Sia’s first foray into movie directing has proved to be quite a bit less than spectacular. Released this February, “Music,” which Sia co-wrote and directed, stars Maddie Ziegler as a teenager on the autism spectrum who is named “Music.” Music is taken in by her drug dealer sister, Zu (played by Kate Hudson), after their grandmother dies. As Zu and Music’s relationship grows, song and dance sequences featuring Sia’s music periodically appear on screen to explain what is happening in Music’s mind. She cannot express herself with words outside of a few phrases, such as when she yells “Make you eggs!” to indicate that she wants breakfast.
However, Maddie Ziegler, known for being on “Dance Moms” and starring in Sia’s music videos, is not autistic. To portray autism on film, Ziegler constantly opens her mouth in a caricatured grin and exaggerates her facial expressions in a way that many in the autistic community feel is akin to mockery.
It is no secret that people with disabilities are rarely represented in movies and TV, and when they are, they are overwhelmingly played by non-disabled actors. A 2016 study found that of the 2% of characters with a mental or physical disability portrayed on TV, a devastating 95% of them are played by able-bodied and neurotypical actors. This is the very definition of false representation, and it can cause very real harm to minority communities. Disabled people make up roughly 20% of the American population, making them the largest minority group in the nation. There is no excuse as to why there are so few disabled characters on TV, and even fewer excuses as to why 95% of them are being played by non-disabled actors.
Critics in the autistic community charge that the narrative of the film was obviously written for the caregivers of autistic people, and not for the autistic people themselves. Watching this movie, caregivers, along with Sia, are able to feel that they are kind and compassionate for helping people with autism, while still not recognizing autistic people as complex human beings. Ziegler’s character, Music, is not the main character of the film at all; in fact, the entire point of her character seems to be to spur her sister, Zu, toward a path of rediscovery to find depth and compassion.
It’s clear that Sia did not put much thought into Music’s character beyond the fact that she is a “magical little girl” with “special abilities.” The autistic community has lashed out against this, as the film implies that people with autism exist only to inspire the non-disabled people in their lives, reduced from human beings to catalysts meant to motivate others to become better versions of themselves.
Detractors have also criticized the use of prone restraint in two of the movie’s scenes. Prone restraint is a practice in which people, often disabled, are forced into a facedown position while physical pressure is applied in order to subdue them. In real life, methods of prone restraint have caused serious injuries and have even led to death. In the film, Zu’s upstanding neighbor, Ebo (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), attempts to subdue Music during an outburst by using prone restraint. He tells Music “I’m going to crush you now and make you feel safe,” and to Zu that “I am crushing her with my love!” Later, Ebo teaches Zu how to use prone restraint on Music in a public park.
The autistic community demands that these scenes be removed from the movie for the very real harm that they may cause. “It really shows that a project about autism will be hollow and not serve our needs — and can even be harmful to us — if we’re not helping tell the story,” Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, has commented. “This is something that could kill people.”
Three advocacy organizations — Gross’s network, CommunicationFIRST and the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint — joined together in issuing an open letter that expressed their concerns about the use of prone restraint in the movie and calling for the film to be pulled from release. In the letter, the organizations state that when a committee of non-speaking and autistic people had been invited to provide their feedback for a screening of the film in January, the filmmakers failed to address their recommendations and did not cut the prone restraint scenes entirely.
Another issue that Sia has faced backlash over is the movie’s connection to Autism Speaks, an organization that many have described as a hate group, which advocates for removing autism, curing autism and caring about caregivers of autistic people rather than actual autistics. Their focus is on ending autism instead of spreading constructive autism awareness. Sia’s decision to accept their support for the movie is akin to a director accepting support from a gay conversion therapist for what they intend to be an inclusive movie about a gay individual.
Furthermore, one of the biggest ironies about this film is that many autistic people aren’t able to watch it comfortably. It is filled with flashing lights, quick cut scenes and rapid, vibrant colors and movements, which often cause painful sensory overload in autistic individuals. Sia’s movie about an autistic character is unwatchable for most autistic people.
Sia’s Handling of the Controversy
Sia’s handling of the backlash she has faced because of “Music,” has been, like her directing skills, far less than spectacular. The ignorance displayed in her responses parallels the ignorance displayed in her movie. After the trailer was released in November and activists criticized the film on Twitter, Sia argued angrily that she had spent three years researching for the film and had only the best of intentions.
