I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard about the recent controversy caused by the video for Sia’s song Elastic Heart.
It’s been sitting there in the ‘trending’ column of my Facebook feed for days. I often don’t pay attention to such stories, but my curiosity was piqued when I saw the word ‘paedophile’. I wondered what on earth this video could contain to be so offensive.
In case you’ve not seen it yet, it involves actor Shia LaBeouf and 12-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler locked in a battle expressed through what is, to me, interpretive dance.
Honestly? My first reaction: “whoa, what the fuck is this?”. But that was purely because I’d never seen anything like it before. After watching it for a bit longer, I found it to be a beautiful expression of emotion. I’ve not been touched by expressive dance before, but now that I’ve seen the Elastic Heart video (and Sia’s Chandelier video, also starring Maddie Ziegler) I can totally understand its power.
Sia has claimed that LaBeouf and Ziegler represent two different states of herself in this video. LaBeouf and Ziegler wrestle with each other in a cage, which is a pretty straightforward metaphor for being trapped. The use of the cage makes their battle more pronounced and claustrophobic. It’s a clear expression of power-play and conflicting emotions within that constraint. LaBeouf represents the more developed, wild and irrational emotions compared to Ziegler, who represents innocence, freedom and perhaps a more ‘rational’ state. This is by no means an absolutely correct interpretation of the piece, it just happens to be what I take from it. Art is subjective.
The bit that touched me the most was when Ziegler was able to escape from this cage and desperately wanted LaBeouf to be able to come with her, but he was trapped in the cage with his demons – too overwhelmed by his emotions to be able to free himself.
Even if it’s not meant to, I think it also beautifully represents the ongoing battle between a child and an emotionally-abusive parent. The unpredictable mood swings and manipulation of the parent and the child’s conflicting instincts to both look after the parent but also to save herself by separating from it.
I think a large part of the controversy comes from the fact that LaBeouf is topless and wearing flesh-coloured underwear, while Ziegler is wearing a flesh-coloured leotard. They do not look naked and I really don’t understand anyone who says that that’s the intended implication. I think the intention was more to keep the costumes minimal so as not to detract attention from the physical expression and the immense emotion of the piece. For me, it makes it applicable to anyone in any place at any time. Imagine how much it would confuse the message if each party were wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Clothes are such an obvious indicator of our values, culture and status that they are frankly irrelevant in this. This message is supposed to be universal.
I think the visceral ‘OMG! Child abuse! Paedophilia!’ reaction is far too common in art, and believe me, I do not say that lightly. I am a passionate feminist and I am usually the first to say if I feel that a girl or woman is being sexually (or otherwise) exploited in any situation. However, I just don’t get that from this video. In fact, I think the ‘paedophile’ interpretation is quite offensive – it implies that a girl or woman cannot express herself emotionally with her body without it being inherently sexual. How utterly insulting. I refuse to be reduced to a sexual object, incapable of emotion or physical expression due to the fact that I have a vagina! Am I not allowed to have physical contact with an older male lest he perceive it to be sexual? Does that mean every girl who holds her father’s hand is complicit in an exploitative relationship?
The way Ziegler moves in this video does not strike me as sexual at all. She is not trying to be attractive, here. The same goes for the Chandelier video. A lot of her movements are jarring, base and animalistic expressing innate and raw emotion. There is a touching honesty and sincerity in the way she moves – it’s not someone trying to be something she is not.
I think the message some people need to take away from this piece of art is this: just because you do not understand something, does not mean it is wrong.