Media has always had a problem with its representation of disability. Whether it’s taken the form of people with scars and visible differences being cast as villains, disabled people trying to be “cured,” or non-disabled actors being hired to play disabled characters, disabled representation in media tends to be iffy at best and downright harmful at worst.
There are a few notable exceptions to this. TV show “Everything’s Gonna Be Ok” made headlines this year by hiring an autistic actor, Kayla Cromer, to play the autistic Matilda. The show also shows autistic characters who were in romantic and/or sexual relationships. The series also received praise for having both autistic female characters, something TV and movies tend not to do, and for having those characters not simply be piles of stereotypes shoved into a person the way autistic characters too often are.
Unfortunately, Sia’s new movie “Music” is not going to be one of those examples. Sia received widespread criticism from the disabled community in November for a plethora of reasons relating to the film, from casting a non-disabled actor to play one of the main characters—who is autistic—to working with Autism Speaks, to refusing to actually use the word disabled, to frankly immature responses to people who have voiced criticism.
“Music” is about a nonverbal autistic girl named “Music.” Despite this, Sia and the rest of the people producing the film saw fit to hire Maddie Ziegler, an actress who is not autistic or nonverbal, to play Music. There are so few roles for neurodiverse and disabled characters that casting an actress who is neither is an insult to the autistic actors, who would’ve done better with the role because they bring their own experiences to it. How can a neurotypical actor hope to be able to accurately understand the emotions and feelings and experiences of an autistic person?
Looking past that, Sia’s response to the widespread criticism of the film is something I want to talk about because it has been at best incredibly immature and at worst deeply harmful. As soon as the trailer was released a few weeks ago, it faced massive criticism for a multitude of sins, only some of which I have found room to discuss in this article. Almost as quickly, Sia just made the situation worse with a series of tweets responding to criticism from various people.
Actress Bronagh Waugh questioned Sia in a tweet, saying “Can I ask why you didn’t cast a disabled actor for this part? It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character. People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing.” It was a deeply reasonable criticism, but Sia’s response was exceptionally poor. She responded to the tweet by saying, “I agree. I’ve never referred to the character 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.”
There are… so many things that are wrong with that tweet that it alone deserves an article, but there’s only so much space I have so let’s do his rapid fire style. Music the character is very much disabled, which isn’t a bad word, and disabled people by and large hate attempts to say things like “special abilities” instead of disabled. Sia, a neurotypical person, has no right to say that it would be “cruel” to cast someone at “her level of functioning,” a statement which also perpetuates the high/low functioning idea that the autistic community has tried to get away from.
There are many autistic actors and autistic people who are trying to get into acting, and the idea that it would somehow be more harmful to try and cast one of them than to cast a neurotypical person to play a role that they are not suited for is incredibly ableist. Sia defended this argument later, saying that she’d tried to hire a disabled actress to play the role but the pressures were too high because, as we all know, there’s totally only one disabled actress in Hollywood.
Just because that one actress couldn’t do the role doesn’t mean that Sia should’ve given up casting an autistic person to play an autistic character. When a number of autistic actors and actresses responded to the trailer saying that they would’ve been happy to play the role, Sia responded to one by saying, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor,” which is an incredibly immature response to valid criticism.
As the controversy grew, Sia visibly got frustrated, swearing in various response tweets—including one where, in response to a tweet saying that seemingly no effort was put into place to hire an autistic actor and that excuses were being made, she said, “F—— b——-. You have no f—— idea because you weren’t there and haven’t seen the movie.” Firstly, no one has seen the movie, given it isn’t out yet. Secondly, the idea that people are simply supposed to ignore the problematic trailer and wait for the problematic film to be allowed the luxury of complaint is ludicrous.
If Sia wanted to make a movie about a disabled person, she had the resources and the time to do it right. She’s claimed she spent years researching this role, and yet never once learned about any of the very known issues of casting non-disabled people for disabled roles, of using terms like “special abilities,” or of Autism Speaks being massively hated by the autistic community? That seems deeply unlikely if she’d done any good research at all, since if I Google “Autism Speaks” the first page has articles about them being bad.
This is simply another case of a neurotypical person deciding for the autistic community what they can and cannot do. Sia decided, in her “executive decision” to give up on casting a disabled actress because it was too stressful for the one she tried to cast. She decided to work with the incredibly harmful organization, that is Autism Speaks, despite the loud criticism from disabled people about them. And she’s decided now that it is unreasonable for people to dare criticize her before seeing a film which all evidence suggests will only reinforce pre-existing stereotypes about autism.
Sia does have executive control over her movie. She got to make those harmful decisions but now, she doesn’t get to tell the community who she claimed that she was trying to “lovingly represent” that they don’t get to criticize her for her own choices. She made this situation for herself. The autistic and disabled community at large have a right to explain to her why her idea of a loving portrayal is so very, very harmful.