Popular singer Sia has recently come under fire because of her new movie ‘Music,’ which tokenizes autistic people and is inherently ableist. In her directorial debut with this film, Sia clearly demonstrated her ableist tendencies through her casting decision of non-disabled dancer Maddie Ziegler in the title role and the negative and unrealistic portrayal of people with disabilities, which is overdone in Hollywood. ‘Music’ comes across as ableist and is inconsiderate towards the autistic community.
Currently showing in theaters in select countries, ‘Music’ marks Sia’s directorial debut and is a musical drama starring Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler, and Leslie Odom Jr. The film follows Zu (Hudson), a newly sober former drug dealer who becomes the sole guardian of her half-sister Music (Ziegler). Music is non-verbal and uses augmentative and alternative communications. Zu’s neighbor and friend, Ebo (Odom Jr.), is Music’s caregiver. He acknowledges that Music is perceptive to her surroundings and views the world through colorful dance sequences, which matches Sia’s accompanying soundtrack.
Hollywood already has a history of portraying people with disabilities negatively, inaccurately and inauthentically. 95% of disabled characters are played by actors with no disabilities. This is unfair to the autistic community – 85% of autistic college graduates are unemployed. There is a stigma tied to the community as they are falsely perceived to be less capable in the workplace. This is especially true for non-verbal characters, who are infantilized in the media. One of the few films that made autistic people visible was ‘Rain Man’ released in 1988 – it spawned a legacy and impacted public perception of autism for decades. Sia framed ‘Music’ as “’ Rain Man’ as a musical, but with girls” in an interview for Variety in October 2020. Unfortunately, it did not live up to this expectation.
Movies and TV shows are lots of people’s initial endeavors into underrepresented topics like autism, so depiction on screen is vital in allowing viewers to form their first impression. Therefore, a lot of thought should be put into the casting of characters and how autism is portrayed. Sia’s casting of Maddie Ziegler is problematic because she is taking away the opportunity for autistic actors, who would be able to portray Music more accurately and authentically. Sia’s response to criticism from critics and autistic advocacy organizations was incredibly immature. Instead of taking in the feedback, when autistic advocates commented civilly about Sia’s casting, she tweeted with expletives and said to watch her film before critiquing it. Sia tried to cast a non-speaking autistic actor but found the whole experience “extremely stressful and overwhelming,” giving the impression that non-speaking autistic people are difficult to interact and deal with. Sia comes across as ableist and discriminatory as she is not able to make the filming process accessible for autistic actors. It certainly is not impossible to cast a non-speaking autistic actor – in the 2020 Pixar short ‘Loop,’ non-speaking autistic actress of color Madison Brandy was cast and executed her character well. Instead of trying to combat negative stereotypes already being present by the media, ‘Music’ further perpetuated them.
Viewers have commented that Ziegler’s portrayal of Music was inaccurate and insulting to the autistic community. To prepare for the role, Ziegler watched YouTube videos filmed by parents of autistic children having meltdowns (most likely filmed without consent). As meltdowns are some of their most vulnerable moments, this is not accurate as research material for acting performance. The film is essentially a caricature of autistic behavior. For example, when Music has a breakdown, Zu attempts to physically restrain her. In real life, this should only be done as a last resort by trained professionals. It is clear that Sia did not consult autistic audiences or experts when researching for the film. ‘Music’ follows a common trend in movies with disability representation. It is framed to give non-autistic people satisfaction after interacting with an autistic person; it does not allow viewers to empathize with Music as a character. Zu and Ebo will learn about how to love more deeply and be happier in their lives, but the audience will not gain valuable insight into how these relationships will impact her or change the way she thinks about the world.
‘Music’ is just another film that originally had good intentions but is ultimately ableist. Not only is the casting of Ziegler problematic, but her portrayal of a non-verbal autistic character can also be seen as mocking. People with disabilities are already so underrepresented and/or inaccurately represented in Hollywood. At a time when directors should be doing what they can to ensure a more accurate and authentic portrayal, Sia is doing the opposite with ‘Music.’ Despite receiving so much criticism and negative feedback, ‘Music’ has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. This poses the question: Just how much does Hollywood and the entertainment industry really care about inclusivity and diversity?
Feature Image: MERRICK MORTON/VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT