apologize if the reaction is highly emotional?

I suppose here is where I’m supposed to wave my arms saying, “I’m not a total prude!” and that I can, indeed, tolerate art that, directly or not, acknowledges the attractiveness of women below the age of consent—even if showcasing that attractiveness isn’t the prime artistic intention. I probably am kind of a prude in this area, but I can hang with this controversial theme if it’s done with a certain honestly. For instance, I can be counted on to weep openly throughout the cinematic adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical novel, The Lover, in which the then-18-year-old Jane March (at the time, looking all of 12) is cast as Duras, who is passionately engaged to a much older Chinese businessman, played to the agonizing hilt by Tony Leung. There is no muddling ambiguity, no protesting too much. We know what we’re seeing, and we’re not being punished or questioned or judged for it. We’ve invited into this troubling relationship, no holds barred, and we get our hearts broken for the pleasure.

As a prime example of one of many cultural double standards, we have much more anxiety about the sexuality of pubescent and teen girls than boys. If you contrast the reaction to a photo shoot or video of a young, or young-looking girl, with what’s actually happening to teen boys, it’s a little unnerving. Read The Daily Mail, the U.K. daily that’s perennially fixated on American sexual peccadilloes: a cavalcade of American female teachers seducing teen students, or mothers advancing upon their son’s friends. Arrests are made, of course, and careers are rightfully truncated, but there’s very little public outrage and next to no bounce-around in the media echo chamber. I mean, people are repelled, but overall? Shrug. Stacy’s mom has got it going on, and Stacy’s teacher is doing Stacy’s little brother, too, but whatevs. The level of social opprobrium is nowhere near the same. And this is for sexual transgressions happening in real life, not on the screen or the page, or in our imagination.

These girls, though … tut tut.

Often, when the outrage machine cranks up around these pretty maids making us glance twice, the question asked—as an implied form of dismissal—is But is it art? Yes. Of course it is. Young girls attract our attention and fascination. Sometimes they’re depicted in artistic works. Sometimes they want to make art themselves. Sometimes they want to be left alone, which is understandable in a world that always seems to be looking. They do what they do, and all the while, their youth is there as an eternal curiosity and a thing, the taut, tense surface of a newly stretched canvas, its blankness inviting a brushstroke.

 

Lily Burana is our guest columnist.

 

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