HOW WAS SIA’S MOVIE “MUSIC” HARMFUL AUTISTIC REPRESENTATION IN MEDIA?
Many of you may know Sia as a pop household name, producing hits like “Cheap Thrills” and “Snowman” but I’m sure many of you didn’t know she made a movie; “Music”. This film came out in 2021, starring many famous actors like Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler, and Héctor Elizondo. The story starts out with the grandmother and caretaker of Music (Maddie Ziegler) dying of a stroke, leaving her in the care of her half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson). Throughout the film we also see how Zu battles drug addiction (a misrepresentation of it at best) and we also get introduced to their neighbour from Ghana, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr).
This film sparked huge controversy mainly due to its casting, choosing a non autistic person to represent the character of Music who is non verbal and demonstrates expressions and behaviour, although true to some traits of people on the spectrum, is completely exaggerated.
Sia states that she had hosted auditions for neurotypical people and even included them in the movie process, yet completely missing the mark on what audiences had wanted.
Many people took these complaints to Twitter where Sia can be seen responding to a multitude of upset fans. One viewer tweeted that “It’s a mighty shame that someone with such a colossal platform is using it to exclude disabled and neurodiverse actors from their own narratives. I’ve been a long time fan of your work, so this is really disappointing” to which Sia responded with the controversial statement that would become well known, “I agree. I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities are 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.”
Many were outraged by the fact that Sia was trying to represent neurodivergent people and tweeting something very tone deaf. The fact that she also does not want to use the word disabled carries ableist connotations in itself; making it seem as if it is something to be ashamed of. She even said that her and her team had come to conclusion that “an actor with similar mannerisms to those used in “Music” must not be capable of comprehending movie”, seeming as an excuse for not putting in the effort to accommodate neurodivergent talent to an equal playing field.
Being a musical, the segments of music videos and singing completely derail from the plot of the main story: executed poorly from the plot. Many viewers and critics pointed out the debate of an ableist point of view, saying that “The cartoonish nature of Ziegler's portrayal of Music, and the notion that this character is living with a flawed body and a magical mind, are taken from an ableist lens”. There have also been thoughts from the public that the fact that the scenes are so bright and active may trigger some people’s sensory issues and why it was difficult for the neurodivergent girl who was originally cast to work on that set.
Another scene that sparked great uproar was the one depicting Music’s neighbour physically restraining her to try to calm her down, putting his whole weight on her. Although applying pressure and holding people can work to calm people down, it should be regarded as a last resort rather than the first thing Ebo attempts. It also spreads this misinformation and could potentially harm others as a consequence. A shocking and strong scene that many could not have prepared for. It seems that in many aspects, Sia failed to make any accurate representation.
It is evident that this movie had little to no redeeming qualities which made it enjoyable to the watcher. She later went on to apologise for her behaviour as “some of it was ableist” but the damage and effect had already been done when the film was released. Sia failed to listen to those providing advice and the voice of those the movie was representing, getting defensive instead of being understanding and open minded. It is clear that someone with such a large platform and huge influence like Sia should be aware of the consequences of her actions and what it can bring into the world. With the goal of her film wanting to represent an underrepresented minority, she failed for this audience to feel accurately depicted. This should definitely be considered in the future with any film project or form of media being released regarding similar topics, the priority being so that the viewer feels proud of what they see and happy that they are finally recognised.