By Erin Novakowski, March 9 2021–
From the moment that Sia teased her 2021 movie Music, the autistic community had massive concerns about the consequences of its release. When the singer, songwriter and now-director eagerly released clips of the film about a young nonverbal autistic girl and her older half-sister, it immediately garnered backlash for featuring a fully neurotypical main cast. Activists and other shocked Twitter users quickly criticized Sia for the disappointing decision to cast Maddie Ziegler, who is not autistic, to play the lead role. It quickly became obvious that this casting choice would be only the first upsetting decision made by Sia in regards to the film.
In the months since it was first announced in November 2020, there has been constant discussion about the ableism clearly perpetrated in the writing, production and promotion of Music. After initially denying claims that the movie was ableist and trying to change the minds of critics, Sia herself went on an Australian talk show in January to say that the choice to cast Ziegler “is ableism … but it’s also nepotism.”
This was after months of unprofessionally bickering with Autistic people expressing disappointment on Twitter, posting frustrated and aggressive tweets, angry that people were judging her movie before watching it, then deleting her Twitter account to prevent further conversation. To one autistic actor who expressed that it’d have been easy to find an autistic person like themselves willing to play the role even on short notice, Sia responded “maybe you’re just a bad actor.” Sia also tried to save face by explaining that she had spent three years researching how to portray the story — a fact which was scoffed at by activists once she revealed that she had worked with Autism Speaks, an extremely controversial organization that is regarded as a “hate group” by many autistic people. When critiqued for this decision, Sia said she “had no idea it was such a polarizing group,” even though several articles about the problems with the organization show up on the first Google search page when one enters “Autism Speaks.”
Considering how prevalent the discourse has been, mainly thanks to hardworking disability activists, it came as a shock to the community that the movie was nominated for two Golden Globe awards. The award show, which aired on Feb. 28, is meant to annually recognize excellence in film and television. Music was nominated for Best Picture in the Musical/Comedy category, and Kate Hudson was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Music’s (Ziegler) older sister. There are numerous petitions floating around to have this decision revoked, as many autistic and non-autistic people alike are asking if openly ableist films are truly what constitute “excellence.”
After its full release on Jan. 7, the initial criticism of the film by audience members only skyrocketed. The casting decisions and issues of representation were already of vital importance, but the entire situation took a more dangerous tone when viewers realized that the movie contained multiple scenes showing prone restraint used on Music during autistic meltdowns. Prone restraint is a technique used on autistic people in which someone lies on top of the autistic person during episodes of distress, often pinning them against the ground face first. The technique has not only been proven to be extremely traumatic for autistic people — but there have also been several instances where it has caused their death. In Music, Hudson’s character is taught how to use it on her sister in the middle of a public park. By framing the movie as a way to tell a story about the autistic community, Sia invalidated any positive intentions she may have had by promoting a technique that actively and regularly causes bodily harm to autistic people.
Beyond the underlying ableist practices used and the dangerous lessons in its story, there have been other concerns yet with the overexaggerated, seemingly-mocking nature of the acting of Music herself. Sia revealed in an online interview that this was even a concern of Ziegler, who plays Music, saying that she came to Sia one day in tears worried that autistic people would think she was making fun of them (in this same interview, the interviewer compares nonverbal autistic people to “props,” to which Sia enthusiastically agrees). After the movie’s release, it has become evident that this was a substantiated apprehension to have. Many autistic people have explained that the expressions and movements of Ziegler remind them eerily of behaviour they witness of neurotypical people attempting to bully and harass autistic individuals. Further, some have said that since watching the movie they have felt embarrassed of their own natural movements, stims and tics — as they worry that they will remind people of the over exaggerations used by Ziegler.
As things are today, the movie industry is already an unwelcome place for disabled people. Though on average 20 per cent of the world’s population is disabled, characters with a disability account for only 2-3 per cent in modern film. Within this miniscule pool of characters, often written entirely by nondisabled people with little to no consultation from the groups they are trying to portray, the overwhelming majority of disabled characters are played by completely abled actors. Involvement of autistic people in the storytelling of Music would have, without a question, alleviated or even eliminated its issues immediately. Every single one of Sia’s decisions regarding her film ended up being incredibly hurtful to the disability community, and this becomes so much more serious when we remember its Golden Globe nominations.
Music had absolutely no shortage of criticism, scoring itself a whopping 11 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite this, it was placed upon a stage among the best of the best this past Sunday, being presented to the world as a work of art. It is exactly this that prevents the film industry from ever becoming more inclusive (and less harmful) to disabled people. If a movie that so obviously ignored the pleas of autistic people can be released, sold and nominated for a prestigious award without the slightest of obstacle, how will anything ever change? If Sia’s blatantly ableist depictions are not only accepted but celebrated in this way, what will the incentive ever be for those in power to listen to disabled people? Whether a remarkably large oversight or an intentional decision to perpetrate ableist attitudes, disabled people deserve better from the media.