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Why Sia’s New Film Music Is A Dangerous Misstep, And How The Autistic Community Reacted To It

By Ellen Spurr

Music, pop superstar Sia’s directorial debut, is a musical drama film about a young, non-verbal autistic girl (Maddie Ziegler) who comes under the care of her rebellious older sister (Kate Hudson). It’s due to be released on streaming services in the UK on February 15th, although its cinematic release date will probably have to wait until after lockdown. There has been much anticipation for this film, owing to the star status of Sia and her long-time collaborator Ziegler, who rose to fame on Lifetime’s Dance Moms series.

However, a controversy was quick to arise around the film at the same time, particularly among the autistic community, owing to the decision to cast Ziegler – who is non-disabled and non-autistic – in the role of Music, the eponymous central character. Many consider that Ziegler’s casting is harmful and a form of erasure, and that the film and its depiction of autism ultimately panders to stereotypes that autistic self-advocates have spent years working to eliminate.

Autistic advocate Clem Bastow, writing for the Guardian on why Music is a misrepresentation of autism, criticizes aspects of the narrative that disregard the autonomy of non-verbal autistic people. In the film’s dream sequences, Music seemingly escapes the perceived limitations of her body as she sings and dances like an able-bodied person – Bastow believes Music perpetuates the notion that the autistic body is a prison, and that autism is something suffered by autistic people. Frighteningly, she points out that the film also depicts the use of a prone restraint to calm Music during a meltdown, when her neighbour Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.) physically restrains her; it is widely regarded by the autistic community that prone/supine restraints pose a deadly risk to disabled people. Last year, autistic boy Eric Parsa lost his life when sheriff’s deputies placed him in a prone restraint in public, and its use has led to countless other deaths and injuries among autistic children.

Sia’s hostile response to early criticism of the film did nothing to stem the controversy. In a response to a Twitter thread by an autistic user, in November 2020, who claimed no effort had been made to include autistic people in the film, Sia replied: ‘F——— bull——. You have no f———idea because you weren’t there and you haven’t seen the movie.’ Sia had cast thirteen neuroatypical people in supporting roles, but as an able-bodied person whose art plays to audiences the world over, creating work that features an autistic person is a social and moral responsibility that should require the consultation of autistic people at every level of production. Lindsay Fortin, an autistic woman writing for Capilano Courier, elaborates on this issue of representation, claiming that ‘only we know the problems we face as a community and how that translates into real-life discrimination’. In other words, Sia has hijacked an autistic narrative that would have been better left to the autistic community, and no amount of good intentions on her part can negate the damage caused by inaccurate misrepresentation and lack of inclusion.

Despite claiming the film was made with ‘nothing but love’ for the autistic community, her behaviour has been insensitive – from referring to disabled people as having ‘special abilities’ (disabled is not an offensive term) to aligning herself with Autism Speaks, a charity with a terrible reputation among autistics owing to its eugenicist complex. Again, Sia can have the best intentions in the world, but her ignorance is telling of the fact that neurotypical artists are unsuited to taking on neuroatypical stories.

Nera Birch, writing for The Mighty, reiterates the general feeling among autistic people that Ziegler’s casting is harmful and insulting. As a non-verbal autistic herself, she says ‘it… hurts a little bit to see a neurotypical imitate stimming, even if its a homage…’ She believes they should have cast an autistic performer and made accommodations for their needs, as opposed to casting a neurotypical out of ‘kindness’. Sia has claimed a neuroatypical person was consulted to play Music before Zeigler came on board, but that they found the production process too stressful. This is contended, however, as reports state Sia wrote the part of Music for Ziegler, and in People magazine, she claimed she ‘can’t do a project without her’, admitting to ableism and nepotism.

Instead of watching Music this February – which, even disregarding its issues with ableism, has received generally bad reviews from critics, with Time Out’s Stephen A Russell and the Guardian’s Luke Buckmaster both rating it 2/5 stars – it would be a kinder and more valuable use of your time to engage with art made sensitively, with autistic people front and centre. Some examples are Pixar’s short Loop, about a nonverbal autistic girl’s day out, featuring the vocal performance of a young autistic woman called Madison Brandy; Lillian Carrier and Kayla Cromer’s performances in Everything’s Going To Be Okay; and, based on Naoki Higashida’s book of the same name, a cartographic account of his experience as a non-verbal autistic boy, The Reason I Jump, a groundbreaking documentary which attempts to simulate the sensory experience of non-verbal autism and which features a diverse cast of autistic people from all over the world. It won an audience award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and film-maker Jerry Rothwell has hopes that it will shed a light on the work of Higashida and the writing of other non-verbal autistic people, a voice ‘so generally disregarded.’

Ultimately, it is this disregarding – and misappropriation – of the autistic experience that has made Sia’s decision to cast Ziegler inappropriate, and even cruel, in the eyes of so many. 

Featured image courtesy of Marius Masalar from Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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