Why Sia needs to face the ‘Music’ for her ableism.

What do you get if you give an uneducated celebrity free rein to exploit a marginalised community under the guise of art? You get ‘Music’ — a movie created by pop star turned director and sudden ‘autism expert’, Sia.

It has taken me some time to write a post about this because I wanted to do my research on the premise behind the movie and to speak to other autistic people about their take on it. However, after hearing that a neurotypical actress was assigned the role of the autistic lead and later reading Sia’s twitter thread justifying this ableism, it didn’t take me long to conclude that this movie is a poor representation of the autistic community. Not only because there aren’t actually any autistic people in it, but that it perpetuates the exact stereotypes that have plagued autistic people for decades. Yes, we want representation in the media, but not like this.

To provide some background on the movie, ‘Music’ tells the story of a newly sober drug dealer who becomes the sole guardian of her half-sister Music, a young girl on the autism spectrum. Maddie Ziegler, who is not autistic (but hey, she starred in Dance Moms) was chosen by Sia to play Music, a nonverbal autistic teenager. Not only am I outraged by Sia’s decision to cast an able-bodied, neurotypical actress to play this character, I’m appalled by Sia’s justification as to why she cast Ziegler when there are plenty of autistic actors looking for work.

Sia claimed that she actually tried to work with a non-verbal girl “on the spectrum” but this girl found the filming experience “stressful” and “unpleasant.” This reads to me that the reason why this unnamed autistic actress found it an unpleasant experience is that there were probably no accommodations in place during filming to actually make the experience pleasant — a prime example of the discrimination that many autistic people experience when we try to work within neurotypical structures. If we can’t ‘cope’ with the neurotypical environment then we’re not the right fit. This is not a good enough explanation from Sia.

Sia then goes on a tirade of abuse when autistic people tweeted her asking for a better explanation. She used ableist language, referring to autistic people as either ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning, while claiming that the movie is a “love letter to caregivers and the autism community” and that she has her “own unique view of the community” — whatever that means. Someone please tell Sia that she cannot have a ‘view’ on someone’s neurology. Autism is not something to be debated. We also do not need love letters. This comment romanticises the ‘helpless disabled person’ trope which pops up from time to time in Hollywood movies. Sia’s Twitter comments only got worse from here, at which point she tells us [the autistic community] to “fuckity fuck” stop judging her and for us to feel grateful that she cast 13 neurodivergent people. Yes, she might have done that but she failed to get the point that autistic people need autistic actors representing us on the big screen. Anything else, is an imitation, a bad copy, and a mockery of us.

Now, this all happened before I saw clips from the movie. It’s one thing casting a neurotypical actress to play a neurodivergent person; it’s another thing directing this actress to adopt a caricature of autistic mannerisms which mock us. These mannerisms are triggering for some of us who were bullied for stimming with our hands or lips. It’s the stereotypical exaggerated eye-rolling that got me. If Sia did her research, she should know that autistic people do not all have the same stims as depicted in the movie. In fact, rolling my eyes around like I’m having a seizure is certainly not one of mine.

The point that I want to emphasise is that Sia defended her creative choices, even when she was called out by autistic people for offending the community. If you are not part of the community, you have no right to decide whether something is offensive or not. If you are an ally, which she passionately claims to be, you just have to take our word for it and apologise. Eventually, she did apologise, probably due to pressure from her publicist. However, the movie somehow received two Golden Globe nominations. For this, I’m not surprised. I can think of a few Hollywood movies that have received praise for black/queer/trans/disabled/female representation when all these directors have done are reinforce damaging stereotypes.

There is now a Change.org petition to prevent Sia from winning a Golden Globe for this movie, which has already gained over 100,000 signatures. Perhaps this will be a lesson to those in positions of privilege and power to consider whether the communities they are depicting on screen are authentic.

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Psychology postgraduate student. Autistic. Advocating for neurodiversity acceptance.

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Sophie Longley

Sophie Longley

Psychology postgraduate student. Autistic. Advocating for neurodiversity acceptance.

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