How Sia’s ‘Music’ illuminated the Continual Misrepresentation of People with Autism in the Arts

The directional debut of well-renowned singer, Sia, has been met with mass criticism from the public. Music, centres around a non-verbal autistic girl placed in the care of an unstable Kate Hudson in this family drama. The movie has been nominated for a Golden Globe, and the autistic and neurodivergent community are not happy about it. Why? Despite Sia promising her best ‘intentions’ and undergoing three years of research, she failed to deviate from the ableist telling of autistic stories for self-gain. To put it bluntly, as the UK’s National Autistic Society said: ‘Sia has got this one wrong’.

Looking back through Sia’s music career, you can almost always find Maddie Ziegler as the face, or dramatization of her work: in music videos, album covers and live performances. The same can be seen in Music: ticks incorporated into Ziegler’s choreography like a live-action rendition of a new Sia album, heavily reminiscent of the jarring dance in her first Sia collaboration in the music video for ‘Chandelier’ (2014).

Image Source: Still via Sia // YouTube

Some have speculated that the role was always intended for Ziegler, despite Sia’s attempt to defend herself by apparently auditioning ‘special abilities kids’. In particular, she noted a girl on the spectrum who ‘found it unpleasant and stressful’, which sounds more unaccommodating on the production team’s part than anything else. Sia claimed on Twitter that she tried to ‘lovingly represent the community’ when creating the film, yet her intent fails to make up for the entirely different released film. To many, this came across more like a self-serving project which backfired in the media as opposed to a genuine effort to accurately depict autism on-screen.

But how did Sia manage to let people down so severely? Well, it is worth bearing in mind the scarce depiction of autism in the film industry. Since the 1960s, almost all films with an autistic character (which accounts for only 3% of films), can be put into one of six categories: films that seek to present a ‘cure’ for autism, films that depict an autistic protagonist being abused by society and finally finding redemption, films that display their autistic characters as ‘freaks’, characters that have brilliance in selected areas, characters that are presented as being a liability to others and causing them suffering or having no central role in the plot at all. Naturally, this isn’t something the industry should be proud of, yet there hasn’t been any notable effort to do better, Sia disappointing many with her unfulfilled promises to do so.

For Music, the heaviest criticism comes from Sia casting a neurotypical actress to play a non-verbal autistic character. The film industry has been criticised time and again by autistic and disabled actors for their unwillingness to adapt or accommodate, resulting in the casting of able-bodied actors for these roles instead. In fact, all of the films I have seen with an autistic or neurodivergent character, spanning three decades, have been played by an able-bodied actor: Rain Man (1988), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1994), Adam (2009), X + Y (2014) and, Please Stand By (2017). There are dozens more with the same plotlines and problematic portrayals.

The film industry clearly needs to take notes from recent developments in TV which have brought about beautiful, funny and honest depictions of autism to screens everywhere, casting autistic actors for autistic roles. In fact, there are several TV shows with support from neurodivergent communities such as Atypical (2017-2021) and Everything’s Gonna be Okay (2020). Watching either, it is clear that it really isn’t as hard as Sia conveyed to accommodate to the needs of neurodivergent or disabled actors.

Image Source: Still via Sia // YouTube

Given how much money and resources are put into a lot of these films, it is hard to see why the film studio for Sia’s Music, with its 16-million-dollar budget, could not make adequate adjustments to make the set accessible for an autistic actor. Schedules could have been extended or rearranged and then resulted in an authentic, likely beautiful film showing autism. Instead, the film can be chucked into the already too-large pile of non-autistic producers elbowing themselves and their neurotypical stars into an awards ceremony.

With regard to the harmful portrayal of autism, what caused additional outrage was that Sia controversially has the charity Autism Speaks (which has been denounced by the neurodivergent community for promoting ‘curing autism’) as a supporter of the film. But Sia took to Twitter to say that she was not aware and that Autism Speaks became associated with the film ‘four years’ after its beginning. An additional blow to the disabled community was Sia’s refusal to acknowledge autism as a disability (instead opting to label it as ‘special abilities’), perpetuating a stereotype that disabled is derogatory or ‘bad’ to call someone with a legitimate disability. This is perhaps just as damaging as those who still problematically use ‘autistic’ as an insult.

Image Source: Still via Sia // YouTube

Another major concern about Music is the use of restraint on an autistic character in two scenes, an action that has often resulted in injuries, trauma or death. Many have demanded the two scenes be removed from the film, Sia has since apologised and promised that it will be done. Similarly to how the world is sick to death of trauma porn plotlines, this film has neglectfully let down a community that they neither speak nor listen to.

The issue is blatantly clear: there is such scarce representation of autism and disabilities in general on-screen as it is, and even when presented, casting directors almost always hire a neurotypical actor. The film industry in particular needs to move beyond reinforcing harmful stereotypes and arguably using the able-bodied actor’s portrayal of neurodivergence and disabled characters as a bid for awards (looking at The Theory of Everything). Frankly, the community is not asking for much, just the film industry catching up with TV’s far more honest and unstigmatized depiction of autism.

Becky Ellis

Featured Image Source: Still via Sia // YouTube

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