Never mind what I said the other day about trawling social media for outrage, because now it’s about something I care about: Platonically perfect Australian ice seraph Sia. The singer’s second video for the song “Elastic Heart” was met with—surprise!—criticism online when it was posted yesterday, with viewers expressing disappointment in its supposed undertones of pedophilia.
“I don’t care what the story is or what you fuckin pretentious artsy fartsy people say it represents,” read one of the more popular comments on the YouTube posting. “It’s still a 12 y/o child rolling all over a fucking grown ass man and its weird’.” Many others agreed. “This is CLEARLY paedophilia. An 11 year old girl made to look naked along with a fully grown man? I don’t care how this is ‘art’; it’s sick and twisted. It’s funny how no one bats an eye at this, yet Rihanna, Ariana Grande and many other female artists are ‘whores’? What is this world we live in? This is a disgusting video and awkward. I understand it shows conflict, but at least use a fully grown woman, not an innocent little girl!” wrote another.
“And the latest addition to my OH FUCK NO list? Sia’s pedophile video w/ Shia LaBeouf,” was one demonstrative reaction on Twitter.
The video features 12-year-old, exceptionally talented dancer Maddie Ziegler, who also starred in the “Chandelier” video, and 12-year-old adult baby Shia LaBeouf, engaged in a choreographed expressionistic dance routine inside of a cage. They circle one another, they mime fighting, roll around on the floor near one another, and generally act like a couple of dance weirdos investing a lot of meaning into waving their legs around in the air. One thing they do not do is anything remotely sexual.
Sia addressed the concerns today. “I anticipated some ‘pedophelia!!!’ Cries for this video,” she said on Twitter. “All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play.” “I apologize to those who feel triggered by #ElasticHeart My intention was to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody.”
The video is about two warring Sias, she went on. Considering the lyrics of the song, that makes this a very plausible treatment. “And I know that I can survive. I’ll walk through fire to save my life. And I want it, I want my life so bad I’m doing everything I can,” she sings.
For all of their pop appeal, many of Sia’s songs mine this sort of dark terrain. “Chandelier” isn’t a club track about partying, it’s about her own struggles with alcoholism, and an addiction to painkillers.
The same struggle can be easily read into the “Elastic Heart” performances. Shia is the untamed, dirtied, aggressive part of her personality, a role he’s particularly well-suited to play due to his own well-known personal struggles, while the more innocent Sia-stand in, wearing the singer’s iconic haircut like many of her stand-ins do in her videos, is trying to coax him out of the cage. Occasionally they become entangled, with one giving way to the other. Occasionally they manage to find peace. Having the purer part of her personality played by an innocent young girl seems like a purposeful choice at overtly desexualizing things. Were an older woman cast to tangle with LaBeouf in such a way, the idea of sexual tension would have overwhelmed.
If you are triggered by this video, that’s valid. But that doesn’t mean that Sia made an evocative video that channels pedophilia. It means that your experiences rightfully color your viewing.
Of course, any of that would’ve been clear to anyone who spent a few minutes thinking about what it was they were watching here, as opposed to reacting first, then reflecting later. While it pains me to say something that might sound like it could come out of the thousand-toothed mouth of an Men’s Rights Activist man-spider, the idea that whenever a man appears anywhere near a young woman or girl, on video, or in real life, the interaction must inherently be sexualized is reductive, grasping bullshit. Yes, the sexualization of young women is a real problem in our culture, but there comes a point where painting all such interactions with the same broad brush is counterproductive. There’s more than one side to any story, no matter what it looks like at first blush. That’s exactly what the video is about.
By Luke O’Neil. Follow him on Twitter.