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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

How Sia's "Music" Harms The Autistic Community

Updated: May 19, 2021

Over the past few months, it seems like the entire internet has directed their attention towards pop star, Sia, and it's not for the reason you may think. The faceless singer isn't just making a new album but is in fact releasing her directorial debut, Music. The film stars big names such as Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr. and Maddie Ziegler in the title role. Unlike Sia's other projects like her multiple successful albums, Music was met with scathing reviews and criticism before it even came out and that's for a very specific reason. Music is a film that centers around an autistic character and how she supposedly sees the world. Ever since the official US trailer was released in mid January, there has been an uproar on social media, more specifically from autistic creators on Tiktok who have voiced their concerns about how autism is portrayed in the film. After watching it myself and discussing the movie with a friend on the autism spectrum, the flaws in Sia's Music have only become more apparent.

A huge problem the autistic community seems to have with with Music is that the title character is played by Maddie Ziegler, who is not autistic. Although this is a valid concern it seems to be relatively new since there have been plenty of roles in the past played by neurotypical actors who do not suffer the same afflictions as their characters. Some examples are Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Freddie Highmore in The Good Doctor, Andrew Miller in Cube, or Keir Gilchrist in the Netflix series: Atypical. However for this topic I've decided to focus on perhaps the most famous example, which is Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. As of mid February, Music currently holds a measly score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, meanwhile What's Eating Gilbert Grape boasts a 90% positive rating on the site. So what's the difference? What makes one loathed and the other universally adored?

For starters, prior to playing the character, Arnie, Leonardo DiCaprio did research on autism so that he could portray the condition in a realistic way. The actor is on record saying "I spent a few days at a home for mentally ill teens. We just talked and I watched their mannerisms. People have these expectations that mentally retarded children are really crazy, but it's not so. It's refreshing to see them because everything's so new to them." This care and effort translated perfectly on screen and resulted in DiCaprio's nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 1994 Academy Awards. This is a far cry from Maddie Ziegler's performance in Music which put lightly, is downright insulting and at times borders on minstrelsy. It's clear just how little research and preparation went into her performance, it seems like Sia's interpretation of autism is just somebody who just flails around, makes incoherent sounds and breaks down at a moment's notice. It's one thing not to cast an autistic actor but it's another thing to receive zero input from any neurodivergent person at all. There is a change.org petition to rescind the film's two Golden Globe nominations: "Best Musical/Comedy Picture" and “Best Musical/Comedy Actress: Kate Hudson.” As of February 21st, the petition currently has 105,000 signatures.

Sia recieved a staggering amount of backlash for her decision to cast a non-autistic person in the title role. Follwing the release of the official trailer, a firestorm erupted on Twitter against the musician which eventually led to her deleting her account after a public online tantrum. According to Sia, an austistic actress was initially hired to play the main role but was soon replaced by Ziegler after the director found her difficult to work with. In an interview with Australia's The Sunday Project, Sia was confronted about the accusations of ableism the film had been recieving, specifically referring to the casting choices. In response to this, Sia explained, "I realised it wasn’t ableism, I mean it is ableism I guess as well, but it’s actually nepotism because I can’t do a project without her [Ziegler]. I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her." Despite the director's claims that the film's intentions were pure, it did little to quell the outrage that was spreading across the internet.

While it's understandable at first how Sia might've found a severely autistic person hard to direct, it's been done before by a studio you've definitely heard of: Pixar. In 2020, Erica Milsom directed an animated short called Loop about two children canoeing, one being autistic and nonverbal. Unlike Music, a real nonverbal autistic person was cast in the role, Madison Bandy. Initially, the crew had a lot of difficulty in getting Madison to record her lines since she was not used to a formal studio. Instead of giving up and casting a neurotypical actor instead, the film crew adapted to make sure they got the best performance out of her as possible. The crew were able to get the lines they needed by recording Madison in her home, reacting to familiar stimuli that would get the most natural reactions from her. In the end, Loop ended up being a success for Pixar and was able to offer some positive representation for the autistic community. What I'm trying to say here is that Sia saying that hiring an autistic actor was too difficult is a copout and it certainly can be done. Her response in The Sunday Project was just an excuse to work with Maddie Ziegler and not have to deal with the challenges of hiring someone on the spectrum. God knows they could've at least tried with a budget of $16 million dollars.

