Through the Lens of Our Past

TRIGGER WARNING – Discussion about whether Sia’s music video for Elastic Heart sexualizes relationship between an adult male and a pubescent girl.

Recovery Starts Here

STATEMENT: I do NOT condone the sexualization or abuse of children. The question is: Does this video? Do not view it if you believe it may trigger you.

FFFRAIL from disillusioned graduate to functioning adult wrote Controversy versus Art about the recent scandal regarding Sia’s music video for Elastic Heart, in which Shia LaBeouf and Maddie Ziegler perform in flesh-colored dirt-covered leotards. Honestly, I really enjoyed this video as a work of performance art, but I was not a childhood victim of sex abuse. For those who were, their reaction may be quite different.

FFFRAIL‘s commentary on the controversy surrounding the video:

At the ages of 28 and 12 respectively Shia is a much older male performer than his female counterpart; and both are wearing neutral dance costumes… In reference to the nude costumes, I agree – initially it does look like they are naked in a cage together – however this is not the focal point of the video, there is nothing erotic about it. They are performing an interpretive dance and so their costumes are neutral so that we focus on their movements and expressions to understand the story that they are telling.

In my opinion I see these complaints as the sexualizing of a non-sexual video. It has an animalistic vibe to it, the two performers represent one person battling against themselves, with this struggle expressed through the choreography.

My comment to FFFRAIL in response to the video and FFFRAIL‘s analysis was, unlike this post, brief and to the point:

Incredible dance performance. I can see how it may trigger a survivor of sexual abuse, but is not necessarily sexual. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

Honestly, I found the performance moving and emotionally, not sexually, provocative. That said, the video could easily trigger someone who has been sexually abused. Our past experience colors how we perceive, react to, and interpret art such as this video.

The controversy surrounding this video reminds me of how my own views about the sexualization of young women have changed over the years. I’m not speaking of prepubescent or pubescent girls. Maddie Ziegler is clearly still very much a girl, albeit an extremely talented one.

13 year-old me sunbathing in Kauai

When I was thirteen, my family went on vacation to Kauai. On that trip, men whistled at me. I thought they were perverts, whistling at a 13-year-old girl. Years later, looking at pictures from that trip, my father pointed to a photo of me and insisted that it was my mother, arguing that she had my mother’s legs. I countered that I inherited my legs from my mom. Thanks, Mom, for the long legs. Maybe a leggy 13-year-old looks more like a woman than a girl.

Later as a high school student, I wore my hair in a bun and brought a textbook or play to study while sunning on the beach. I thought I looked under-age, but I probably resembled a college student. When men approached me and said hello, I would curtly inform them I was jail-bait and to go away. My husband believes that he spoke to me once when he was a college student. He recalls me giving him the brush off and pointing to my father to make my point and scare him away. He even remembers my father wearing his distinctive straw hat as he sat on our second-story deck overlooking the beach.

Flash forward a few decades: As a middle-aged mother of a 13-year-old boy, I was shocked at how physically mature his female classmates were. Unlike Maddie Ziegler, they appeared physically mature. Those girls looked like women, even though they most certainly were not. This is where laws, morality, social taboo, reason, and impulse control come in. As adults, we must protect those who may LOOK ready for what they are NOT yet ready.  This is where the village – society – comes in. We must STOP and PUNISH those who take advantage of those younger and less mature.

I realize many adolescents are sexually active. Over twenty years ago, I counseled pregnant and parenting teens and provided psychotherapy to adolescents in residential treatment. Based on my experience as a clinician, the younger an adolescent becomes sexually active and the greater the disparity in age between sexual partners, the greater imbalance of power in the relationship, the more abusive the relationship, and the more likely that the younger partner had been previously sexually abused.


18 responses to “Through the Lens of Our Past”

  1. Honestly, I’m not an expert here, even though when I was in my 20’s I did work with girls who had been sexually abused. Check out RAINN – Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network for more information.

  2. Kitt, I don’t know why but you totally inspire me trust so here it is: yep, I’ve had my relationships affected. Especially the romantic ones. That was kind of why I wondered if there was something I had to remember, so I could work on it, or if there was a way to somehow do it without the memories.

  3. Lack of insurance is a problem. Perhaps your mind is protecting you, and you do not need to remember. Just playing devil’s advocate. Has not remembering that chunk of time had a negative impact on your life? Are your relationships healthy?

  4. It’s definitely something I want to dig deeper into because there’s this chunk of my life that I do not remember when I was 5-6 years old, which is where we suspect I may have had some unfortunate experience that my mind has blocked out. It’s just not easy finding where to go, especially with the limitations of Medicaid.

  5. Childhood crushes are normal, as long as they are just that. Even seen films of girls swooning over the Beatles? Girls crazy about boy bands like One Direction? Totally normal. Not a symptom of having daddy issues. If you have relationships with older men — that’s different. Pattern of it may be about looking for father figure or about reenacting dynamics of previous sexual abuse.

  6. That last part had me giggling! I went through an intense phase of celebrity crushing, until I was about 15. I was always drawn to older men too, which my therapist says could have been my need to have that father figure I lacked. Luckily, I didn’t fall prey to any of those dangerous situations. Now that I’m older, I realize just how wrong those age gaps are… which were actually readily considered “acceptable” in my culture (sadly.)

  7. I totally agree with you, though I do feel compassion for those who it may have triggered. Aside from them, though, when people react by misrepresenting the piece or out of prudishness, it does seem an overreaction to past and present sins – sins of individuals, institutions, and society – in sexualizing girls. On the flip side, I think we must understand that as children develop, and their brains and bodies flush with hormones, they develop sexual desires. I remember having passionate crushes on heart-throbs (David Cassidy in the early 70s) as a young girl. But that does not make it right for adults to take advantage of young developing children. They lack the ability to make mature, informed decisions. They lack equal power. And, obviously, David Cassidy would have been one really sick man to fall in love with 8-year-old me (pig-tails, freckles, & buck teeth).

