If you don’t already know—though I’m sure most people do—the popstar Sia has recently released her first ever feature film, ‘Music’. A musical, starring—of course—her protégé, Maddie Ziegler. Off the bat, if someone had told me this without letting me in on the details, I’d have been excited. For one thing, while I’m not a massive Sia fan, she is talented, and I did like her early albums. And God knows I love a good musical. So when it was brought to my attention that this was in fact a pretty problematic film to say the least, I was both disappointed and intrigued. I watched the trailer and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How could a musical called ‘Music’ starring a character called Music be so goddamn tone-deaf? And how, in 2021, had a movie such as this managed to survive every stage and year of production?
About a non-verbal autistic girl, Music, and how she experiences the world, now under the guardianship of her sister Zu, on paper this storyline wouldn’t be offensive at all. If done properly—with an autistic lead, preferably with an autistic director and/or screenwriter, and with autistic individuals in mind as opposed to Oscar nominations—this could have been a much-needed, carefully constructed positive representation of neurodiversity in a world where neurodiverse and disabled people are so often portrayed from the perspective of the misinformed neurotypical. They are held up not as complex emotional human beings but, most of the time, one of two options: inspiration porn or freakish superhumans. (For those who don’t know, “inspiration porn” is a term which describes how able-bodied people often look at a disabled person and feel “inspired” that they are, for example, even able to live from day to day, and disregard the insulting implications. We may consume inspiration porn to feel better about our own perceived “normalness”, essentially subconsciously believing that our lives have more intrinsic value. Our expectations of disabled and neurodiverse people should not be so low that we are so impressed or inspired by them doing basic things everyone else does.)
These characters are pretty much always played by an able-bodied neurotypical person. In fact, try to think of three autistic or disabled leads who aren’t. I bet you can’t. I just tried and my brain was only bombarded with examples of media where the opposite is true: Leonardo Di Caprio in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’; Keir Gilchrist in ‘Atypical’; Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rainman’; Jacob Tremblay in ‘Wonder’; Sam Claflin in ‘Me Before You’… I could go on. (The only good example I could think of is Walter Jr in ‘Breaking Bad’ who has cerebral palsy, played by RJ Mitte who actually has cerebral palsy.) Hollywood seemingly has an obsession with making movies and TV shows about “different” people without even casting those with their respective conditions or disabilities. It isn’t for a lack of talent—there are plenty of talented actors out there who could’ve played these parts with firsthand experience and therefore more accurately. Let’s call a spade a spade: it’s discrimination. And in turn, autistic and disabled people continue to be underrepresented. Unfortunately, the propensity of this casting issue highlights the fact that most of these movies and shows were never made with representation in mind; they were never authentic in their goal to shed light on an overlooked subject matter or give misunderstood communities a voice. Rather, they are about gaining critical acclaim through virtue points; they often serve to reinforce stereotypes as opposed to dismantling them.
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As a black biracial person, this is almost uncanny to Hollywood’s ‘White Savior’ trope, which presents itself through soft narratives which claim to explore the black experience but actually just assuage white guilt and/or whitewash history by giving the audience a non-racist white character to project themselves onto, who “saves” the poor black character(s). Think ‘Green Book’ and ‘The Help’. But whilst we’ve been making much more progress in this regard—hard-hitting, thoughtful films (almost always by black directors) which explore racism towards black people are becoming more visible, though often still not as acclaimed as their soft counterparts—unfortunately, so few hard-hitting movies exploring disability and neurodiversity exist in the first place.
In fact, when it comes to exploring these topics through the media, disability becomes almost synonymous with juvenility. The infantilisation of disabled and autistic people is something which runs so deep in our culture; even ostensibly good-natured programmes like ‘The Undateables’ are guilty of it. And this is why a film like ‘Music’ is doubly disappointing: it feeds into this culture. Granted, the character of Music is young, but she is not a small child. And yet, everything about the music videos that have been released in relation to this film feels so condescending and juvenile. Think rainbows and kids doing silly dances and ‘High School Musical’-esque lyrics.
Frankly, sunshine and rainbows doesn’t represent the general autistic experience. According to studies, autistic children are three times more likely to face bullying and physical abuse. Autistic adults face significantly higher levels of unemployment than non-autistic adults and slightly higher levels than disabled adults. Many people—morons, that is—still believe Autism is something that can be cured or outgrown, associating it almost exclusively with children. There is the pernicious belief that vaccinations cause Autism, a more commonly-held stance than you’d think. And, taking the crown for perhaps the most disgusting belief, there is a so-called “treatment” called ‘Bleach Therapy’ which circulates on Facebook groups in which parents are encouraged to have their autistic children ingest chlorine dioxide as some sort of miracle cure. That’s the world we live in, and there need to be more challenging movies/shows which dare to explore and question this reality as opposed to films like this one, which don’t challenge anything. Yet again, ‘Music’ misses the mark.
