Maiden Voyages: July 2017

Mission Statement: As this site developed, it has become more and more apparent that it serves a greater purpose than one would assume at first glance.  As if living in a nightmarish world of doublespeak, it seems as if the mainstream culture would portray us as misanthropes.  We have, in fact, pursued the exploration of the subject of little girls with a sincere desire for self-knowledge.  Every investigation and every decision has two sides and thus we are not only examining the character and nature of little girls themselves, but why they have such a psychological effect on us.  A few serious people out there understand this and realize that this site must survive and persistently make its presence known to the mainstream community.  It was thought that to help bridge the gap, there should be an explicit mission statement so that those unfamiliar with this site and who might get the wrong first impression can see that this is a serious endeavor with a challenging mission.  The first four, and most essential, clauses in this statement have now been published—each introduced through the Facebook page and then added to the ‘Mission Statement’ page here.  More clauses will be added, but the key points are now in place and other pages will be added in time to make Pigtails in Paint a more effective resource and launching point for relevant and constructive social change.

An Image is Worth a Thousand Words: In the June ‘Maiden Voyages’ I reported how Google+ censored a photograph by Ilona Szwarc, hinting that it “depicts the exploitation or abuse of children” or “presents children in a sexual manner”. Now Christian informs me that his profile was temporarily suspended under a similar pretext after having participated to a Google+ discussion group opposing the stigmatization of minorities and, by extension, pedophiles; which was eventually banned. On the other hand, groups or individual profiles propagating hate, in particular glorifying Nazism or promoting anti-Semitism have not been removed, despite being reported; some of this content happens to be illegal in certain European countries, according to anti-racist watchdog organizations. So efforts are underway to put pressure on Google if it wishes to continue operating in those countries.  For any Google+ users who want to protest this hypocrisy, they can write on the profile of the Google+ owner or on the Google+ Help community.

Rescuing the Girl Next Door: There is a new film called The Book of Henry (2017) about a boy who uses his genius to help others.  His next door neighbor, played by Maddie Ziegler, is being abused by her stepfather while Henry helps strategize what to do about it.  You can watch the trailer here.

Archetypes of Femininity: A colleague recommended an interesting book published in 1988 called Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sìecle Culture by Bram Dijkstra.  It is an intelligent overview of the perceptions of women in Victorian times and how that shaped their portrayal in imagery.  Dijkstra’s research is excellent, but he condemns artists too much for being the products of their own age.  It also points out how artists, including women, could only gain success if their work presented acceptable subjects and interpretations.  The eventual fascination with the girl child came about in an age that was infantilizing women and artists were escaping to so-called purer forms supposedly devoid of the evils of sexuality undeniable in the adult female form.  Because of this, it became possible for artists, like Charles Dodgson, to explore—however subconsciously—the eroticism of children with impunity.  This offers some real insight into the cultural environment these artists worked in.  The book is more valuable for its observations of cultural movements and how they shape today’s attitudes rather than Dijkstra’s opinion on the merit of particular artists.  The book is discussed on Celestial Venus and a book review can be found here.

Putting the Nature Back in Naturism: An associate mentioned a couple of images he found featuring naturists in the San Francisco area.  The TreeSpirit Project  founded and photographed by Jack Gescheidt was already reviewed by Pip but continues to add new images of which prints can be ordered.  It is important to realize that nudity can be used as an important political tactic that is both consistent with the group’s agenda while challenging people’s perceptions and complacency.

Child Models and Actors: Often lost in the sensationalist debate is the reality of child modeling and the children’s perception of their experience.  One of our readers has been feeding me interesting articles and tidbits on this subject and I keep meaning to pass them on.  So for the next few months, I will be publishing the links here until I have gotten through all of them.  Most of these items have to do with the stigmatization of children being nude, but I know that these issues overlap with many other ethical and legal subjects as well.  The first submission is anecdotal; it appears that there is actually a Facebook fashion blog that features a nude girl as its avatar.  I have also been informed that a nude image was successfully uploaded on IMDb from The Spy Who Caught a Cold recently reviewed on this site.