  8. I actually found this performance to be beautiful and tastefully done. I tried to pay attention to the movements as closely as possible and I didn’t see any sort of erotic or inappropriate placement of body parts where one would worry that a 12 year old performer was exposed to dancing a piece that could promote the wrong idea between a grown man and a child. I do have a history of sexual abuse (even if I do not recall it, I’ve always had an unnatural aversion to sex.)

    It was quite a moving piece that reflected a lot of varying human emotions. I suppose some could see it as “this man is struggling with what he feels for this girl” but to me it almost echoed as a part of him that he couldn’t let go from his own childhood… my mind is kind of on the fence on whether she was a representation of something in his past (as a child himself) to perhaps the desire some of us adults have to be “as free as children again.” I go back and forth on that.


    I’m tall and skinny. I’ve never looked my age. Flat chested too. I grew up thinking I was safe from men because I lacked the “sexy curves” most seemed to go for. I thought I was safe, I really did. Then one day at the beach, while wearing a summer dress I was approached by a man in his mid forties. My mom and I were window shopping. He looked fit, but you could definitely tell he was close to 50’s — it wasn’t that Johnny Depp agelessness. I was 14 years old, wiry and I thought I was safe, but he asked me out on a date, right in front of my mother.

    She looked at him and said, “Don’t you realize my daughter’s age?”

    He literally said, “Is there something wrong?”

    Mom, at this point, ready to slap him, replied, “She’s fourteen.”

    He looked at me again, I’ll never forget that look because it was obvious he didn’t care, but then he excused himself saying he was sorry, that he thought I was 18.

    There is definitely a problem in our society with this which is why I think that when a video like this pops up, there’s controversy. It’s like the world is trying to fix what they’ve condoned for years, by bashing anything with an age gap. It’s definitely nice to see the world acknowledges the problem of “old guys hitting on underage girls,” but extremes never make good campaigns.

  9. Just watched the SNL performance at

    Found the performance with Shia LaBeouf far more moving. The performance on SNL was dance. The one with LaBeouf was something far more than that. It had gravitas that his acting and physicality bring. Maddie Ziegler also performed better with LaBeouf. Their interaction was more real – in a good way, as performance artists – not in a sexualized way. The dancer in the SNL performance was not as skilled as an actor.

  10. I think the issue is that it can trigger someone who has been abused sexually as a child by an older male. Otherwise, I agree that it is not sexual and the young dancer is unbelievably talented.

  11. I didn’t see anything erotic about it…I saw Sia’s performance on “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend and remember thinking that that dancer is just amazing. I couldn’t tell if she was a preteen or just ultra-skinny, but she can dance circles around an adult any day. If you didn’t see it, here’s an article with the performance-

    I didn’t really see the “interpretation” part either, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed a detail everyone else saw.

  12. Began the post on the 14th, but I actually just published it.

  13. Hello! Thank you for such a wonderful, thought-provoking response to my post and apologies for how long it has taken for me to read. And thank you for sharing your story.
    One sentence in particular struck me: “We must STOP and PUNISH those who take advantage of those younger and less mature.” I wholeheartedly agree with you.

  14. Art that is open to interpretation is great for it provokes a response, thought and feelings. Glad you, too, enjoyed it.

  15. I don’t perceive anything sexual about this piece. In my interpretation it looks like a father and daughter. The daughter approaching adolescence, and as adolescents often do, is beginning to challenge her parent and make decision that may not be in her best interest but is figuring things out and learning lessons as we do in our early years. The father seems to be trying desperately to protect her and keep her safe from the decisions he knows will end in her ending up hurt but she pushes him away and fights for her independence. She escapes the cage but he cannot reach her to save her. Near the end it seems like she is maturing and coming back to a closer relationship with her parent as we do as we mature. It looks like he is older and maybe dying in the end and she is desperately trying to save him and keep him with her.

    That could have absolutely nothing to do with what that video is supposed to be about, but that is how it appeared to me and I enjoyed it. It is an amazing work of art. I do not, however, find anything sexual about it. They don’t seem to have that relationship with each other.

  16. I am so sorry that you were raped as a young woman. I hold you in my prayers for continued healing.

    As always, your insights are appreciated and on target. Creating a work of performance art as excellent as that video took many hours of intense work with the potential for exploitation in terms of child labor, overwork, stress, and emotional damage.

    NO MORE exploitation, violence, and rape.

  17. I have seen this video and think it is a stunning piece of interpretive dance. I didn’t know the female dancer is only 12; my concern now is for her heart, knowing the power of such intimacy as must have developed during the thousands of hours that had to have gone into its preparation. As far as being in any way predatory, I myself do not see that. It is a work of high art that could not have been coerced except perhaps in the way artists are often taken advantage of, regardless of their age.

    I am at heart cynical about the pairing of young girls with older men, because the abuses of women in the performing arts is legendary, and the psychological effects of youth and fame are more often than not detrimental. All we need to do is look at Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and so many other child stars whose childhood evaporated in the face of fame. This, in addition to the peril of the girl falling in love with her dance partner and being wounded in a non-trivial way.

    As a young performing artist in my twenties, but appearing much younger, I was constantly fighting off “the casting couch” and was forcibly raped more than once. That did not stop me from performing, but it did stop my performing career. People would be shocked if I named names. Fortunately the worst of them drowned a couple of years ago, and I would not even dance on his grave, although I might desecrate it. No need. I’m sure he’s being well “rewarded” and will plague no other young hopefuls.

    So, a long winded comment on a complex issue. I hope the girl will be all right.

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