Further criticism arose when Sia revealed that she had been working with the organization, Autism Speaks during the film's production and that this is where a lot of her knowledge on autism comes from. In recent years, the reputation of Autism Speaks has soured in the eyes of the autistic community. People on the spectrum have an issue with how the organization's main goal is to find a cure for autism and that the spokespeople portray it as a disease that needs to be eradicated rather than embraced by the public. To autistic people this seems to make a lot of sense because the treatment that the title character experiences in the movie is abhorrent. Not only is Music inaccurate but it's also dangerous since there are multiple scenes where the character's meltdowns are treated by having someone pin her to the ground. This is justified by Leslie Odom Jr's character saying that it made his autistic brother "feel safe." What might not be common knowledge to neurotypical people is that holding down an autistic person during a breakdown is one of the most crucial things NOT to do. Safer methods include using fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones or calming scents according to Healthline.com but nowhere does it say to use physical restraints as it could prove to be traumatic for the individual and end up making the situation worse. Before her Twitter account was deleted, Sia explained that she plans to "remove the restraint scenes from all future printings" of Music and that the film "in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people," however that's a pretty hard thing to argue after watching the scenes firsthand. Leslie Odom Jr's character, Ebo is portrayed as the only person who knows how to handle autism, which makes the audience see him as the film's voice of reason and someone who should be trusted. While the movie might not literally say "hey audience, you should pin an autistic person to the ground during a meltdown" that's...exactly what it's saying through the narrative structure and portrayal of the characters. Not to mention, the scenes that take place in Music's head could easily result in sensory overload from autistic viewers due to them including bright colors, loud noises and rapid movements. Since every 1 in 4 autistic people also suffer from epilepsy, the film could be causing a lot more harm than just social regression. I would strongly advise anyone who watches Music not to take any given advice about how to handle autistic people and instead look towards professional sources like the Autism Society of America and the Autism Awareness Centre.

After watching the film in its entirety I don't think Music's negative reception is entirely due to the social controversy that surrounds it. In the most technical way possible, Sia's film is a complete tonal disaster, with lukewarm performances, and a confused structure. In a sense, the movie feels like a rough draft that somehow made it to theaters. There are several moments where these random choreographed musical numbers come out of nowhere in an attempt to give the audience a glimpse into Music's mind. However this comes across more like a bunch of Sia music videos recklessly thrown into an unfinished movie to stretch the runtime. There is an extremely weak subplot about a neighbor who is an emotional boxer or something? It's never really explained and narratively makes zero sense. While watching the film, it's easy to notice just how small of a part the title character has in the actual plot. A huge amount of the story centers around Kate Hudson's character, Zu and her struggle with alcoholism and drug dealing as well as her relationship with Leslie Odom Jr's character. In a way, Music only acts as a vessel to showcase Sia's new songs and accompanying videos. Even though she's the film's namesake, she's barely the main character. Perhaps the most staggering thing I encountered while watching Music was how Sia ended up writing herself into the film. Around the one hour mark, Kate Hudson's character is about to commit a supposed drug deal with a rich client, when she arrives she points out one of Sia's signature wigs on a table and asks "is that a Sia wig?!" and proceeds to meet Sia getting ready at her bureau. Sia then explains that she is going to use the painkillers in the drug deal to donate to Haiti because they've recently experienced an earthquake...if you're confused I really don't blame you. This scene lasts about five minutes and holds almost no plot significance and feels extremely narcissistic because Sia essentially wrote herself as a charitable mega-celebrity in her own movie. It gets to the point where you're not sure if it's supposed to be a joke or not. Sia's lack of self awareness is staggering.