A Skin Thing: The producers of a recent exhibition called Skin Thing in Australia made a very apt choice for introductory speaker, Olympia Nelson.  Those familiar with Nelson will remember that her family became the subject of controversy and she courageously defended her mother’s (Polixeni Papapetrou) work publicly at the tender age of ten. Interestingly, there are reports that the artist will soon be releasing certain images that were held back at that time because of the thoughtless and hurtful comments received.

Maiden Voyages: April 2017

Art Style Advisor Wanted: Thanks go to Christian for rigorously reviewing old posts and updating them and, more importantly, streamlining the classification system to remove confusion and redundancies.  However, he is not an expert on artistic styles and movements and we are still in need of someone who can help us with these categories now that Pip only has time to work on this site sporadically.  Someone please come forward, even if you are only knowledgeable on a small range of art styles or media.

Pigtails Welcomes New Writer: I am delighted that yet another fan of this site has agreed to do some writing.  His first proposal is to do a series of commentaries on single ‘Compelling Images’ such as that of William Klein.  Many of the artists he proposes to cover have only done incidental work with little girls and so it is a great way to bring attention to these photographers.  The use of the handle “D.F. Ottewill” is an homage to the camera Charles Lutwidge Dodgson used to take the famous Beggar Maid photograph—the Double-Folding Ottewill.

Where One Can’t Prosecute, One Can Always Censor: One of our readers, who offers interesting leads from time to time is a child model agent.  She has offered a number of insights into the world of modeling and the conditions under which these children must work.  In the past month, two of her sites were shut down without warning with explanations that she violated the Terms of Service (TOS).  This tiresome tactic is used all too often to eliminate any material a company does not want to be associated with no recourse for the customer.  I have seen the site and can tell you that the top page has a few images of girls in various costumes (no nudity) and one can click to see the second page which contains some partial nudes.  I can assure readers that those photos were innocent out-of-the-bath/shower shots and contained no frontal nudity or suggestive poses —a towel, bath toy or other object was always strategically placed.  The agent has requested that Pigtails not link to her site in fear that more aggressive zealots would make even more trouble for her and her business.

Paranoia in the Streets of Paris: After producing the Perrusset post, the photographer told me a couple of interesting anecdotes about the challenges of his work.  I decided to add these to the end of that post so readers can take another look.

Dance Prodigy’s New Book: Maddie Ziegler, 14, whose interesting work has been posted on this site has now released a new book, The Maddie Diaries.

New Joshua Hoffine Film: In WCL’s post on this photographer, a new film had just been released and, at the time, no copies were available for review.  It is a pleasure to inform readers that the video can now be viewed on Vimeo.  If you are a fan of this photographer and filmmaker, take a look at Black Lullaby right away in case it should be removed.

Famous Postcard Girl: I have heard a lot in the past couple of years about the discovery of the identity of the little girl pictured in a number of iconic Edwardian postcards.  It seemed a suitable subject for a Pigtails post but since so much has already been published on the subject, it would be foolish to spend time duplicating someone else’s efforts.  If you collect vintage postcards of little girls, chances are you own some Grete Reinwalds.

Where’s the Line? One of the anecdotes offered by the agent mentioned above is the issue of what is acceptable nudity in child models and under what circumstances.  Whenever someone tries to spell out some standards, they seem arbitrary and absurd.  For example, another agent has taken nude shots of children (including her own), but does not publish them on her website.  However, her nudes of babies and toddlers appear openly without comment.  The Mexx Kids ad caused quite a stir but something like these Cinta Child ads (here and here) do not.  What’s the distinction?  Age?  Skin Color?

Removal Requests: From time to time, artists or their agents request that their work be removed from this site.  In the past, we have complied because we did not want to make trouble and wished to fly “under the radar”.  Since that is no longer possible, removals will only take place under compelling circumstances.  Otherwise, like it or not, artwork and other media images will be legally drafted in service to the noble political purpose of this site.  Given the usual ignorance and narrow-mindedness of these requests, it is not possible to spell out what is considered a “compelling reason” as artists will simply use one of these excuses to cover up their real objections.

Anime and Manga on Pigtails: A reader sent me samples of numerous manga artists requesting that we cover this medium/genre more.  The contribution is appreciated but the real problem is that none of us is knowledgeable enough to say something constructive about these works.  I would once again like to offer an invitation to manga/anime fans who can write to please contribute to this site.

