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Content Note: This article discusses a music video that depicts a very raw battle of the sexes in a cage and has been criticized for the age gap between the girl (12) and the man (27). The article also discusses abusive relationships and the sexual assault of a man by a woman.
Since it was dropped on the internet this Wednesday, Sia’s new music video is receiving a lot of attention, rightfully so. The video and the song are both powerful works of art. I have yet to make it to the end of the video without breaking into tears after the music stops.
Some people have been lashing out at Sia, saying the video is a depiction of pedophilia, but Sia has responded to that accusation, saying it was not her intention. Instead, she wants people to know that the use of Shia LaBeouf and Maddie Ziegler was intentional, that she couldn’t see anyone else in the roles, that they were meant to be the two sides of herself battling in this song.
The reception and reaction to a piece of art contribute to its cultural impact as surely as the original piece of work. How tragic, then, is it that the powerful message of this song and video are obscured by those who can’t see beyond the ages of the dancers? Their interaction, while occasionally tender and affectionate, never comes even close to being sexual in nature. It is easier to see them as father and daughter than as lovers, though the overall message and narrative of their dance could be applied to many abusive romantic relationships as well.
Having the unbelievably talented 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler reprise her role as Sia’s stand-in from the video for “Chandelier” was clearly the right choice. Mr. LaBeouf is, in many ways, a perfect companion to Ziegler. While he is incredibly muscular and masculine, he is also compact enough that their age gap doesn’t have to be the entire focus of the video. He complements her size and stature, and the two play off each other very well. Watch the video below and judge for yourself.
The two characters are clearly engaged in some kind of ongoing interaction when the video begins. We do not know the backstory; we must fill that in for ourselves. They are standing on opposite sides of the cage, sizing one another up. Their expressions are both somewhere between anger/aggression and fear. They circle one another, and she fends off his first approach with a feral roar. It’s almost impossible to tell who the real aggressor is; her actions and reactions are so furious, and he so often looks hurt and confused that it’s a very blurry line.
This is what is so raw and beautiful about this video: how perfectly it captures the heartbreaking experience of loving someone who is damaging to you. The two fight each other off, provoke one another, retreat wounded, and still can not stop approaching each other, despite the hurt and fury. At the end of the video, after the song stops, the viewer can’t help but feel the desperation and hopelessness as the man realizes that she can not pull him out of the cage, that he is trapped. That truth is a hard-earned one for many; we can not change those we love, no matter how desperately we try. They are the only ones who can change themselves.
The acting is so powerful, the emotions so varied, that one could easily do a reading of this video from a very different perspective, especially given Mr. LaBeouf’s recent candid admission that he was the victim of a rape himself. There are many points in the video where he seems weaker than Ziegler, powerless against her. Considering the disgusting backlash since he has come out about his assault, the image of the tiny girl punching him, striking him and throwing him bodily into the bars of the cage almost seems like a response to all that vitriol. It immediately calls into mind the flurry of commentary about how men can’t be raped by women or overpowered by them.
However you choose to interpret the video, it’s safe to say that Shia LaBeouf and Maddie Ziegler both turned in amazing performances that do Sia’s powerful song justice. This video is a very visceral, powerful work of art, one that everyone involved in its production can be proud of. What do you think it means? Let me know in the comments below.