Much speculation has been made since the video for Sia’s “Elastic Heart” was released last week about what goes down in the video using terms like half naked, violent, cage match and pedophilia. I’ve seen little expressed about the interpretation of this video as two warring internal forces as depicted by two incredibly well matched performers through the art of movement and drama.
I was elated to discover when I came home the day I watched the video for the first and second time that my husband was just as compelled and captivated by the visceral and interpretive nature of the video, not to say the least of the sheer physical achievements of both Maddie and Shia.
We watched the video again several times and then had a long discussion over what we saw as a myriad of possibly intended meanings but what we ultimately understood to be a deliberate lack of easy answers particularly if looked at only as a literal translation of two people fighting in a cage.
My husband made me think about things I would never have thought to examine while watching the video, mainly because I looked at it from a very stereotypical female perspective ie, the female perspective by way of a patriarchal framework . I could only see a study of opposition which placed Maddie in a position of being trapped and wanting to escape. But I was very aware that Shia’s performance was one of deep, raw, fear, panic, loss, vulnerability and victimization as well, emotions that are traditionally relegated to a female performance because they are seen as weak. The choice to cast him was nothing if not deliberate and thoughtful. My husband made me understand that Shia’s character was just as abused, as scared and as lost than Maddie’s character could be conceived to be if not more.
The idea that this video has anything to do with pedophilia simply because it pits a twelve year old girl physically against an adult man was shed for me within minutes of what I comprehended as two beings equally matched in physical power who were battling against larger, more symbolic forces of pain, addiction, abuse, fear and liberation from imposed victimhood. This is far beyond the pornographic images cranked out by the White male gaze we are so accustomed to viewing the world through. When White men speak power, a woman or person of color is always in chains of some shape or form. The cage is never interrogated, studied or interpreted. It simply functions to keep pacification, marginalization, perversion and self-hate cultivated and prosperous. And that is not this video does.
But I can understand how we as a society, which is not accustomed to seeing life through a female gaze might find itself despondent and shocked when being confronted with one in much the same way that a nation can be despondent and shocked at seeing a Black man elected to Presidential Office.
What did James Baldwin say in “The Fire Next Time” about what happens when dominant oppressive culture reacts to those who have been enslaved and subverted for decades, breaking free from their chains? He said that to those who benefited from the placing and maintenance of those chains it would appear upon waking in the morning that the night stars were shining in the blue sky.
Or as Leonard Cohen in “The Future” Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions, won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore…”
When women speak power, it is a very different thing than that which we are daily fed by a dominant patriarchal system. Out power is not in dominance but in vulnerability and allowing access. “Elastic Heart” takes to task ideas which speak to what happens when one part of the self tries to liberate itself from another and how much of that self identifies with something which no longer serves it although it experiences the heartbreaking pain of loss when it attempts to separate.
Patriarchy could give a fuck about these ideas.
The use of dance as a form with which to represent these two embattled parts of Sia and humanity as a whole to be honest, are both personal and universally human at the same time. We sometimes have the tendency to want certain artistic expressions to be very literal, to reveal themselves and their purpose or narrative based on reflections of our own inner projections and collections of specific past experiences. And while I am certain that there are specific experiences in Sia’s life that this song and video are inspired by, I don’t believe that she is depicting any one particular experience. I think it is vague because she seeks connect with a broad meaning of the struggle she attempts to depict and not just her own.
For me, the cage is an obvious metaphor but in addition to that, there is much that occurs in the relationship between these two performers that can be interpreted narratively in many ways. But the assumption that this is just about a small girl being overpowered by an adult man is just a way to provoke and challenge viewers to go deeper.
With regard to the metaphor of bird cages, particularly around the construct of what it means to be undervalued, abused and marginalized in a world dominated by fear, I was moved to revisit the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou. For me, Shia’s behavior best illustrates the caged bird syndrome, someone who wants to get out, but who is also become a victim of a comfort dangerously associated with reward based on pacification and subservience. And Maddie is the part of the bird that wants to fly free and leave the cage. When she leaves, Shia dies and she attempts to do what cannot be done, which is to drag him out into a perceived freedom beyond the bars. But freedom from any cage cannot bring along any elements of the caged mindset. By law, the two simple cannot co-exist, because one of them is not real. Or rather neither of them is any longer real to the other once they separate.