The Quagmire of Internet Research: This is a bit off-topic, but one of the points of Pigtails in Paint is to make certain material accessible and not have to compete with more “popular” politically-correct material that may have less relevance.  It is annoying how many searches yield nonsensical results and one must sift through these redundancies just to find the object of one’s clearly-defined search.  Here is an interesting article that discusses some of the interesting aspects of this issue.

Maiden Voyages: October-November 2016

Welcome readers to a belated Maiden Voyages.  Within two weeks of my fruitful research trip, Mother Nature unleashed her chaos and I had a freak accident at home which sent me to the hospital.  As traumas go, it was a minor one but recovery is gradual.  My injuries have made it difficult to sit for a long time which is why there have been no posts from me in a while.  To make matters worse, my private business has been busier than ever.  Many days I have intended to work on a post or reply to emails to find myself too exhausted mentally and physically.  This has taken an emotional toll as I deal with bureaucracy of the broken American medical system.  I thank my friends and readers for their well wishes and promise to continue as I am able.  My research trip has been an inspiration and I have many interesting things to share.  However, producing a post to my standards does take time and cannot be done in one sitting.  I still believe Pigtails in Paint has an important function and should continue to do so.  I also encourage those interested in composing posts for this site to please do so.

Mission Statement: One of the ideas that came from my trip was the urgent need for a mission statement.  It goes without saying that Pigtails covers a number of controversial subjects associated with little girls.  However, like the proverbial elephant in the living room, it is an important subject that the conventions of society would have us ignore, trivialize or offer patent simplistic answers to.  Once posted, the ‘Mission Statement’ will reflect what I have learned to date about the valuable function this site serves, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.

Lessons from Behind the Iron Curtain: A Jock Sturges show titled ‘Absence of Shame’ was recently closed in Moscow after protests and charges that the work was child pornography. The government investigated and concurred with the complainants and ordered it shut down.  Given the U.S. President-Elect’s admiration for Russian methods for controlling its people, one has to wonder how much the United States will be following suit in the years to come.  Our readers should be reminded that Pigtails has been blocked in that country since 2014 and can only be accessed through proxy servers.

A Fresh New Site: I was informed of an interesting new site covering young girl portraiture.  The blogger states that: “The intention is to help redress, in admittedly a very limited way, the imbalance that exists with regard to images of girls online.”  It seems that image sites such as Tumblr delete any blogs that seem to be concentrating on young girls though specific policies regarding young girls are not clearly spelled out in the respective ToS (Terms of Service). Girls’ Portraiture intends to offer proper context to images rather than the popular convention of presenting a mash of random and unidentified images.

New Sia Video: Here is another one featuring Maddie Ziegler (plus a bunch of other kids).  There are also a couple other older videos of hers that may have been overlooked. One called Big Girls Cry has Maddie in it and another called Alive has a cute little Asian girl doing martial arts. It seems that the theme of children and little girls is a long-standing one for Sia.  In Alive, the little girl does a series of forms (kata in Japanese) which happen to be very advanced—done only by brown and black belts, an impressive accomplishment for a girl that age.

Vintage Postcards: An excellent collection of vintage postcards featuring girls and children has been brought to my attention.  Take a look here.

Site Design: Thanks to the efforts of supporters, there will be a noticeable change in the appearance of this blog.  It was my intent to have these changes take effect this month when our domain name was renewed.  However, unavoidable delays on all fronts means that these changes are likely to be implemented in the new year.  There will be a new banner designed by one of our artists and the layout style and site functions will be updated to make the site more professional.

The Kiss of Death: It has been brought to my attention that one of the films reviewed on this site, The Spy Who Caught a Cold, was deleted from YouTube.  It has become clear to me that because of the large readership of Pigtails, we have become a source of intelligence for the “decency police”.  Therefore, readers should know that any relevant video materials appearing on YouTube are copied in the course of doing the relevant posts.  If any reader would like an MP4 copy of such a film that can be viewed on a computer, it can be made available for download (assuming the video is unavailable elsewhere).

Maiden Voyages: September 2015

A Growth Spurt: pigtailsinpaint.com is now on a dedicated server. This has been necessary due to the large volume of traffic on the site. This also affords us some independence, strengthening our position and giving us more flexibility.

