I recently saw a news story float across my Facebook feed about Sia’s new music video for Elastic Heart. The article mentioned many fans have criticized the video for its implication of pedophilia, yet Sia replied she had intended “to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody.” The response was succinct, but kind and validating, and her additional comments left me intrigued.
So I watched the video, and here’s what I think.
I’ll assume you’ve seen the video, but if not, a quick skim would show it features a young girl and a (slightly) older male, in nude-appearing clothes, dancing together in a hangar-sized birdcage. They interact at a distance, up close, and showcase a struggle vibrant with emotion and depth. For me it was hard to look away: their movements were at times fluid, at times violent, sometimes confused and chaotic–but always flawlessly executed and entirely captivating.
In the aforementioned article, Sia’s cited as saying the two figures were intended to represent two inner aspects of herself fighting against one another–so since I had read this already, the concepts of duality and conflict, especially internal struggle, had colored my perception. I could certainly understand the concern of pedophilia, but to me the dance was never overtly (or even especially implicitly) sexual–it was violent and aggressive, but also at times tender and comical. It was an argument–a clashing of ideas.
But more than simply portraying a single struggle, it seems to portray every struggle.
In particular, I felt Sia’s use of a young girl and an older man immediately summoned ideas of generational changes, the shifting mindset from an old yet persistent patriarchy toward an inclusive, but at times naive notion of equality–an end that is idealized and demarcated with legitimate and obtainable goals, but which is struggling against so many layers of institutionalized patriarchy that total annihilation of past regimes, that is, the total indoctrination of a new societal order based upon equality, still cannot be wholly visualized.
The cage, rusted and rigid, represents society: it stands for the institutions that bind us, the norms and values we’re born into but do not see, the forces that shape us as we grow and mature and witness reality. The cage cannot be changed; it is static, limiting both those who oppress and those who are oppressed, preventing all players in this tragedy from seeing the light they cannot reach within its iron bars.
The man stands as the privileged–he is larger than life, strong and domineering. He sees the oppressed only when it stands against him, else he is ignorant, unaware. The oppressor, however, is not without pain: the agony of constant fear trying to uphold a system of norms leads to stress and fear, the loss of power an ail that may destroy him for throughout his life he has been told just one thing: You are powerful, you are better than anyone else, and should for a moment anyone else become equal, you shall be nothing.
His identity, his existence, depends upon the oppressed remaining oppressed.
The girl is his opposite–she is the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, the victim of unconscious forces that move the hands of players who don’t even realize they’re in the game. She is women, the queer community, people of color, those from different ethnic backgrounds, immigrants, speakers of non-dominant tongues. She is the face of those who are faceless: she is the one with her hands tied behind her back.
But she is strong.
While society has kept her pinned down, beaten every day of her life, dirtied and soiled and invisible, she has learned: she has gained resilience, direction and perspective, “thick skin and an elastic heart.” She is malleable, engaged and active, determined to change the system and liberate–to free those held in place, to open the world for all who wish to see it.
“You did not break me,” she sings in every breath, “I’m still fighting for peace.”
She is the liberator, the freedom fighter, the inevitable victor–she alone holds the power to leave Socrates’ Cave, and she alone is obligated to return to bring others with her.
At one point, the girl slips between the bars of the cage and stares back at the man while he screams and reaches after her. For a moment it appears as though he’ll follow her out, but instead he retreats.
The oppressed can slip free of society, even while society holds them down. For one brilliant moment they can see the world outside, beyond boxes and bars, see what equality can look like–what it can feel like. But here they are still victims of those perpetuating the institutions of discrimination that remain steadfast and unchanged.
So she returns.
She slips between the bars once more, embraces her oppressor, and attempts to show him the way–to reveal the freedom that can be gained through self liberation.
And finally, she departs–one final step toward a new society. And she pulls him along, tries to show him the way–but he resists. He is scared, timid, childish–for all the power he holds, he knows nothing else. What defines him is not himself, but the society in which he has been formed: He is as much a man as the cage itself.
This is not a single struggle. This is every struggle.
And like her, those still fighting today–those championing racial equality, LGBT equality, immigration equality, ethnic equality, and any other form of equality imaginable–we cannot proceed until the oppressors are liberated from the same chains they use to oppress us. These bastions are founded upon their bodies, their souls–until they can disarm themselves, no true equality can be known.
But as she does, we must do: Embrace those who wish us harm, who disagree with our visions, and show them the way. Together, we can find the ultimate liberation.
I applaud Sia for her video, her art, for sharing her struggles with each of us.