Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Sia – an Australian singer-songwriter – recently dropped several trailers for her new movie musical, “Music,” which is currently in theaters in Australia and is set to be released to stream online in the U.S. Feb. 12, featuring 10 new songs from the artist.
And almost immediately, the criticism began pouring in.
“Music” stars Kate Hudson, a woman struggling with addiction who suddenly finds herself as the caretaker of Music, a nonverbal autistic girl. Music is played by Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical dancer who Sia has made the star of many of her projects in the past.
For what feels like forever, the disability community has made it clear that casting nondisabled actors in disabled roles is misrepresentation, and not at all what they are asking for. So, another movie with this misguided representation coming out in 2021, at a point where there is little to no excuse to not cast disabled actors, was sure to receive some backlash.
And it did. Many people in the disability community, especially those on the autism spectrum, immediately posted their thoughts on social media, mostly expressing their annoyance over the casting choice and calling the movie “ableist.”
Although some, including attorney, author, artist, and autism advocate Haley Moss, admitted to be “happy to see the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC),” she also thought “like much of media, it focuses on the neurotypical gaze, or representing autistic stories through a neurotypical perspective and lens.”
“We should be representing ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “We should be in charge of our own stories. But instead our stories are being told by people who think they know us when they really don’t… Sia doesn’t see us as people to represent, she sees us as people to feel sorry for.”
However, the criticism didn’t end there. Although the movie has yet to be released in the U.S., making it impossible to judge it completely, the trailers showed many issues that didn’t escape the notice of those in the autism community.
One common complaint was about the use of bright colors and loud noises in the movie, which can be difficult for many autistic people to experience due to sensory issues. People saw this as an obvious clue that this movie was not actually made for people with autism, despite the fact that Sia claimed the movie is “both a love letter to caregivers and to the autism community.”
The obvious focus on caretakers is another issue many have with the film. The trailers seem to show that Hudson’s character is the actual star, who goes through a savior complex where she feels the need to “save” Music but that she also, in turn, will be saved by Music’s “special” view of the world.
To make matters worse, Sia’s response lacked any sense of remorse as she refused to listen to the community she claims she is trying to represent.
While addressing the casting choice in now-deleted Tweets, Sia said she originally “tried working with a beautiful young girl nonverbal on the spectrum and [the actress] found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie… Casting someone at [the character’s] level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.”
The fact that Sia cannot see the almost comical hypocrisy in making a movie about someone with autism while failing to make an accessible environment to employ someone who could properly represent the role of Music left many outraged. Not to mention that Sia later admitted she couldn’t do the movie without Ziegler, implying it may have been her plan all along to cast the neurotypical dancer in the role.
And, when others in the autistic community voiced that they would have loved to take on the role of Music to properly represent the character, Sia told them “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”
Which left many with even more criticisms to express.
“It is not ‘inhumane’ to cast a nonspeaking autistic actor or someone with more support needs,” said Moss. “It is not inhumane to accommodate people. Sia refused to do it. Sia has a large platform and has a responsibility not to bully autistic individuals for disagreeing with her; she could be a supportive ally and amplify our voices and pledge to do better.”
Other comments from Sia raised even more red flags. Sia claimed to do three years of research, but she also repeatedly used the phrase “special abilities,” making it hard to believe she had actually done quality research since the community has widely embraced the term “disabled” and condemned language such as “special needs” and “differently-abled.” Sia then told the public she had partnered with Autism Speaks to help with her research on the movie. And while Autism Speaks wasn’t involved with the casting and production of the film, many people in the autistic and disability community find the organization to be problematic, leading some to believe Sia’s knowledge on the subject has been ill-advised from the beginning.
It’s easy to understand why everyone is so frustrated by the production of this movie. How is it that, after all this time, the media is still missing the mark by so much when it comes to representing those in the disability community? How can they not see how offensive and isolating “Music” is to those on the spectrum?
When diverse stories are properly represented in the media, an entire world can open up. So, one of the biggest concerns that arises when a movie like this is released to the public is how it will affect the views and opinions others have of the autism community. When people who are unfamiliar with autism and disability see this type of representation, they generate stereotypes that are wrong and harmful about those in the community. And, when people misunderstand the community, it makes it more difficult for those with autism to be truly included and accepted in all areas of life, especially in our school communities.
One can only hope teachers and students who are trying to build inclusive classrooms will not watch this movie and form inaccurate assumptions.
Moss and Rodriguez both agree the simplest way to avoid misrepresentation and to create the types of movies that will share stories in an authentic way is to hire the people you are representing. Hire them as actors, as screenwriters, as consultants, as directors. As those in the disability community say time and time again, “Nothing about us without us.”
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.