A Distraction: Another development is the loss of our technical support person. Due to a personal crisis that may take a while to resolve, he can no longer offer the kind of service he would like. Therefore, we have begun to hire various independent, but professional, contractors to provide a number of services for the site and the server. For example, some malware was just purged from the site. Those of you who recently experienced pop-ups when navigating the site will find that they have ceased. I had intended to set up an infrastructure so we can solicit donations from able readers, but I had to adjust to these new developments and instead intend to have things in place by next month’s ‘Maiden Voyages’.

The Zieglers March On: Pip tipped me off about an article on Maddie Ziegler appearing in Elle. It seems she has been doing some runway modeling for charity, cheerfully accompanied by her little sister, Mackenzie. For those who are not familiar, Maddie is the actress who appeared in two much-talked-about music videos.

In Process: We were fortunate a little while ago to see a painting by Scott Affleck in progress. I have just been informed that the work was recently completed and so that version can now be seen on that post.

Evolution of the Body: A supporter provided an interesting lead about a review by Artspace staff about the evolution of the human body in 20th Century art. It took excerpts and images from The Art Book (2012), recently published by Phaidon.

David Hofmann: Dream Job

David Hofmann is a photographer of girls’ dance.  He’s a commercial photographer based in Los Angeles who has worked on seven feature films, does nature photography, editorial photography and has become well known in certain circles for his characteristic photography of girls’ dance under the name “SharkCookie”.

David Hofmann, David and Friends (2014)

David Hofmann – David and Friends (2014)

David prefers to use natural light and aims for an “uncontrived” style that stands out from typical studio sessions.  He capitalizes on the natural assets of his SoCal environs, often working with the urban backdrop of LA or on seaside beaches for his shoots.

Many of David’s subjects are superstars within the world of American girls’ dance—the foremost being Maddie Ziegler who has become well-known after appearing in three of rock-star Sia’s videos, Chandelier, Elastic Heart, and Big Girls Cry.  In fact Maddie has previously been featured on Pigtails in Paint.

David and Maddie Ziegler (2013)

David Hofmann – David and Maddie Ziegler (2014)

Maddie started dancing very young with the notoriously loudmouthed and domineering Abby Lee; Abby’s dance company would later be featured on the popular American television show Dance Moms which has now run five seasons.  The success of the show rocketed not only Maddie, but several of her co-stars to relative fame and contributed greatly to the mass appeal of girls’ dance around the world.

David Hofmann - Maddie Ziegler (2013)

David Hofmann – Maddie Ziegler (2014)

Chloe Lukasiak is another of the Dance Moms stars to grace David’s lens.  She too started dancing for Abby Lee at a very young age.

David Hofmann – David and Chloe Lukasiak (2014)

David Hofmann – David and Chloe Lukasiak (2014)

Like Maddie, Chloe has also made numerous other television appearances besides Dance Moms and has performed in several music videos.

David Hofmann – Chloe Lukasiak (2014)

David Hofmann – Chloe Lukasiak (2014)

Sophia Lucia, while not a regular on Dance Moms, nevertheless made four appearances on the show.  She is arguably the most technically virtuosic of American girl dancers having won mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for performing fifty-five consecutive pirouettes.

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David Hofmann – David and Sophia Lucia (2013)

Like the other girls, Sophia has made numerous television appearances including Dancing with the Stars, Shake it Up, So You Think You Can Dance, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and even a McDonald’s commercial.  She has her own line of dance gear marketed via “California Kisses”.

David Hofmann – Sophia Lucia (2014)

David Hofmann – Sophia Lucia (2014)

Unlike the above girls, Autumn Miller declined to participate in Dance Moms, her mother apparently rejecting the overture.  Still she has followed a similar career path, appearing on Shake it Up, Dancing with the Stars and so on; she was featured in Willow Smith’s music video Whip My Hair and various commercial and modeling gigs.  Autie too was also featured on Pigtails in Paint.

David Hofmann – David with Autumn Miller (2012)

David Hofmann – David with Autumn Miller (2012)

Although Autumn never had the television exposure some of David’s other stars did, she is perhaps the most popular and well-known in girls’ dance due to her repeated successes at Dance Nationals and her creative YouTube show, “Autie’s Freestyle Friday“.

