The Multiple Problems of Music by Sia

[Image Description: screenshot from the trailer of Music featuring a white woman with pigtails wearing light blue headphones sitting to the right of a black man wearing sunglasses.]

Yesterday, autistic activists took to twitter following the release of the trailer for the film Music by Sia. The trailer features a visibly disabled character complete with atypical motor movements, atypical facial expressions and large headphones. Initial criticism from the disability community came as a result of the casting of non-disabled actress Maddie Ziegler in the role of an autistic character rather than an autistic actress.

The practice of casting non-disabled actors to play disabled characters, known as “cripping up” is widespread and most mainstream productions continue to do this. Disability activists have launched campaigns against the practice but to limited success. This is one in a long line of recently accounted movies which fill feature a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character much to the disappointment of the disabled activist community.

It is important to note that despite the character of Music (yes, that’s her name) being autistic, the clips we see in the trailer of her atypical movement is closer to non-speaking cerebral palsy than non-speaking autism; evidence that the creators of this movie did not do their due diligence in actually researching disabilities and their presentations.

Cripping up is not the only thing this movie does wrong, however. Consider the advertising of the film: much of the synopses posted online refer to the character of Music as having “special needs”, including the Wikipedia page as of the time of writing this. Autistic self-advocates have long disliked the term “special needs”, as everyone has needs, and those of autistic people are only different and not ‘special’; making things accessible for autistic people does not take away from others.

Then there are Sia’s own words on the topic. In an interview available on YouTube, Sia describes the movie as “Rain Man: The Musical but with girls”. Immediately, this sets off alarm bells in the minds of autistic activists. Rain Man is a widely criticised movie by the autistic community for its stereotypical and damaging depiction of autism, and if that is the inspiration for the film, it casts a foreboding shadow on what Music’s depiction of autism is likely to look like.

Following the criticism of the trailer yesterday, Sia responded to critics by throwing fuel on the fire, making statements including:

“I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.”

Except autistic people are disabled, and removing us from the disability community while also claiming that someone “at her level of functioning” is unable to become an actor, is hypocritical, offensive and exclusionary. Euphemisms for disabled such as “special abilities” are loathed by the vast majority of the disabled community, and if Sia thinks this is an adequate response to criticism, she clearly hasn’t engaged much with disabled people despite claims to the contrary.

 Non-speaking does not mean unable to communicate at all, or to cope with a working environment, and there are non-speaking autistic actors who would have been able to play this part. The lack of consideration given to the casting of an autistic actor has deprived someone of a paid role in a world where it is notoriously difficult for autistic people to make a living – particularly those like who Sia is trying to “represent”.

Sia also partnered with Autism Speaks, an anti-autistic hate group masquerading as an autism charity in the US in the making of this film. Autistic activists almost all despise Autism Speaks and even a cursory internet search these days will know how polarising the organisation is – ignorance is not an excuse when the information is there and available at the click of a few buttons.

In her responses on twitter to the controversy, Sia responded to an autistic actor who was not given the chance to audition saying “maybe you’re just a bad actor”. This response, alongside multiple tweets full of aggressive sounding language is how Sia has replied to the many autistic advocates who have criticised her film. It is hard to assume good faith when someone responds so aggressively.

There was a good opportunity here to create a movie that would represent autistic people and help change stereotypes, but what we have already seen in the trailer, the casting, and in Sia’s response to criticism makes it unlikely that the end product will do so. I hope to be proven wrong, and as such will watch the movie upon its release, but I am sceptical and disappointed in Sia’s response to the valid concerns of autistic people.

EDIT: Since the initial publication of this post, new evidence has come to light that Sia did not, at any point, attempt to cast an autistic actor despite what she claimed; and that the movie was designed for Maddie Ziegler to play the lead.

Also, the same evidence suggests Maddie raised concerns that this would be viewed as offensive by the autistic community but was reassured by Sia to the contrary. Given Maddie’s age when production began on this movie; it is clear that Sia has been misleading and gaslighting Maddie also.

Edit 2: language has been changed from non-verbal to non-speaking to reflect the wishes of the non-speaking autistic community.