Opinion: Sia’s ableism is not ‘Music’ to the ears

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Photo credit: Landay Entertainment

Actors Maddie Ziegler and Kate Hudson are two stars of the new movie “Music,” directed by singer-songwriter Sia. Sia has faced criticism for casting able-bodied Ziegler in the role of an autistic teen.

Amanda Stevens, Staff Writer

Sia’s approach to representing the autistic community in her upcoming film “Music” is particularly tone-deaf, and she owes them more than an apology.

In November 2020, Australian singer Sia released the trailer for her film “Music,” which is set to come out this February. The film stars Kate Hudson, Maddie Ziegler and Leslie Odom Jr.

However, there’s a significant problem with this film that many people either aren’t aware of or have actively overlooked. 

One of the main characters, Music, a nonspeaking autistic teenager, is portrayed by dancer and actress Ziegler, who is not autistic.

For many in the autistic community, it’s unsettling to watch someone impersonate an individual with autism.

Ziegler’s imitation “feels like a slap to the face,” The Autisticats, an account that educates on autism, wrote in a post responding to the trailer.

Many wonder why Ziegler was cast when more could’ve been done to find an actress with autism.

After being confronted about the controversy, Sia tried to explain her decision, claiming there was a “beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum.” However, the actress found the project unpleasant and stressful.

Sia could’ve made an effort to accommodate the original actress or continued searching for a different actress with autism. Instead, she opted for Ziegler, a longtime collaborator.

In an interview with “The Sunday Project,” the singer continued to explain her reasoning, and subsequently admitted to ableism and nepotism.

Sia’s favoritism for Ziegler, and overall apparent lack of effort to cast an autistic actress for the role, is lazy and insensitive, and it demonstrates no real concern to include autistic people in an autism-centered story. 

The casting controversy has revived the saying “Nothing About Us Without Us” on Twitter in order to emphasize the importance of allowing disabled people to tell their own stories and represent their community accurately.

While Sia claims to have included 13 neurodivergent people as actors in the movie, it hardly counts as proper representation, but rather, tokenism

Additionally, it cannot be ignored that Sia, a person with many resources at her fingertips, decided to cast a neurotypical actress for the main role, having made no real effort to find anyone else.

The lack of priority given to finding an autistic actress is offensive and ultimately fails to properly represent the autistic community.

“Sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there,” the National Autistic Society wrote in a Twitter post.

Sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there.”

— National Autistic Society

Generally speaking, the lack of work opportunities in the entertainment industry for disabled people is a problem. It’s unfortunately common for non-disabled actors to play disabled characters, and this practice can lead to stereotypical and harmful portrayals.

Beyond the problematic casting and portrayal of autism, Sia’s film also shows Music being held in a prone restraint while having a meltdown, and seems to promote it as a correct way of handling meltdowns, even though it’s a dangerous tactic.

“Prone restraint is deadly,” The Autisticats wrote in reaction to the clip. “But this film acts like it’s normal [and] necessary.”

What is particularly disturbing in this case as a whole is the lack of accountability Sia is willing to take and the lack of accountability she is being held to, especially by her fans.

Sia defended casting Ziegler, claiming the actress received a 100% performance accuracy from the Child Mind Institute, a non-autistic led organization. 

However “accurate” the performance, it doesn’t justify Sia’s decision to completely overlook autistic actresses and later, completely dismiss those within the autistic community who have spoken out against that decision.

Sia should have been apologizing to the autistic community and attentively listening to what they have to say. Instead, she exchanged heated tweets with a variety of people.

In a response to a Twitter user confronting the situation and explaining that she and several other autistic actors responded to Sia’s Twitter casting call and could have played the role, Sia replied (among other things), “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

In general, it seems like Sia doesn’t understand or truly care about proper representation for the autistic community, especially when she lashes out or dismisses the people making apt criticisms.

What I do know is that people functioning at Music’s level can’t get on Twitter and tell me I did a good job,” Sia said in the Sydney Morning Herald.

To many in the autistic community, Sia’s responses and behavior only demonstrate an absence of caring and are plainly dismissive, not to mention problematic.

“By writing off everyone criticizing her as too ‘high functioning’ for their opinions to matter, she erases the concerns of ALL autistic people,” The Autisticats wrote in a post. “It’s convenient for her to act like nonspeaking typists don’t exist.”

The fact that Sia has more or less been able to get away with her ableism is concerning, and it unfortunately reflects neurotypical society’s lack of awareness or care for the autistic community and similar groups.

Even with calls to cancel the film, Sia has continually urged people to see her film as she believes that it will do more good than harm.

Though the singer claims her heart is in the right place, her responses to those calling her out on the casting decision and her unwillingness to make amends reflect poorly on where her heart is really at.