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Many autistic individuals are boycotting ‘Music’ in the effort to get it taken down from cinemas. Subsequently, Sia has dug herself further and further into a hole, her response to all of the criticism serving only to highlight that she really didn’t know (or maybe even care) what she was doing. Her claim that “three years of research” went into ‘Music’ is difficult to believe because, if it were true, she would at least be somewhat well-informed. And she’s evidently not: she states that she based the character of Music on an autistic man she knows. Come on, now. Seriously? Male and female Autism presents differently—you can get that from a quick Google search. That alone should have been reason enough to take a second to ask yourself if you’re informed enough to broach this topic, and to an audience of millions.
Further evidence that Sia didn’t know what she was doing is in the lack of consideration for sensory sensitivities—the aforementioned music videos are some of the least Autism-friendly sequences I’ve ever seen. I’m neurotypical and I found watching these scenes a little overwhelming on my 13” laptop screen, so I can only imagine what it could be like watching this as an autistic child with sensory sensitivities at the cinema, though I doubt most parents of autistic children would take their child to see this crap. If they did, I can imagine they might have to leave the screening. (Watch ‘Together’ or ‘1 + 1’ on YouTube if you want to see what I mean. To compensate for the extra view, why not give it a downvote while you’re there.)
When confronted with the question of why she hired non-autistic Maddie Ziegler to play the autistic lead, Sia claimed that an autistic lead had originally been hired but had found the environment overwhelming, and she thought it was kinder to let her go and hire Maddie to replace her. Where to start? First of all, we can deduce that this is likely false. In an interview with Variety, which we’ll go into a bit more depth about later, Sia claimed she had created this movie for Maddie, and that she “wouldn’t make art” without Maddie. I mean, I could go into a psychological analysis of why a 45-year-old woman feels the need to include an 18-year-old teenager who isn’t related to her in all of her projects but I’ll leave that to someone better qualified. I really just want to point out the contradiction of Sia’s statements—it is likely that she tacked on having originally hired an autistic girl to, by her reasoning, make herself and the production team look better. The funny thing is she doesn’t realise that saying you hired and fired the autistic lead because she was overwhelmed is just as bad. Let’s assume that Sia’s telling the truth for a second: why didn’t they adapt the environment to suit the actresses’ needs? And, worst outcome, if they exhausted every option but she still couldn’t cope, why couldn’t they have found another autistic actress? There are plenty out there. It is a gross hypocrisy to claim to make a film about the autistic experience when you yourself won’t accommodate that experience.
The fundamental truth is it is difficult to be a non-autistic individual playing an autistic individual without it coming across as, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, mocking. Maddie’s performance sits firmly in the latter camp. And I know some people will throw their hands up in the air and exclaim, ‘But that’s what acting is!’ and to some extent I understand where they’re coming from. For example, while I think we should always strive to cast a gay person as a gay character, it doesn’t particularly bother me when it doesn’t happen. I love ‘Brokeback Mountain’ after all. Depending on the context, I think an actor has artistic license to play someone who doesn’t represent their real-life identity. But in this context, and with representation being so scant to begin with, casting a neurotypical person was kind of like casting a white person to act as a black person. With the way that Maddie was directed to play her character, the facial expressions and the physical movements, it was just offensive to watch. (I personally don’t think we should blame Maddie though—she was a young girl who was tied into a contract, and when she cried to Sia that she was afraid people would think she was mocking autistic people, Sia naively replied that she “wouldn’t let that happen.”)
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Needless to say, it gets worse. Probably the most damaging thing to come from this movie was a scene in which Music, who is having a meltdown, is pinned to the floor. The use of this restraint in real life, called “prone restraint”, has suffocated and killed people. Condemnation of the scene is one of the few criticisms Sia has been receptive to (her Twitter replies to other criticisms were dismissive and defensive, and she’s since deleted her account altogether), tweeting: “I listened to the wrong people and that is my responsibility, my research was clearly not thorough enough, not wide enough.” I’d like to think I’m quite a forgiving person but honestly, too little too late. While this scene has since been removed, it never should have been filmed in the first place—any sort of incentive of this type of behaviour is disgusting and will have a ripple effect. In fact, restraint against autistic and disabled people is still widely used despite having been proven to be ineffective. Renee Fabian writes, “According to data from the 2017–18 school year, more than 100,000 students in the U.S. were disciplined with seclusion or restraint, 78% of whom had disabilities.”