David Hofmann – Autumn Miller (2012)

David Hofmann – Autumn Miller (2012)

While David has photographed numerous girls who dance, a few others are popular and worthy of mention.

David Hofmann – Mia Diaz (2013)

David Hofmann – Mia Diaz (2013)

Mia Diaz appeared only once on Dance Moms but is very well-known and liked in the world of girls’ dance.  Like the other girls, she began dancing as a toddler and has won oodles of dance competitions.

David Hofmann – Jordyn Jones with David’s camera (2014)

Jordyn Jones is another popular young dancer who moves in the Hollywood set.  Incidentally Jordyn has produced a series of high quality music videos showcasing her dance covering a number of current pop songs such as “Fancy“, “Lip Gloss“, and “Banji“.

David coincidentally has a young daughter himself, Avaree, who is a dancer and whom he often photographs.

David Hofmann – David and daughter Avaree (2014)

David Hofmann – David and daughter Avaree (2014)

While Avaree may not be the super star dancer that some of David’s clients are, it seems she has at least one die-hard fan!

David Hoffman – Daughter Avaree (2015)

David Hoffman – Daughter Avaree (2015)

David’s professional site can be found here and his very active Instagram account is here.  There are several behind-the-scenes videos of David’s photo shoots, one of which can be viewed here.

Elastic Art: Maddie Ziegler and the Sia Videos

Overview

The music video for Sia’s Chandelier dropped on May 6th, 2014, and it immediately invited controversy due to 11-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler’s flesh-tone leotard which, in a certain light, makes her appear to be nude.  Soon after, the video went viral, becoming the seventh most-watched video clip of 2014 on YouTube; it has since amassed over 450 million hits there.  The controversy mostly abated, however, when the video received widespread critical acclaim, with Time magazine’s Nolan Feenay praising Ziegler for the best dance performance of 2014.  It went on to be nominated for both Video of the Year and Best Choreography at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, winning the latter.  It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Video.

Despite the controversy—or maybe because of it—the video, directed by Daniel Askill and Sia herself, made its mark, inspiring parodies by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel (he and fellow Jimmy Kimmel Live! cast member Guillermo Rodriquez were even assisted in learning the moves by Maddie herself) and Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live.  Maddie—wearing shorts beneath her famous skin-tone leotard—would recreate the video on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, but as is often the case when censorious tinkering of this type occurs, the addition of the shorts oddly seems to make the young dancer look more provocative rather than less.  The sleek, fully nude outfit gives Maddie an almost alien appearance, leaving no doubt as to the artistic intent of the video’s creators, whereas on Ellen’s show, particularly in the dim lighting, the girl looks to be wearing a pair of pale blue panties and nothing else, giving the performance a slightly tawdrier tone.  A note of interest here: when Sia stands offside in the shadows, with her back turned to the audience, she is effectively saying, “This is not about my surface, the side of me that is seen during a performance.”  We will better understand why that is relevant soon.

But the controversial nature of Chandelier pales in comparison to that generated by its follow-up, Elastic Heart, which was released on January 7th, 2015 and again features Miss Ziegler in the faux-nude getup, along with adult actor Shia LaBeouf (similarly attired), with the two stuck in a giant birdcage together and reacting to one another in a gritty and intense performance.  The negative reaction to the video has been so strong that Sia apologized to victims of sexual abuse over the potentially “triggering” imagery.  Of course, thus far no one has pointed out that one possible interpretation of the video is as a symbolic commentary on sexual abuse, though that is one of many.  Thus, we shall do a scene-by-scene dissection of both videos, with a particular focus on Elastic Heart, to better understand why these are indeed art, and why Sia should not have to apologize for them.

Chandelier

Initially the camera pans around what appears to be an empty, grungy apartment that has clearly seen better days.  As the camera offers us a quick look at the various rooms in the apartment, we get the sense that we are peering into a dormant place.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (1)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (1)

The first time we meet the sole human being who appears in the video (Maddie, of course), she is braced inside a doorway a couple of feet off the floor.  In terms of semiotics, doors and doorways are quite interesting.  As Claus Seligmann points out in this article on architectural semiotics, “For if architecture is at root a system of barriers that distinguish inside from out, this place from that, or place from nonplace, then the door is in our society […] the culturally mandated means of penetrating the barrier.”  That is to say, doors are transitional, a means of moving between two separate spaces, or two separate conditions, or even two separate realities.  That the dancer begins here is noteworthy, for we are being invited into an intimate space.  When she drops to the floor, we know we are thoroughly immersed in her reality.