“I cast thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as f—ing prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers,” she tweeted at one user. “F—ing sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.”
On Nov. 20, 2020, she tweeted, “F—ity f— why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”
In response to backlash over her casting a neurotypical, able-bodied young woman to play an autistic character, Sia stated that she somehow felt that casting Ziegler instead of an actually autistic person was “more compassionate,” and that Ziegler had “two people on the spectrum” who advised her during filming. She tweeted: “My character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum they suggested I use Maddie” and, “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.”
These responses bring up a whole other world of issues. First, the autistic community has spoken out against the view these tweets espouse, which is that people with autism are incapable of functioning in high-stress situations. Many autistic people are very capable of doing so, and there are many talented autistic actors who Sia could have offered this role, but did not.
Secondly, if the character was supposed to be “low functioning” it makes even less sense to hire a neurotypical, able-bodied actor to play her. Thirdly, on the set of a film purporting to be about inclusion, the logical thing to do would be to change the scheduling of the film to meet the needs of the main autistic actor, instead of firing her when she found it too stressful. The film is about an autistic character, yet Sia did not make any effort at all to adapt to the needs of her main autistic actor, completely contradicting what her movie is supposed to stand for.
At the time of filming, Ziegler was 14. Even at that age, she felt the wrongness of what she was doing and how she was acting in her role. Sia, a grown woman at the helm of the project, did not.
“She cried on the first day of rehearsals,” Sia said in an interview with The Project. “She was really scared and she just said, ‘I don’t want anyone to think that I’m making fun of them,’ and I bald-facedly said ‘I won’t let that happen,’ and last week I realized I couldn’t really protect her from that.”
No, she could not. Exactly what Ziegler has feared has come true. Though Ziegler expressed deep discomfort with her role and found filming unpleasant — the exact same reason Sia purportedly fired her autistic actors — Sia thought that subjecting her to the ordeal was the more “compassionate” decision.
That may be because Sia did not actually cast Ziegler to protect autistic people from stressful filming conditions, as much as she would like people to believe. She cast her simply because Ziegler is her muse and she wanted her for the part. “I realized it wasn’t ableism,” Sia said during an interview with The Project, “ — I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well — but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without her. I don’t want to.”
Campaigns and Petitions
When “Music” scored two Golden Globes nominations — one for Kate Hudson as lead actress and another for best picture, musical/comedy — disability activists and allies were exasperated. The autistic community launched a Change.org campaign stating that the film “is severely ableist and contributes to harmful stereotypes of autistic people.”
“The fact that ‘Music’ has been nominated for two Golden Globes awards illustrates the complete disregard the entire entertainment industry has for inclusivity and minority representation,” wrote Rosanna Kataja and Nina Skov Jensen, who created the petition. “It will only use autism as inspirational porn to make neurotypicals feel good about their supposed ‘superiority.'”
The petition also explains the severity of the issue of the film’s depiction of prone restraint. “Sia’s decision to include this inhumane treatment is a testament to her ignorance and complete disregard for the safety and needs of autistic people,” it reads. “Despite claiming her movie to be a ‘love letter to caregivers and to the autism community,’ she is actually telling the autistic community that she doesn’t care about them.”
The petition calls for the entertainment industry to “listen to actual autistic people, not just social workers, parents and organizations. We are the only ones who know what is best for us and what it is like to be us.”
As of Feb. 21, the petition has received over 100,000 signatures.
However, in a statement to The New York Times, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, a visiting scholar at Rice University, expressed her view that canceling Sia was not the way to go, even though she condemned the film. “It’s not about demonizing Sia. You’re not canceled. We need allies and powerful voices,” Onaiwu said. “Use your platform to try to help dismantle ableism and promote neurodiversity and make opportunities for autistic people. You can use your experience to do that.”
Soon after the Golden Globes nominations, Sia tweeted an apology and said that her “research was clearly not thorough enough” and also that she had “listened to the wrong people.” She added that she planned to remove the prone restraint scenes from “all future printings.”
Soon after this apology, she deactivated her Twitter account.