Earlier this year Sia released a new single, Elastic Heart, with an accompanying music video that drew controversy for featuring Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf and Dance Moms star Maddie Ziegler performing a contemporary dance together; some viewers considered the costumes they were wearing, the physical contact between them, and the general choreography of the dance to be inappropriate given the age gap between the two (LaBeouf was 28 and Ziegler 12, at the time), commenting that it was suggestive and possible to read as paedophilic. Others praised the video as artistic, affecting, and for the skill of the performers, arguing that it its decriers were feeding into media hysteria about paedophilia and that the video’s content was not sexualised (for a selection of responses, see here, here, and here). My interest in the song and its accompanying visual presentation lies in how it has subsequently been performed on television, where a variety of strategies seem to have been employed that effectively remove the possibility of similar controversy arising.
Sia has appeared on a number of American entertainment shows to sing Elastic Heart, and much as with her preceding single, Chandelier (which also featured a video danced by Maddie Ziegler), dance has been part of these live performances. It is notable that while the Chandelier television spots frequently included Ziegler performing alongside Sia in a reasonably close recreation of the original music video’s style and choreography, Elastic Heart performances have tended to be very different, sometimes not involving Ziegler, and never involving LaBeouf. While there could be several reasons for these differences – contractually, scheduling-wise, and so forth – it is also possible that the modifications made to the original Elastic Heart aesthetic for its televised performances can help identify a significant boundary surrounding the combinations of bodily aesthetics that may be ‘comfortably’ depicted in this context.
For example, in a live performance on Dancing With The Stars, the choreography of Elastic Heart featured two couples, still mixed in gender but not mixed in age; two young dancers and two adult dancers performed together side by side, screened from each other by a dividing wall.
Does this suggest that while the performance here was able to retain the presence of both child and adult dancers, the mixed-gender physical contact had deliberately been separated into age-appropriate pairings in order to provide a less controversial visual? (As opposed to – for example – showing Derek Hough dancing with the young female performer Emma York, which would have more closely aligned with the original Elastic Heart video). Even in this choreography, while adult female dancer Julianne Hough can cross the walled divide briefly to perform a move with York (at 1.26), the male dancers do not break the divide; in fact their choreography of dragging each other in opposing directions at either side of the doorway actively prevents them from doing so (1.53). This element of the design is reminiscent of the inability of LaBeouf to leave the cage in the original video, yet the modifications subtly ensure that a couple that is both mixed age and mixed gender is never formed during the dance.
Elastic Heart – Dancing With The Stars
On a prior episode of Dancing With The Stars, Chandelier had been danced by Ziegler and Alison Holker together, and on the televised Grammy Awards show by Ziegler and Kristen Wiig together, all dressed in the flesh-coloured costuming. This appears to suggest that an older female dancer wearing this and touching/lifting Ziegler was not considered likely to appear problematic in the same way as Ziegler-LaBeouf had. Interestingly, when Sia performed on Saturday Night Live the aesthetic formula of Ziegler plus an adult female dancer was borrowed from Chandelier and used for Elastic Heart, displaying another subtle avoidance of replicating the original dynamic.
Chandelier – Dancing With The Stars
Chandelier – Grammy Awards
Elastic Heart – Saturday Night Live
In a performance of Elastic Heart on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Ziegler danced with a mixed gender group of adult dancers, but in this instance the setting and costuming was very different to the original Elastic Heart, with Ziegler’s role in the performance heavily reduced, and the gender of the adult dancers visually rendered less visible and less binary via the use of drag.
Taken together, and combined with a version of the song on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that featured Ziegler and other young female performers – shown on this occasion with their bodies hidden and restricted by boxes – the aforementioned examples would seem to suggest that any combination of ages and genders dancing Elastic Heart together was considered non-problematic aside from partnerships that were obviously cross-age and cross-gender, as the original Ziegler-LaBeouf video had been.
Elastic Heart – Jimmy Kimmel Live Elastic Heart – The Ellen Show
In an opinion piece about the original video for The Guardian, Barbara Ellen asks: “[I]s it because LaBeouf was in Elastic Heart – so presumably a woman performing the same dance with Ziegler would have been perfectly fine. Is this where we are now: society flinching from the sight of a man and a girl performing together in any way that hasn’t been entirely emotionally neutered?” If the examples I’m looking at were to provide an answer to these questions, it would – at least in the contexts presented here – appear to be ‘yes’. The comments on Ellen’s article contain a range of views on the video; some people affirm their (non-paedophilic) interpretations, with a number perceiving a father-daughter relationship between the two characters, while others considered it a metaphor for mental health problems, overcoming addiction, or as a depiction of non-human creatures. Another set of commenters viewed the pairing as inappropriate, citing the flesh-coloured costumes or the presence of a male performer, specifically, as being unnecessary and therefore deliberately provocative, and this is a point that I want to consider further.