But who is she, and why does she appear to be nude?  Well, the key to understanding who the child is lies in the wig she wears, which closely mimics the golden blond locks of Sia herself.  So this is Sia—not literally but metaphorically.  As for her implied nudity, we can view it is the ultimate form of vulnerability, a condition amplified by the infantine state of the figure.  But let’s not make the mistake of assuming our young Sia stand-in is perfectly innocent; after all, she is not meant to be an actual child but rather a metaphorical one.  This is an important point, because once we understand that child-Sia is symbolic, we must then try to determine what she is a symbol for.  Well, as this Sia stand-in is the only figure in the video, we could reasonably assume that we are seeing the inner life of Sia.  With that as our starting point, we now know that when the dancer drops onto the floor of this seedy apartment, we are effectively “dropping” into Sia’s mental/emotional world with her.  It’s a raw, murky, and somewhat bedraggled place, the place where Sia is most vulnerable because it is here that she is most herself.  This omni-personal identity, which is something like a kernel from which a great tree grows because it is our core identity, is sometimes aptly referred to as an inner child, hence our little dancer.

You’ll recall back when I pointed out how the apartment was a dormant place?  In that context, we can consider Maddie’s position bracketed in the doorway as something like suspended animation, or even a kind of sleep.  As the child hits the floor, she instantly comes alive, and we are mesmerized by her, this strange pseudo-nude little girl who dances her beautifully bizarre dance.  And as I said before, there is something almost alien about her, with her bright artificial hair and her teased nakedness, not only because she calls to mind iconic science fiction characters like Leeloo from The Fifth Element and (to a lesser extent) Pris from Blade Runner, but because she seems to be neutered, like a humanoid robot or some sexless being from another world.  Yes, our dancer’s world is at once familiar territory and exotic alternate reality.  Doesn’t that perfectly exemplify the realm of the subconscious?

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (2)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (2)

As if to reinforce this point, in the first of only two extreme closeups of Maddie, staring out placidly at the camera, she appears to wind something into the wall and then immediately falls forward like she has been depowered, a robot turning herself off with an invisible key.  But then she pulls herself aright again.  Her hands are dirty, stained with pink chalk (makeup?), and we get the impression that she is burned out.  This is Sia remarking on the nature of her stardom, the fact that sometimes she is like an automaton going through the motions.  Her art, endlessly repeated night after night, and more importantly the requisite partying that comes with the job, have become a chore to her.  It’s a feeling I’m sure many celebrities have experienced.  This robot needs to recharge her batteries, and she does.

Suddenly, it’s as if she has reawakened, becoming something like a human again.  It’s a new day, literally and metaphorically.  The lyrics reinforce this.  We see her yawn and stretch, walking around the room as she rubs her belly in hunger.  She does the splits, perhaps as part of her morning exercises.  She is pushing herself, stretching her limits.  She is coming to life again, nearly—but not quite—ready to swing from the titular chandelier.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (3)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (3)

And then she really lets loose, going through a series of particularly lively motions—flips, tumbles, running through the apartment—and we know our inner Sia is juiced now, running on full speed, re-embracing and reinvigorating her art, and through her art, her life.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (5)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (5)

In the second close-up of the video, Maddie stands behind curtains.  The suggestion is of a performer looking out on her audience with mixed emotions.  And, perhaps it is just me, but there is a point in this sequence at which, just before she leaves the curtains behind, Maddie almost seems to be channeling the spirit of Marilyn Monroe.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (6)

At last, as the video reaches it’s end, Maddie/Sia is again framed by a doorway, but this time she is on one side of it while the viewer is on the other.  Maddie affects a stage bow here, referencing Sia’s identity as a performer.  This is goodbye for us—we are leaving Sia’s unconscious now, for our visit is over, and the little nude dancer in her head is seeing us off at the door.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (7)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (7)