Music is inconsistent and confusing in terms of editing, especially where the scenes transition into music videos. If these cutaway scenes are supposed to symbolize what is going on in an autistic person's brain, why do they pop up whenever a character has any sort of emotional moment? The presence of the music videos themselves just lose more and more meaning as the film goes on. The cinematography by Sebastian Winterø is decent but any positive aspect is overshadowed by how inconsistent the tone is. One specific moment I found particularly appalling was towards the beginning when Ebo explains that his autistic brother is dead and kind of implies that he is better off that way since autism was seen as a "curse" in his Ghanaian village. I can't imagine hearing that as an autistic person because that would make me straight up fear for my life. If there is one thing I expected to be good in Music it was the soundtrack considering that the director is a nine-time Grammy nominated musician and the cast includes Tony winner, Leslie Odom Jr. If it weren't for the terrible misrepresentation of autism, the music would easily be one of the film's weakest aspects. All the lyrics are so literal and unimaginative, I don't understand the point of releasing music from the perspective of an autistic child written by a neurotypical 40 year old.

While doing research for this article I had the privilege of interviewing a friend on the autism spectrum, Syd White about his views on Sia's new film. When I asked him how he felt about the decision to cast Maddie Ziegler instead of an autistic actor, he replied with: "I think that it’s difficult for neurotypicals to play neurodivergent characters because being neurodivergent (autistic in my case) presents so many nuances that most neurotypicals just aren’t aware of and can’t be familiar enough with to accurately portray. There are so many things that I, as an autistic person do that stem from my autism that neurotypical writers and actors would simply not think about because it wouldn’t fit the public perception of autism pertaining to how it is portrayed in most media...oftentimes the exclusion of autistic people from playing autistic roles aids in the infantilization of them, as it is at least passively saying that autistic people are unable to advocate for or portray themselves in media." When it comes to neurodivergent representation on screen, White said that he would like to be portrayed "preferably by an autistic person." As far as Sia's knowledge of autism, White described her as "undeniably ignorant on the subject, perfectly illustrated by her not learning Autism Speaks is a hate group in her ‘3 years of research'...It’s honestly pretty evident that she did use Autism Speaks for this project because of how autism is portrayed in her narrative as being awful and life ruining for Music’s caretaker, while simultaneously speaking to the inspiration porn aspect by going on about how music is ‘special abilities’ and largely just commodifying her." During the interview I asked White "had you seen the film at a young age do you think it would've affected your self image as an autistic person?" to which he replied: "Yes it would have affected my self image, but more specifically I think it would have done what a lot of media about autistic people did for me when I was younger; make me think I wasn’t autistic because 1, I didn’t act how Music did/people didn’t treat me how they treated music and 2, I would have continued to think of autism as a sad condition...if that’s all autistic kids are seeing it can warp their perceptions of autism and make them feel like they are bad for being autistic or make them feel like they can’t be autistic." White does not believe that Sia is capable of making a truthful portrayal of autism without autistic people involved in the production and that in the end, Sia wrote Music "for neurotypical viewers. Plain and simple." Although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, it's important that we listen to autistic and neurodivergent people if we want to have accurate and respectful portrayals on screen. It's time to let them tell their own stories.

Lastly I asked Syd White: "what would you recommend neurotypical people do to get a better understanding of autistic people and spread awareness?" to which he replied: "Stop infantilizing autistic people and actually listen to them... neurotypicals should be deferring to autistics on autistic issues, stop supporting Autism Speaks and learn why it’s bad. Seriously, even just go on TikTok and watch videos by autistic creators about this stuff, because contrary to popular portrayal autistic people have thoughts and opinions and are human in the way that we are complex and sentient, not something for you as a neurotypical to demonize or infantilize."

So what should we do about harmful films like Sia's Music? Unfortunately, a lot of the damage has already been done. If you're a parent I would strongly advise not to let your children watch this, instead educate them about autism through sources that are more accurate such as the Autism Society of America and the Autism Awareness Centre. Avoid Autism Speaks at all costs. Despite the harm this movie is capable of I would advise people not to attack any of the actors as I believe the intentions of Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr and 15 year old Maddie Ziegler were not malicious and that their involvement is mores a result of ignorance rather than genuine spite. In the meantime, educate your children, educate your friends, and especially educate yourself. Look online, there are so many autistic and neurodivergent creators on sites like Youtube, Tiktok, Instagram etc who offer much better incite on what it's like to deal with their conditions.

Lastly, I want to give a big "thank you" to Syd White for agreeing to be interviewed and expressing his views on the film.


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