2015 is young, and so are its fiercest pop cultural figures so far. In Sia's "Elastic Heart" video, the follow-up to 2014's gigantic "Chandelier," Dance Moms star Maddie Ziegler last week reprised her blonde-bobbed role for an interpretive dance-off with actor Shia LaBeouf. Meanwhile, Sophia Grace Brownlee, an 11-year-old girl from the UK turned international popstar, just dropped a red-hot, DJ Mustard-esque track called "Best Friends."
While both performances are remarkable for their fearlessness, Ziegler and Brownlee's achievements are being overshadowed by the uneasiness they provoke, revealing an obsession with how young girls are presented that treads a fine line between protective and creepy. Ever since Brownlee gave an impassioned rendition of Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" in a 2011 viral clip, there have been nervous responses to her reciting of Minaj's lyrics, public outcries when she was cast in a traditionally sexualized role in the Disney remake of Sondheim's Into The Woods (the part was later re-cast), and general worry for the expiration date of her fame. Now, with the success of the "Best Friends" video in which Brownlee simply goes shopping with her pals, the discomfort has focused on a belief she's growing up too fast: the current top comment on the video is "10 years old girls acting like 20 years old"; another claims she "wears too much make up"; and Twitter reveals that some viewers find it creepy. There's also a dismaying amount of trollish commenting on Brownlee's appearance—you're never too young to be held up to society's impossible beauty standards, it seems.
Meanwhile, Ziegler was already a Lifetime TV star when she was catapulted to wider fame with her breathtaking but controversial dance solo in Sia's "Chandelier" video last year. The issue? Her nude-colored leotard made some viewers uncomfortable about watching a "near-naked" child. But that's nothing compared to the response to the pairing of Ziegler and LaBeouf in "Elastic Heart," in which they dance out a brother-sisterly play fight. "This feels so wrong. This feels like child porn," one recent commenter wrote. "I don't get this video AT ALL and I honestly don't like it! Creepy pairing!" another tweeted. One of moms from Dance Moms claimed she "nearly threw up" when she watched it, and Elle labelled the video "creepy" and "uncomfortable," ending their analysis with "what?" There's a blank space at the heart of these criticisms, with few able to pinpoint exactly what they're uncomfortable about. Sia ended up issuing an apology via Twitter the day after the video's release, stating: "I anticipated some 'pedophilia!!!' cries for this video. All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play these two warring 'Sia' self states. I apologize to those who feel triggered by #ElasticHeart. My intention was to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody." What's crucial about Sia's apology is that she directs it towards those who are "triggered" by the video. For those dealing with trauma, triggering is visceral and rarely easy to articulate: this accounts for some of the responses, and is unquestionably valid. But what about those who are saying the video just creeps them out—where does that instinct come from?
In a great blog for Cracked a couple of years back, one-time child star Mara Wilson of Matilda fame wrote that "sexual exploitation is just part of the package" for underage female actresses. She grimly described the time she discovered images of herself on a foot fetish website at the age of 12, and highlighted the fact that in some states it remains legal to Photoshop a child's head onto an adult's nude body. Last year in her #HeForShe speech at the UN, Emma Watson talked about being "sexualized by certain elements of the press" from the age of 14; elsewhere, the Daily Mail were pressured by over 37,000 people to "stop sexualizing children" with their suggestive language. When Rebecca Black became an accidental sensation for her "Friday" video in 2011, she found herself battling extreme online and IRL bullying and even pregnancy rumors at the age of 13. The sad reality is that this is the world that female child stars are being exposed to, and with viral superstardom that exposure can be rapid and volatile.
That said, it doesn't follow that young girls should be silenced or hidden because the context we've created for them sucks. Did anyone question the presentation of 13-year-old Justin Bieber when he started to blow up, appearing in romantically charged videos at the age of 15? Or of 13-year-old Greyson Chance when his Lady Gaga cover went viral in 2010, and he started releasing pop videos the same year? Will the same discomfort haunt little boys who've appeared on Ellen in the wake of Sophia Grace's success, like 7-year-old piano/rap prodigy Elias Phoenix or singing five-year-old Kai? Scroll through the YouTube comments for these boys' performances, and what you'll find are a whole lot of crude jokes about how lucky they must be with the ladies. We don't seem to fear for young boys in the public eye the same way we do for young girls; at any age, we're more likely to color them as subject rather than object.
Mainstream western media has created a context in which predatoriness and perversion infects everything we see.
As writer Janea Kelly astutely tweeted just after the latest Sia video was released, "if you found ["Elastic Heart"] creepy, consider that you are the agent of sexualization and creepiness." I'd wholeheartedly agree with this, but take it one step further: consider that you are the agent, and then ask why that is. Given how widespread the response has been, it's very unlikely that every individual who commented on their discomfort with the video is uniquely predatory or perverted. Rather, it's that mainstream western media has created a context in which predatoriness and perversion infects everything we see.
Research over recent years has found that exposure to mainstream pop music videos correlates with generally sexist attitudes; in 2009, a study of 195 students found that those exposed to music videos that were judged to have "high" sexual content were also more likely to believe in gender stereotypes and rape myths. In another study in 2012, male college students who watched sexualized music videos were also found to be less likely to feel empathy for date rape victims. The causal relationship here isn't that music videos directly encourage violence against women, but rather that the constant viewing of objectified and hyper-sexualized women contributes to a sexist environment in which violence is sadly a part. It's bleak, but not surprising—and it's also completely rife. Recent studies on the subject have been summarized in a report for British project Rewind Reframe, which highlights academic C. Wallis's conclusion that the overriding narrative of music videos is: "women are sexual objects, ready to be consumed by men." When this is the norm of music videos, then of course we'll feel uncomfortable when we see a child enter that dynamic.
But look again—when was the last time you saw a mainstream music video that depicted a girl going shopping and hanging with her best friends with zero sexual messages and no concern for boys? Sophia Grace did it. When was the last time you saw a mainstream music video that depicted the inner strength of a woman through the medium of a 12-year-old girl with enough talent and power to battle a grown man? Maddie Ziegler did it. The presence of both these girls in our pop cultural bubble is refreshingly uncynical. If you're feeling icky about liking "Best Friends" or "Elastic Heart," try redirecting your ickiness towards the videos that set us up to automatically objectify female bodies. Yes, looking at you, "Blurred Lines" and "Animals," but also the more benign-seeming examples currently riding the charts, like "Uptown Funk"—which shows several pairs of female legs but no female faces—and "Thinking Out Loud," where a fully suited Ed Sheeran dances with a lady in lingerie. Look at the world we've built around them: if anything about Sophia or Maddie's appearance on our pop cultural landscape is unsettling, we need to accept that that's our bad.