In my last column last semester, I wrote about Sia’s movie, titled “Music,” and why the film helped to underline the problems with the way the entertainment industry writes about and treats autistic and disabled actors. Since then, we’ve hit 2021 and, somehow, the situation around “Music” has just gotten worse.
A recap, for anyone who doesn’t follow many autistic and/or disabled people on social media: “Music” is a film about a non-verbal autistic girl named, of course, “Music”, who is being played by the neurotypical Maddie Ziegler. Ignoring the fact that the first trailer was full of harmful stereotypes and infantilizing language about disabled people, Sia’s refusal to even consider that she was wrong to work with Autism Speaks and to consider only one neurodiverse actor angered the disability community.
However, the outpouring of rage had mostly calmed by the time the second trailer came out. It couldn’t possibly be worse than the first. That bar was set pretty low, even if it was unlikely to make itself look better.
And then the two-and-a-half minute trailer actually came out, and boy did it manage to shove itself right under that already low bar. It is difficult to put into words how abhorrent the new trailer, a thing that is meant to make people excited for a movie and want to see that movie, makes this film seem.
Even ignoring the already-stated casting issues, much of the trailer is a difficult sensory experience, with music being played over people talking, flashing bright lights, and at least one dance scene with enough repetitive print to give anyone a headache. Considering this is a movie about an autistic character, however poorly that character may be portrayed, it seems rather absurd to make it a film that would be deeply unpleasant for autistic people with audio or visual sensory issues to watch.
Then there’s the actual contents of the film. Beside the stereotypical nonsense about her “teaching” the other main character, her sister, how to love or saying she “sees the world in a completely different way from us,” which … isn’t really true and is also deeply othering. Autistic people aren’t aliens, we live in the same world as everyone else.
“Considering this is a movie about an autistic character, however poorly that character may be portrayed, it seems rather absurd to make it a film that would be deeply unpleasant for autistic people with audio or visual sensory issues to watch.”
In addition, Music is shown in the film to use an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device, in her case an iPad, to communicate, since she is nonverbal. Showing characters who communicate in ways other than speech, whether it’s autistic characters or characters with any other disability, is great because it helps to combat the idea that someone who is nonspeaking is automatically lesser or worse off, or not a person who deserves to have their opinions and thoughts heard and respected.
What’s not great is the fact that, in this two-minute-and-18-second trailer, we hear Music use her AAC all of two times, once to say “I am happy” and once to say “I am sad,” which is only used as a joke when another character says where to press to say she’s happy. Music, being a teenager, deserves more chances to communicate than just saying if she is happy or sad, and having that be all she seems able to communicate perpetuates the idea of AAC somehow being lesser communication, of limiting a person.
And yet, that is still not the most harmful thing. The most harmful thing for “Music” came last week in footage of the film that was released on TikTok. In the film, Music, her sister Zu, and Music’s — caregiver? — are in a park. Though Ebo, played by Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr., seems to have known Music before her sister took guardianship of her, his specific role in her life is not explained in any way during any of the trailers.
They’re in the park and Music has a meltdown. Alright, that’s just part of life for autistic people, meltdowns happen, and while having a neurotypical person playing an autistic character having a meltdown for a film that Autism Speaks consulted on feels like a bad idea, having a scene where a character has a meltdown is not inherently a bad thing.
The problem rises when, in that fifteen-second clip, Zu is shown pinning Music to the ground using a method known as “prone restraint” which is both extremely dangerous and extremely controversial. The scene in question doesn’t even show a particularly severe meltdown; there is absolutely no reason the other characters would need to restrain her in any way and yet they still do.
The fact that this footage leaked the same week as the story of Eric Parsa was published by the New York Times is just plain awful. Parsa, an autistic 16-year-old, was killed last year by police when they kept him in a prone restraint for over nine minutes. As the New York Times piece explains, “Three deputies sat on him — one after another — and one of them placed him in a choke hold,” and while his death was ruled to be due to “excited delirium,” the prone position he was held in was listed as a factor.
He’s far from the only person who’s been killed by this restraint method. According to an article from WBNS, a study found that “at least 107 people across the country have died since 2010 during prone restraint incidents.”
Surely there can be no way to argue that over 100 deaths doesn’t make it very clear that this method of restraint is harmful and should be used incredibly sparingly, if ever. And that study just looked at law enforcement-related harm; prone restraint is commonly used in schools against autistic people, too, and that’s not something that necessarily would’ve fallen into this study.
That is the point where this film crosses over from bad to harmful. Sia has made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t care that her film is perpetuating harmful stereotypes and dangerous restraint methods that will and have gotten people killed. There have been many harmful portrayals of autistic people, but if this full film is anywhere near as harmful as the trailer and leaked footage make it seem, it will be one of the most harmful portrayals of autistic people in recent cinematic history.