Elastic Heart

Based on the resounding success of the Chandelier video, it only makes sense that there would be a follow-up video featuring Miss Ziegler, though few could have foreseen the inclusion of actor Shia LaBeouf in the same.  And yet, strangely, it works.  But what’s it about, exactly?  We have only gotten a hint from Sia herself, who has suggested that these figures are two separate states of herself, sometimes simpatico and other times at complete odds.  This makes sense (and reinforces our interpretation of the first video as a representation of Sia’s inner life), and so we already have a pretty good idea about what part of Sia that Maddie represents: she is the vulnerable, emotional part.  LaBeouf, then, is something else entirely, perhaps a need to control the emotional aspects of herself to function normally in her career.  Or maybe he is a predatory instinct born of show business, a moral flaw that Sia must fight to remain human in an inherently humanity-destroying job.  Another possibility here is that he is the untamed (wild) part of Sia, the part that only her heart can quell.

Whatever the case, the beauty of good art is that it is often open to interpretation, its meaning elastic and malleable to whatever the experiencer of the art brings to the table.  And with all of the controversy that has arisen over this video, with accusations that the video somehow encourages or promotes “pedophilia”, I would like to offer another possible interpretation: the video may, in fact, be taken as a condemnation of sexual abuse, wherein the characters are symbolic of the mental interior of an abuse victim.  Let’s consider the semiotics here.

First off, we see that both the child and the adult are trapped in an immense birdcage, facing off against each other.  Through our established theme, this can be seen as symbolic in a couple of ways.  First, the victim may be literally trapped with her abuser—this is often the case with sexual abuse victims, given that most abuse is intrafamilial and occurs in the home.  Such a child is under the complete control of her abuser, since he has custody and legal power over her.  Immediately we can see that the two are out of breath and in a heightened emotional state—they have been at each other’s throats for awhile, it seems.  The girl appears to be fending off the advances of the male, almost like a feral cat fighting off a wolf.  When she attacks, the wound is struck where?  Square in LaBeouf’s heart.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (1)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (1)

But after Maddie’s verbal assault hits its mark and she unleashes on him again (having found a weapon that works), she soon loses her voice.  Consider how there is power in a child’s voice—her ability to speak of her abuse may be the only thing that can truly end it—and child abusers often silence their victims with threats.  But there’s also a musical analogy here, as singers sometimes quite literally lose their voice for a brief time.  There is one point where the sexual abuse metaphor becomes most apt: as the two crawl on the floor like animals, Maddie suddenly flips onto her back, knees up and slightly apart; it seems she is inviting her abuser to take her, but as we soon realize, this is only a ploy to get him close enough so that she might attack him again.  Having gotten the upper hand again in their face-off, she grabs LaBeouf and tosses him against the wall of their shared cage.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (2)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (2)

Not long after this, LaBeouf climbs up the side of the cage and is suspended directly above Maddie for a second.  Here the abuser again uses his power and privilege over the girl (as a parent or foster parent) to his advantage.  This type of shot is often called a bird’s-eye-view in photography and cinema.  Resoundingly appropriate for a video set in a giant birdcage, no?  Moreover, it is largely agreed upon by critics that such shots in visual semiotics establishes a sense of vulnerability for those who lie at the distal end of the shot.

While LaBeouf hangs above her, Maddie seems to sleep, perhaps resting after the long battle.  Or maybe she is pretending to sleep, something long-term abuse victims have been known to do, though her surprise when LaBeouf drops down and intimately touches her face seems genuine enough that I take the first point as more accurate.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (3)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (3)

Maddie is once more on the defensive, but LaBeouf tries another ploy: he seems to offer her something in his hand, and Maddie sniffs at it.  What is he offering her?  My hunch is food, not only because of the way she sniffs it but also because of what occurs directly after.  With Maddie’s back turned to him, her defenses down, LaBeouf moves in.  But the little girl snaps at his hand, and thus quite literally (within a metaphorical context) bites the hand that feeds her, and for good reason.  This scene, I think, is the crux of the entire video.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (5)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (5)

Their ongoing war resumes, going on for a bit; however, something is different this time.  Maddie manages to find her way out of the cage.  The fact that she can fit through the bars while her abuser cannot is significant.  Likely we are seeing the victim growing up and moving away from home, while the abuser is still there.  But more importantly, the victim is now educated and aware, and she knows she can destroy him with a word.  The abuser is still obsessed with the victim, reaching for her through the bars, but she is out of reach.  Ergo, he is trapped in another way: his obsession with the girl has become something like an addiction.  He goes through a series of emotions here—sorrow, fear, rage.  Maddie, meanwhile, also appears to be torn.  She flashes him a false smile, but she is a bit confused by her own feelings.  Perhaps she has not entirely escaped after all.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (7)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (7)