A complicating factor in my argument (and indeed, in Ellen’s) is that on the same season of Dancing With The Stars that Sia’s live performances were featured, one of the contestants in the competition part of the show was Willow Shields, a 14 year old actress known for her role in The Hunger Games, who was paired with 28 year old Mark Ballas; while this partnership attracted some criticism, it was minor in comparison to that received by the Ziegler-LaBeouf video. I would suggest that the key difference in how these partnerships have been perceived lies in what the Ellen article commenters have pin-pointed: the precise costumes worn by the performers, and the necessity of the presence of the male performer. Wearing the costumes and make-up typical for women performers on Dancing With The Stars, on the dancefloor Shields’ age is hard to distinguish from the dancers around her. Additionally, the fact that the competition necessarily requires her to be paired with an experienced professional dancer provides a cushioning framework around the situation: viewers can see why, if Shields is to have a chance to appear on the programme at all, she must dance with Ballas in this temporary arrangement. Conversely, the comments on the original Elastic Heart video and on articles about it show that viewers have not been so easily able to see why, unless it was deliberately to court controversy, LaBeouf should have been cast with Ziegler to portray the narrative of “two warring ‘sia’ self states” (sic) that Sia has stated is behind the performance.
Indeed, the celebrity persona of LaBeouf is likely to be an important factor in perceptions of the video, as while Ziegler’s persona is established as a ‘famous young dancer’ through the Dance Moms series, and her role in Sia’s music videos as a representation of Sia was also already in place, LaBeouf is typically presented by the media as ‘troubled’ and ‘controversial’ (for example here, or here). Although his credentials as a performance artist may be recognised, casting him in Elastic Heart is significantly different from casting someone already known as a dancer, or even from casting an unknown professional dancer to interact with Ziegler. From a semiotic point of view, sporting an unkempt beard, dirty underwear and little else is open to connotations of paedophile stereotypes, and LaBeouf’s developed muscles and tattoos clearly signal his physical maturity. Meanwhile, Ziegler’s bleached blonde wig and make-up can be associated with adult performances of femininity at the same time as her size and shape, made clearly visible by the leotard, is reflective of her true age (a visual incongruity often noted in criticism of child beauty pageants, or concerning the sexualisation of young people). In other words, the adult-child age disparity is highlighted by the appearances of Ziegler and LaBeouf as they dance, in a way that is not visually replicated in the case of Shields and Ballas, where a mitigation of difference is present – one similar to those seen employed in the other televised examples of Elastic Heart via the blurring or separation of genders and/or ages. Together with a narrative framework that appears to adequately explain the bodily combinations on display, these scenarios therefore become more ‘visually acceptable’ while the stark and undisguised differences between Ziegler and LaBeouf in the original Elastic Heart render it more open to opprobrium.
Shields and Ballas on Dancing With The Stars
Thanks to the influence of psychoanalytic metaphors on popular culture, design elements of the Sia song visuals such as boxes, cages and windowed rooms have become well established as representations of aspects of the body and mind, while domestic interiors can also be seen as heavily gendered spaces, and it may be that these performances are visually rehearsing a whole range of messages about gender, the simultaneous trapping and display – or hiding – of bodies, and about barriers that are not comfortably overstepped. But at the very least, the fact that Elastic Heart performances have consistently avoided recreating the pairing of a young girl with an older man while performances of both Elastic Heart and Chandelier have included a young girl-older woman dynamic seems significant. I suggest it is indicative of how controversy, and indeed the effect of controversy (after the initial media interest in the Ziegler-LaBeouf video had occurred), concerning ‘appropriate’ physical contact and attire in performance is heightened when it comes to the former dynamic. It is reasonable to see this as a reflection (admittedly, generalised) of societal suspicions about who is most likely to make sexual advances or perpetrate abuse, and upon whom, and therefore to suggest that fear about the possibility for certain visuals to be read as inappropriate can lead to pre-emptive mitigating actions in the design of performances. For popular entertainment television, a dance performance in which the bodies of a very obviously mixed age and gender pairing are displayed and make contact with each other is a visual too risky to present.
Beccy Collings works in the Interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities at the University of East Anglia, and is in the final stages of a PhD titled: ‘Shedding light on dark comedy: humour and aesthetics in British dark comedy television.’ The work examines the ways dark comedies borrow (and subvert) the aesthetics of genres associated with graphic portrayals of human physicality and pathologised behaviour, focussing humour around notions of the fragile integrity of the human body and mind. My other research interests include Body in Performance, Action Film, Adult Film and Celebrity Culture. firstname.lastname@example.org