By Kendyl Brower
Ignorantly hiding behind her infamous bob, Australian singer Sia refuses to accept criticism for her recent project, Music. Although her intentions for the film may have been in good heart, the execution was a complete trainwreck. The film about a non-speaking austistic girl prompted a storm of harsh but valid critiques, so naturally, Sia decided to respond to the disabled community with angry tweets. Thus, the film was not only incredibly offensive and borderline unbearable, but her response to the community she aimed to help only worsened her image as an ally.
Sia’s film follows the story of Music, a character based on Sia’s neuro atypical friend who struggled with her life as a non-speaking autistic girl. Here is where the major concern arose: Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actress, was casted as Music. The debate about actors playing roles specifically designed for disabled people is not new, but in this case, the casting job is especially pathetic. A movie that aims to amplify the voices and stories of disabled people is ignoring the community’s calls. Who better than an autistic actress to play the role of an autistic character? An autistic actress knows the hardships of living with a disability, they know how to illustrate certain mannerisms without making the portrayal a mockery of someone with disabilities. Sia claims to have originally casted an non-speaking actress on the spectrum, but replaced her because the actress found it, “unpleasant and stressful.” While it is perfectly reasonable for some autistic actors to feel uncomfortable on set, Sia had many opportunities to solve the dilemma. Foremost, as a director, Sia should have adapted the workspace for the actress. One of the biggest struggles many neuro atypical people face is a lack of accommodations. Additionally, there are thousands of other autistic actors that Sia could have hired in order to properly echo the community’s voice. One actress brought this rationale to Twitter, asking why Sia did not bother finding another neuro atypical person for the job when many, including herself, would love the opportunity. Sia’s rude reply speaks for itself: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor”. Sia, directing a movie about autism, uses her massive platform to shame autistic actors… seems contradictory, right? These actors, who are barely given opportunities in mainstream media due to large stigmatization around their abilities, are once again being shut down from a movie that is literally about them. It appears as though Sia believes autistic actors are not good enough to tell their own stories. Sia fiercely defends herself on Twitter, writing
“I cast 13 neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as f*cking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers. F*cking sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place”.
Criticism ricochets off of Sia, she does not take the time to let the opinions of autism advocates sink in. Aggressively, she implies that her intentions were good, thus, not deserving of negative commentary. No matter what her objective was, Sia is not above criticism, especially if it is coming from the marginalized group she supposedly supports. Her hotheaded replies show a lack of compassion and willingness to actually address the wants of the autism activists.
Even if she had good intentions, Ziegler’s acting was inauthentic, based in stereotypes, and almost a caricature of a neuro atypical person. The film gives Ziegler’s stimming, or repeated movements and sounds in response to heightened emotions, a negative connotation. It implies that her disability acts a shell, covering her true, ideal identity within. Moreover, the movie depicts Music as a lesser version of her real self, which of course, is a “normal” girl that hides behind the burden of autism. In reality, all autistic people are normal to begin with, they should not be depicted with some sort of neurotypical, “normal” person living behind the disability.
Do not let the title deceive you– the movie Music is actually about Music’s sister Zu. The film barely gives Music a real personality, rather, she acts as a symbol for autism. This is especially problematic given that autism is not a one size fits all disability, it is a spectrum of varying characteristics. Thus, Music, acting a symbol for autism rather than an actual human, fails to establish any real characteristics. So, the viewer empathizes with Zu, and follows her journey of learning how to “deal” with Music. Give me a break. The viewer is put in a position to praise Zu for doing the bare minimum and overcoming the difficulties of supporting an neuro atypical person, yet autistic people should not be seen as some sort of limitation that savoirs must deal with and care for. This plays into the stigma that disabled people cannot act for themselves, that they are merely objects for able bodied people to save.
While Sia claims to have studied disabilities and autism for three years prior to filming, it is apparent countless times throughout the movie that her lackluster knowledge was nothing more than surface level research. Sia partnered with Autism Speaks, an extremely controversial organization that only spends 4% of its earnings actually helping autistic people. The goal of Autism Speaks is to “cure” autism and often depicts the disability as harmful and scary. If Sia truly did her research, she would know the polarity of this group. As well, in defense of her movie, Sia tried to demonstrate her good intentions and knowledge of the disabled community by writing, “I’ve never referred to (the primary character) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.” Somehow making matters even worse, Sia unknowingly highlighted her lack of understanding. It has been established that most disabled people identify as disabled rather than someone with special abilities. Avoiding the term ‘disabled’ implies that disabilities are inherently bad or a negative term. Thus, Sia clearly failed to research terminology before making a film about disabilities. Furthermore, Sia’s target audience is clearly not people with disabilities. Using strobing lights throughout the film, Sia failed to learn about how many disabled people have light sensitivity and sometimes seizures due to light. As well, one scene demonstrates a tactic called restraining, where Music is tackled and held back. This is a serious and harmful action that has resulted in injuries and even death among the autistic community. Restraint holds people against their will during episodes and creates a stigma that autistic people are objects that must be constrained. Evidently, Sia did not prepare for this movie in the slightest. Why would she need to? Her intentions are clearly not to support the disabled community and boost autism advocacy, but rather to make a “meaningful” film that gives her credibility as a helpful, sympathetic savoir to a marginalized group. And get this, it worked. The Golden Globes recognized the film and nominated it for two awards.
Sia, your movie is a disgrace to the disabled population and your ability to take constructive criticism is somehow even worse. Rather than listening to the voices you try to help, you silence the valid critiques of autistic people. With all due respect, Sia later.
If you’d like to know more, here are some other reviews that go in depth on Music: