Singer-songwriter Sia’s directorial debut Music is a masterclass in how not to make a film. The unevolved characters, lumbering plot, and failed art-house film feel are not even its biggest problem. Instead, it’s the unpalatable and dangerous depictions of autism that have caused it to be lambasted by film critics and autism activists alike.
When the trailer was released, the social media world was quick to criticize Sia for her inappropriate casting choice for the central role ‘Music’. Sia cast her god-daughter, dancer, and actor Maddie Ziegler as the eponymous character that has non-verbal autism. Ziegler is neurotypical, leading to many feeling that her portrayal of ‘Music’ was unauthentic, making a mockery of those with autism.
Masses took to social media in response to Music to convey their disappointment in Sia’s casting and misrepresentations of autism. Using the hashtag “#NothingWithUsWithoutUs”, autistic people expressed their anger towards those who seek to tell their stories without including them. After stating that she could not find an autistic actor to be in her film, Sia was flooded with tweets from autistic actors telling her that they could have played ‘Music’. She told one: “maybe you’re just a bad actor”.
When asked why she didn’t cast an autistic person for the role of ‘Music’, Sia said she tried, but that the actor found the set “unpleasant and stressful”. However, the director Rachel Israel’s 2017 film Keep the Change starred two autistic actors, playing autistic characters and Israel noted how she worked alongside them to adapt the set to their needs.
The veracity of Sia’s claims was further undermined by an earlier interview where she revealed how she wrote the film ‘for Maddie’. She also professed to Australian talk show The Project that “it was ableism” – but, more so, just “nepotism” – that led to her casting Ziegler, the at-the-time 14-year-old who Sia claims she “wouldn’t make art [without]”. Incidentally, Sia is Maddie’s Godmother and Maddie has starred in her most famous music videos including Chandelier and Cheap Thrills.
Nonetheless, Maddie shows herself to be a highly talented actor and dancer. It is cruelly ironic that Sia’s obsessive determination to promote Maddie is resulting in her tarnishing the career of a girl she claims to love.
The restraint is referred to as “crushing with love”
The most contentious on-screen episode in the film is the use of the sometimes lethal ‘prone restraint’ on the character ‘Music’ when she is having a meltdown. Within the film, the restraint is referred to as “crushing with love”. Many found this particularly disturbing considering that this method has caused the death of multiple autistic people.
Furthermore, the apparent endorsement of the restraint – which is banned in schools in 21 American states – is disturbing because whilst on a Twitter rampage, Sia claimed to have spent “three f*cking years researching [autism]”. Considering this is the same amount of time it takes to earn an undergraduate degree, it’s unconvincing that Sia never came across information regarding the harmful nature of the technique.
Sia later promised on Twitter that there would be an on-screen warning against the prone restraint. This did not happen, thus further reinforcing claims that Sia’s film is detrimental to the autistic community and calling into question Sia’s boast that her film was a “love letter to caregivers and the autism community”.
They render it unwatchable for many with autism
The film dehumanizes autistic people. In one scene, ‘Music’ reaches under a park bench to eat a piece of used chewing gum. This unnecessary action presents autistic people as animalistic. It also seems that Sia did not consider whether people with autism would want or be able to watch her film. A serious side-effect of Music’s bright colours, loud music, and bizarre dancing sequences is that they render it unwatchable for many with autism. This is because a common trait of autism is being hypersensitive to sensory information.
Initially, many were excited to hear that Sia’s film would spotlight an autistic girl since they are underrepresented in the media, a consequence of girls being less likely to be diagnosed. The under-representation of autistic girls in the media further reinforces distorted ideas of what autism ‘looks’ like. This sets up a pernicious cycle, making it harder for girls to get diagnosed.
Music had the potential to be revolutionary in breaking away from the traditional image of autism being a white, inept young man – stretching from Dustin Hoffman’s 1988 Rain Man through to the more recent Netflix series Atypical.
Instead, Sia’s presentation of autism is damaging for the autistic community. Many are left questioning why Sia – who has no known previous experience with the autistic community – decided to write Music. Especially because Sia introduces the theme of alcoholism alongside autism, over-cluttering the film’s agenda.
Sia’s failures highlight the lack of understanding and respect for those with autism within our society. Her film illustrates the dire need for more honest and diverse depictions of autism in film and television. It is to be hoped that the controversy generated by the backlash against Music leads to more considerate and truthful representations of autistic people in the future.
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