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Why is Sia’s Music being slammed as ill-considered and problematic by the autistic community?

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In November 2020, the trailer dropped for Sia’s film Music, a supposed “love letter” to autistic people. It was immediately criticised by our community – and for good reason – but things only got worse when Sia herself began to lash out against autistic people chiming in on the debate. The film and its PR have, all-in-all, been seen as a disaster, and in no way seems to present five years’ worth of work by Sia and her team.

Music is the story of a young autistic person being left to their half-sister after the death of their grandparent. Music, played by Maddie Ziegler, is specifically a non-speaking autistic person, whereas Ziegler is neurotypical, which is where the criticism began. This is a case of ‘cripping up’, which refers to a non-disabled actor playing a disabled role. Many outside the disabled community argue this is fine as it is “just acting”, but the experience of being disabled is not something that can be replicated, and Ziegler’s movements and emotions in the film are extremely over the top and problematic. This issue is comparable to films such as Rain Man, which portrays autism is similarly problematic ways. It has since been said by Sia that Ziegler herself was upset at the notion of playing the character due to believing she would be mimicking autistic people, but Sia promised that this wouldn’t be the case.

However, Music isn’t even the central character – her half-sister Zu, played by Kate Hudson, is. This is seen on the main poster for the movie. In a film supposedly created to raise awareness about autism, the story is focused on the carer – another key problem in most current representations of disability produced by non-disabled people. Disabled people deserve to be the focus of media that not only educates the wider population but celebrates diversity and understands our needs.

A wider issue came with Sia’s tweets, eventually culminating in her deleting her account earlier this year, previous to her Golden Globes nominations. When the musician said that she originally had an autistic actress but they found it “unpleasant and stressful”, employing Ziegler instead, many autistic actresses replied saying that they would have been available. This caused Sia to reply to one with “maybe you’re just a bad actor”. She also made remarks such as saying that people who were like Music would not be able to use Twitter to praise her, alongside several other comments.

In a later interview, Sia admitted that her use of Maddie was not only ableism but nepotism as well. Since Music’s release, it has gained a 3.7/10 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with only 8% of critics rating it positively, alongside countless other criticisms from the autistic community and beyond. Several autism charities have spoken out against the film, including the National Autistic Society, as well as The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and CommunicationFIRST. The latter have worked with non-speaking autistic young people to produce the LISTEN Movie, which I recommend you watch instead.

We see scenes that are meant to represent the “inner workings” of Music – because the film portrays those who are non-speaking as unable to communicate in any way – but this is fundamentally untrue. Many communicate through Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) including sign language, computers, or visual aids. These scenes have also been said to be extremely bright, colourful, and all-around overwhelming for most viewers, let alone autistic people who deal with sensory overwhelm which can trigger meltdowns.

The film also contains scenes of prone restraint, a method used when autistic people are having meltdowns, which is known to have killed several people from the community. There is no discussion in the film of this being problematic and there are many concerns that the film will cause others to believe this is a legitimate way to support autistic people. When the trailer came out, Sia said that she had undertaken four years of research for the film, but it is clear from the inclusion of this method that this must have been insufficient.

Sia decided that autistic advocates should have waited to watch the film in full before making any judgement, but this is simply not true. The trailer alone showed a lack of care and research, as well as scenes that clearly demonstrated that Ziegler’s portrayal of a non-speaking autistic girl was unrealistic, offensive, and ableist at its core.

Her constant use of “special abilities people” on social media and in interviews (instead of disabled) is demeaning and ultimately a microaggression towards the disabled community – disabled is not a bad word and we have to stop hiding away from it. Autistic people can’t fly or turn invisible and we have never asked to be called this. It’s damaging that Sia has spread this term so easily and proudly.

There have also been accusations of blackface in the film, with scenes showing Ziegler with darkly tanned skin and headphones made out of braids. The film exhibits problematic behaviour after problematic behaviour, and it is totally unacceptable.

The idea that the film was “made out of love” does not excuse the damage it has done to the autistic community, and the concept that Sia has been ‘cancelled’ – when she still has a huge platform and this film was nominated for multiple Golden Globes – is categorically untrue. The money Sia has made off the film, as well as the fanbase she continues to have, shows that there are few consequences for such a problematic piece of media. We deserve better, and representation for autistic – and more widely, disabled – people has an extremely long way to go. It’s just as well, really, that the film hasn’t been adored in the way I originally feared.

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