In research for this movie, Sia also cajoled with the likes of Autism Speaks, an abhorrent organisation founded in 2005 that, unfortunately, like many groups which claim to “support” autistic individuals, actually views Autism as though it is some sort of malignant disease. Again, I feel the need to bring up that apparent “3 years of research”. It doesn’t take anywhere near that long to discover that the autistic community are not very big fans of this organisation. Nor should anyone be. I’m not going to link to it because it’s gross but if you want to see how vile Autism Speaks really is, you can search for their ‘I Am Autism’ advert on YouTube. Perhaps not the best people to get your information from, huh.
While this film is still being promoted (which it is by both Sia and Kate Hudson, though not Maddie Ziegler who appears to have distanced herself from the project) I completely understand and echo people’s outrage. I find it very difficult to have sympathy for Sia when she is not listening to feedback from the autistic community, who are not happy with how they are being depicted, how she has depicted them. Sia’s argument in defense of ‘Music’ seems to be that she had good intentions. While this may be true, having good intentions doesn’t give you a free pass, and it shouldn’t excuse her or anyone else involved in this project from facing consequences, especially as the movie it is still being marketed and screened.
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Shitty things often have the unexpected side-effect of bringing people together. If there’s one good thing to have come from ‘Music’, I think it’s brought to light how people’s perceptions are changing. The fact that this film has been received so poorly is a testament to how inaccurate representations are being tolerated less and less. With a grand score of 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Music’ reflects not a positive depiction of neurodiversity but, instead, how ignorance is losing; it shows us that you don’t have to be an expert on Autism to know this movie is offensive, making it all the more egregious that it ever came to fruition.
Still, there are a lot of people who drank the Kool-Aid. As tempting as it could be to leave this article on a happy note, I don’t think it would be realistic. It’s important not to discredit the thousands who have stood up to say this film isn’t something they support, but it’s also important to point out the support it does have. After all, ‘Music’ has received accolades: it has two Golden Globe nominations under its belt and both critical and public praise. Clearly it’s been marketed to be your typical uplifting, high-concept award-bait, and to that end, it’s succeeded. And that’s a problem.
Going back to Sia’s interview with Variety, in which she comes across as a self-aggrandising narcissist (sorry not sorry), the interviewer remarks that this movie is “so moving, so beautiful” and “about walls between people and perception and understanding.” Well, she was half-right: this film is the wall between people and understanding. It’s serious cause for concern when the audience take the bait like this, when otherwise smart, kind people, maybe impressionable young people, could and have watched ‘Music’ and not known enough about neurodiversity to see past the bright colours and the cute songs. They’d come out of the theatre with that post-cinema glow, not realising they’re coming out with a head full of harmful misinformation. You can witness this exchange from misinformed to misinformed happening in the interview. For example, Sia ignorantly uses the term “low-functioning” to describe the autistic protagonist, a term which her three years of research would have told her is degrading and not accepted by many in the autistic community. The interviewer or anyone watching could pick up this term thinking it’s come from someone who knows what they’re talking about. After all, why would you make a film about Autism if you don’t know the first thing about it? (Answer: money. Second answer: vanity.)
The interviewer goes on to say, as though it’s a beautiful observation, “Here’s this person who can’t speak, she might as well be like an inanimate object like a wig, except there’s so much going on in there,” to which Sia replies, “Yeah… I love it.” I mean, I truly could write a separate article about how gross this entire social exchange is, but I would have to a punch a wall or something afterwards. Suffice it to say, this statement, likening non-verbal autistic people to objects and basically saying it’s understandable to initially think they may as well not exist, is the height of insensitivity. It’s inspiration porn encapsulated. It goes to show how fractured and albeist our society really is in our understanding of neurodiverse and disabled individuals; how quick we are to stroke our own egos when we recognise diverse people as people when we should have already seen them that way. We need to stop patting ourselves on the back for doing the bare minimum—in doing so we shine a glaring light on our own ignorance.
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Let’s wrap this up before I get heartburn. Basically, ‘Music’ is the pinnacle of claiming to be part of the solution when you’re actually part of the problem; another movie in a large roster of films and shows with that same tagline. If Sia isn’t going to be, I’ll be embarrassed on her behalf that it exists. It’s one thing to watch ‘Music’ when you’re an adult who can see this for what it is, but the thought of the young generation of autistic individuals watching this offensive garbage and potentially feeling worse about themselves—not to mention overwhelmed by all the triggering sequences—is upsetting. More education about neurodiversity and disability is clearly important (education about all underrepresented communities/minorities, for that matter), but let’s not get our education from media like this.
The best way to understand Autism is by listening to autistic people.
Going forward, I hope autistic voices are better heard; I hope authentic autistic perspectives and experiences and stories are given a much larger platform. And I hope the culture we’ve manufactured, a culture of virtue signalling and insincerity, continues to be called out.
Note: While I have an interest in psychology and neurodiversity, and have done my research for this article, I absolutely do not claim to be an expert on Autism. Therefore, if I’ve made any mistakes in this article, feel free to let me know.