Trigger Warning This piece discusses pedophilia and the role of young bodies in art.
“Young bodies are like tender plants, which grow and become hardened to whatever shape you’ve trained them.”
This week, Australian performer Sia released yet another mesmerizing music video. This time for her song Elastic Heart. Teaming up once again with dancer Maddie Zeigler and director Daniel Askill (both from Chandelier), Sia chose Shia LeBeouf to play Maddie’s dance counterpart; the result being a highly visceral exploration of, as Sia described it: ‘these two warring ‘sia’ self states’. LeBeouf was an inspired choice, not only because of the provocative statements both Sia and LeBeouf have made about fame, but because he exudes a kind of animal intensity that ensures the psychological dimensions of this clip remain bodily. As far as music videos go, I see this as a stunning piece of art
And yet in the two days since the release, Sia has come under attack for creating a piece that promotes pedophilia. There are hundreds of tweet going around, including this account of the video: “Smacks of child molestation #pervert #unacceptable #childabuse…Explain please!” Well I have watched the clip a number of times, over and over, and I really I don’t see any overtones of pedophilia (this is not to presume or rule out the whole myriad of triggers that may occur for people for various reasons). As Sia has said, she constructed the clip entirely around her identity. And if one has followed Sia’s career, this is hardly difficult to discern. But it does not surprise me that this has raised eyebrows. It’s not surprising because we are increasingly uncomfortable with the bodies of the young, and certain rules about young bodies are emerging that seem increasingly objectifying and shaming.
I hesitate before moving going on. I know this discussion is tremendously difficult for many, and I certainly do not want to defend the production of visual pedophilia. What I do want to do, is to consider how certain reactions to art forms that include young bodies participate in a well-worn body shaming, suppress the imagination and the senses, and ultimately rehash the discourse of rape culture.
Maddie dances in the color of her flesh. So does LeBeouf. People have a problem with this. One commentator put it this way: ‘it doesn’t help that both dancers are not wearing much, and that those clothes are flesh-coloured – giving the appearance of nudity’. Would pink lyrca be more acceptable for a young girl? Young bodies must be covered in certain ways. This is a new rule. I remember my own childhood: summers often spent dancing and playing naked on an Australian beach. You can’t do that now. Now I get the complexity of this, I just think it is wrong to assume that the visual representation of a young body alone or exclusively promotes pedophilia, as if nakedness is always the definitive factor in pedophiliac desire. But what really concerns me is what our desire to cover over the young body is saying. That Maddie Ziegler’s flesh has created discomfort says something about the projection placed upon the young body. That this body is a cause for panic, censure, erasure even. It is a discomfort that teaches parents and guardians to hide away and hide from the young body. These bodies must be covered over because they are most significantly, sexual.
This is played out in the spaces in which young bodies can move, in the acceptable uses of their own body. Perhaps we have never had more concern over what exactly a young person can do with their body. The way they move is dangerous. In many neighborhoods, especially the affluent, kids are not allowed to climb trees, ride their bikes alone, flip backwards off the pier into the lake near Grandma’s house. It is not safe out there (despite statistics regularly showing otherwise). But there is something particularly disturbing about the way accusations of perversion or pedophilia emerge in the production of art, as with the case of the Elastic Heart video. Claims like this – of pedophilia – suggest that all contact between bodies is sexual. There is a problem of proximity, a young body in contact with an older person (and the way this nearly always plays out via adult male and young girl is telling) is inappropriately intimate. When Maddie dances with LeBeouf and their bodies make contact, a line has been crossed. And Maddie (as with LeBeouf) has done something terrifically wrong. She shouldn’t use her body like this, it is not right. Surveillance must be practiced over the movement of a young body, and their body must not be touched, because their bodies are most significantly, sexual.
The repetition of rape culture discourse is obvious. To the young person: your body is essentially sexual, you must cover it over and move only in ways that other, more powerful, humans dictate. You must do this to protect yourself against violent sex crimes, and you will do it because you are ultimately responsible for your own protection. Of course there must be boundaries with minors. I would hope I don’t have to argue that, but here is a message that is burdened upon the most vulnerable time and time again. Do we ask ourselves if this is ever helpful? What is achieved through these rules for young bodies apart from an early body shaming and fear? And when we squeeze young bodies into a trajectory that assumes all physical expression and contact is sexual, surely it dulls both the imagination and the senses? This is particular true in pop music. Consider the Disney child who grows up and inevitably feels a need to express adulthood in sexual terms. To be clear, I have no problem with this, but it does seem that their trajectory has been set, their imagination captured, their senses dulled. They have heard, ‘when you have some autonomy and want to explore and express yourself, perhaps through your body and art, this will be sexual, because you are most significantly, sexual.’
In Elastic Heart Sia clearly tells a story about herself. You might say it is haunting, disturbing, beautiful, poignant. You could say lots of things. Maddie returns to play the role of Sia. She is a dancer, a performer that uses her body to tell a story that is as riveting as it is confounding. And yet all that many can see is sex (a sex that is disordered and shameful). Is this really the only thing that we have to say to young people about their bodies?