Photo courtesy of Landay Entertainment / IMDb

Sia's New Film 'Music' is an Insult to People with Disabilities

“Nothing about us without us” is a slogan that has been widely used for various social justice issues, but people with disabilities, like myself, and the disability rights movement have really made this our own. 

Typically, the slogan is used in the context of policy development to indicate that people with disabilities should have a seat at the table for policy-making and decision-making processes surrounding disability-related issues. However, when considering Sia’s recent film Music, with which she makes her directorial debut, “nothing about us without us” spans beyond policy, taking on a different meaning within the film industry.

While this movie clearly has a notable cast consisting of Hollywood heavy-hitters Leslie Odom Jr. and Kate Hudson, that talent has been drowned out by the ableist underpinnings of this movie and its director. I had never thought that I would call such a talented singer like Sia tone-deaf, but it is difficult not to think of her in that light when considering her decision to cast Maddie Ziegler as the lead character, Music, in the film. 

This casting decision does make sense at first glance. Ziegler has consistently been at Sia’s side as the blonde, wig-wearing dancer in nearly every one of her music videos since Chandelier in 2015. However, the decision crosses a line and becomes problematic when considering that Ziegler, who is able-bodied and non-autistic, was cast as a character who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum.  

In the disability community, we call this “disability drag.” An able-bodied actor or actress is cast as a character with a disability, which then silences and segregates the population of disabled actors and actresses for whom this might be a rare, golden opportunity to land a significant role considering that traits like lived experience, appearance, and identity would correlate with that of the character. 

Sadly, Music is not the first time we have seen something like this, nor will it be the last. I have many friends with disabilities, specifically those who, like me, have Dwarfism, who are qualified actors and actresses. For them, numerous factors, namely the bias of the people responsible for casting and directing, constantly stand in their way of finally being offered the opportunity to step into the spotlight. In movies and television shows of the past and present, able-bodied actors like Jacob Tremblay (Auggie in Wonder) and Kevin McHale (Artie in Glee) have simultaneously stepped over and into the shoes of eligible actors and actresses with those same disabilities.    

When the film Music, which was released onto on-demand video platforms just a few days ago on February 12th, first aired its trailer last November, the autism and wider disability communities rightfully came out against it in full force. Sia was getting ravaged on Twitter, with users accusing her of ableism and expressing their deep disgust towards her ignorance of actors with disabilities in the decision to cast Ziegler. The National Autistic Society tweeted that “Sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there—like Saskia [Lupin], Alex [Marshall], Max [Green], and Holly [Lewis] who starred in our #AutismTMI films.” The four actors and actresses that were named in the tweet, along with many other eligible actors and actresses on the spectrum, are all around the age of Ziegler.

In an attempt to fend off these tweets, Sia responded by saying that she had looked into casting an actor on the spectrum but that they “couldn’t handle the pressure and overstimulation of a film set.” In saying this, she only dug herself deeper into the ableist hole she had been inhabiting since this film began. It seems as though she fails to consider an argument similar to that of the National Autistic Society: that there are actors and actresses on the autism spectrum who can provide the representation that the disability community has been and is still longing for. Yes, they might differ from Music in that they are verbal or have high-functioning autism, but they still have autism, which is something that Ziegler does not have and therefore should not portray. Sia has since deleted her Twitter account. 

If the movie was not already problematic enough in its casting of a neurotypical actress to play an autistic character, the film itself is also very troubling. On the surface, it seems like a pretty normal movie: A death in the family leaves an estranged family member, Zu, to be the guardian of her half-sister, Music, and the main storyline of the film covers Zu’s navigation of raising a half-sibling with a disability. However, it is uncomfortable and angering to see the ways in which Ziegler plays this character. 

The first eyebrow-raising moment of the film comes in the first scene, so if that is any indication of where the rest of the movie is headed, it is going to keep going downhill. In this scene, a clip of which can be seen on the Twitter account “The Autisticats,” Ziegler is portraying, or more so making an attempt at portraying, autistic mannerisms and movements. When considering that Ziegler is neurotypical, the “portraying” becomes pure mocking. 

This opening scene is also representative of the rest of the movie in how exclusive the visuals are to the very community that it is attempting to represent and highlight. It is broadly known that people with autism experience sensory intolerance, so it is very puzzling that Sia, assuming she knew this information, would insert numerous musical numbers and scenes with hectic colors, lights, and choreography. As Australian actress Chloé Hayde, who has autism, eloquently put it to the New York Times, “If your film is about inclusion, but you’re not making the actual film set inclusive, it completely belittles the entire point.” 

As if this movie could not get more problematic, its terrible representation of people with autism persists in two scenes, each with chilling depictions of restraint. In early February, TikTok account “Auteach” shared a leaked scene from the movie in which Zu could be seen applying prone restraint. Dangerous and sometimes lethal, prone restraint occurs when people, often those with disabilities, are forcefully placed and held in a facedown position. Following the backlash, Sia pledged to remove the scene from the film. The TikTok video that contains the scene can be found here, but please watch it at your own discretion.

Despite the many wrongdoings of this movie, it, somehow and some way, landed a nomination for two Golden Globes, the first being Best Picture, Musical, or Comedy and the second being Kate Hudson’s nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical, or Comedy. If there are this many problems being brought up about the movie, then the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, responsible for deciding the nominations, should be held accountable for their contribution to the ableist narrative this movie and its characters represent.

No, I do not think that Sia should be canceled for this. I don’t think she intentionally meant to hurt people with autism and, to her credit, she did issue an apology right after the Golden Globe nominations were released. I do think, however, that the outrage towards this film was valid, and I sincerely hope that it will draw the attention of the film industry towards further inclusion of people on the autism spectrum and people with disabilities as a whole, both in casting and in the sensory presentation. Hollywood might be diversifying, but there is still a long way to go for people with disabilities to get the representation and consideration that other diverse identities are getting. 

 

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Svea McNally