In the end, seeing the man saddened and cowed before her, she slips back into the cage willingly and returns to him in what becomes one of the most poignant scenes in the video.  Maddie flips her legs over LaBeouf’s shoulders, and he walks around with her on his back; she is now his burden.  She expresses genuine care and concern for him here, though she also manipulates him, pounding on his forehead to force him to go through a series of face changes (masks?) for her own entertainment, and then toying with his face directly.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (8)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (8)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (9)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (9)

It is the girl who is clearly in control now, or so it seems.  She has forgiven her abuser, or at least made peace with him.  She even leads him to the edge of the cage and attempts to pull him out with her, to rescue him from the very prison he created for them, but this is where things become most complicated.  The scene plays out for a while, even after the music dies away, and it soon becomes difficult to discern whether she is still trying to pull him out or he is trying to pull her in.  Most likely it is both.

That is the complex nature of abusive parent-child relationships.  The child may escape the situation physically, but that doesn’t mean she is entirely free of it psychologically.  And she may still love the parent, perhaps understanding him better than he understands himself, and the nature of his obsession with her.  In the end, both abuser and victim are likely irreparably scarred by their unhealthy relationship.  That pretty well sums up what occurs in a much of the long-term intrafamilial abuse I have read about, where severing emotional ties becomes a lot more difficult than if the abuser had simply been an acquaintance.  The camera fades away with the two still engaged in this strange tug-of-war, leaving the viewer uncertain about the fate of man and girl.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (10)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (10)

That’s it.  That is one of my interpretations of the video, and I think I make a pretty strong case for it.  This does not, of course, mean that this was what Sia or Askill intended the video to be about.  Nor does it mean that this is my only interpretation of the video (it isn’t).  The reason I spent a good deal of time examining the video from this perspective is that I wanted to demonstrate something about the nature of good art: it’s meaning is malleable and is often viewed through our own filters.  As has been mentioned here before, those who tend to see obscenity in nude artworks of children are often the ones with the dirty minds, not the artists themselves.  Likewise, I am inclined to believe that we should look askance upon those who offer only the tone-deaf interpretation of the Elastic Heart video as a casual promotion of adult-child sex.

As for me, I see precisely the opposite in it.  In fact, this need not even be a metaphor for sexual abuse–any sort of abuse will do.  As for the discomfort the video may cause, so what?  If the video is indeed a symbolic look at sexual abuse, then it should make us uncomfortable.  Would anyone dare suggest that a film like, say, Bastard out of Carolina shouldn’t have been made because the graphic rape scene at the end is utterly disturbing (which it is—it may be the most graphically depicted child rape scene ever filmed)?  I certainly wouldn’t.  If art is to have any impact on us, it must challenge us.  I am also more than a touch concerned about the current trend of putting up “trigger warnings” on everything that might be even remotely offensive to someone–personally, I find it insulting to myself and to humanity as a whole this notion that we must necessarily be shielded against our own feelings, as if we were all emotional infants who must always be cooed to and comforted by the world around us.

Nevertheless, I will accept it if I must.  If you require a warning label on your art, I can look past it.  After all, controversy has rarely ever hurt sales when it comes to art, and if anything tends to encourage them.  What I will not accept is external pressure to change, destroy or even apologize for art that challenges viewers because some people are bothered by it.  In my estimation, Sia has absolutely nothing to apologize for.  She clearly did not exploit Maddie Ziegler to make her art, which is the only real consideration that should be given when it comes to featuring children in provocative art.  These videos have beautiful purpose, and that is its own moral defense.

Note: In addition to the Sia videos, Maddie Ziegler has appeared in videos for Todrick Hall’s Freaks Like Me and Alexx Calise’s Cry.

Tumblr: Sia (official site)

Wikipedia: Sia (musician)

Daniel Askill (official site)

Wikipedia: Daniel Askill

Maddie & Mackenzie Ziegler (official site)

Wikipedia: Maddie Ziegler