On Feb. 10, 2021, pop star Sia’s first movie, “Music,” was released for streaming. The description as found on YouTube reads:
“Zu is newly sober when she receives news that she is to become the sole guardian of her half-sister named Music, a young girl on the autism spectrum. The film explores two of Sia’s favorite themes: finding your voice and creating family.”
Below this description is a critic’s review from the New York Times, which says, “The pop star Sia’s feature directorial debut, about an autistic teenager, at times seems indistinguishable from mockery.”
Over the last few days, social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have been flooded by takes from two groups: avid supporters of Sia who are defending the movie and people on the autism spectrum and allies who are criticizing the movie and warning the public on how dangerous, ableist and offensive it is.
On Feb. 10, one creator who goes by Tianasao on YouTube released a video on the subject called “Sia’s Movie: Another Autistic’s Response Because Y’all Won’t Listen.” It’s an extremely informative video, and I highly recommend checking out her channel to hear her entire opinion on the matter.
In this video, Tianasao describes how, when she first heard about “Music,” she was actually pretty excited. She points out that autistic leads in media tend to be predominantly white men. Some examples are Elliot from “Mr. Robot,” Sheldon Cooper from “Big Bang Theory,” Forrest Gump from “Forrest Gump” and Rain Man from “Rain Man.” So, when she learned that “Music” would follow a young female nonverbal person with autism, she had high hopes.
“Then the trailer came out, and things started to get disturbing on a weekly basis,” said Tianasao.
She pointed out that the actress who plays Music, Maddie Ziegler, is not autistic. While this is definitely a problem, Tianasao says that many people who see this criticism of the film online think it is the only reason people with autism are upset with this movie: it’s not.
When the trailer for the movie was released, many people took to Twitter to voice their initial frustrations and criticisms. Sia took to Twitter to argue for her movie, refusing to listen to constructive comments.
“If you’re going to write a ‘love letter’ to a marginalized group that has a history of being misrepresented in media, and that group tells you that your work is perpetuating that misrepresentation, then you have two options: option number one, listen to that group … or option number two, get mad at them, call them bullies and then profit,” said Tianasao.
Another colossal issue many people have with the movie is Sia’s decision to associate the film with Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the United States according to their website. According to CBR News, Autism Speaks partnered with Sia to promote the movie.
It takes one Google search to find multiple sources explaining why people with autism do not generally support Autism Speaks. One Forbes article explains that Autism Speaks has a “poor track record of showing respect for autistic people. One example is their intensely offensive ‘I am autism’ video from 2009, promising a threatening, ominous autism that ‘knows where you live’ and ‘works faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined.’”
Sia and Autism Speaks both made clear on social media that their collaboration started after the film was already produced. Tianasao suspects that Sia was only looking for an endorsement from the organization.
Back in April 2020, several supporters of Sia posted Tweets urging her to stay away from Autism Speaks, and she responded to these messages, thanking them for bringing Autism Speaks’ reputation to her attention. So, there are quite frankly no excuses for this organization’s involvement.
Sia has also claimed she did three years of research before making “Music.” If this is the case, then Sia is doubly responsible for her harmful and stereotypical representation of people with autism.
After receiving criticism for casting Ziegler in the role of a nonverbal girl with autism, Sia took to Twitter to explain that she had tried to work with a nonverbal actress with autism before bringing Ziegler on.
“I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl nonverbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So, that’s why I cast Maddie [Ziegler],” Sia shared via Twitter.
However, in a 2015 interview, Sia claimed that she “actually wrote a movie for her [Ziegler].” This interview is in reference to “Music.” Is Sia really expecting people to believe that she intended for the first actress to play Music when she wrote the movie for Ziegler?
When you type “ableism” into a search engine, the first result reads as follows: “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people” (dictionary.com). Even with this simple understanding, it is clear to see that Sia’s choice to replace the actress instead of the actress’s environment was ableist.
In order to downplay her ableism, Sia said in an interview with The Project, “I realized it wasn’t ableism … I mean, it is ableism … But, it’s actually nepotism.”
She went on to say that “I can’t do a project without her [Ziegler]. I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”
Not only is she rejecting accountability, but she is revealing the nature of her uncomfortably clingy relationship with Ziegler.
Sia reached out to ask Ziegler to perform in one of her music videos when Ziegler was only 11 years old. Now, Sia is Ziegler’s godmother, and Ziegler has called Sia her second mom, living at the pop star’s house almost as much as she lives with her own parents. Ziegler was 14 years old when they started filming “Music.”
During an interview with The Project, Sia said that Ziegler was uncomfortable with the role of Music at the beginning of production.
“She [Ziegler] cried on the first day of rehearsals and she was really scared. She just said, ‘I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.’”
Slate reports that “It isn’t hard to see where Ziegler might have gotten that idea. In the first few minutes of ‘Music,’ Ziegler grunts, hums and hits herself. She thrusts her upper jaw forward into an exaggerated overbite. Then, the first musical number starts. Ziegler continues to twitch and lurch around, but this time with background dancers and bright yellow costumes.”
Sia could have taken notes from Rachel Israel, the director of the 2017 movie “Keep The Change.” Israel worked with two leads with autism for the entirety of the filming process.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Israel reported that making this movie helped her grow and made her “much more conscious as a director,” as she had to work very differently between the two leads. However, as Tianasao points out in her video, this is what directors are supposed to do; they are supposed to work to the strengths of their actors.
It is also worth mentioning that the role the first “Music” actress was meant to play included her disability as a part of the character, plot and setting. Perhaps, if a nonverbal actress with autism is having trouble with the set and surroundings of the nonverbal character with autism she is meant to play, the director should reconsider their set design.
Indeed, clips of the movie show large, colorful and loud musical numbers and dance sequences that are supposed to be taking place in Music’s mind. Tianasao remarks that she doesn’t have a whole musical happening in her head because “I would have a meltdown if I did.”
Even overlooking how tone-deaf Sia’s message of “Wow, look, she can’t talk, but she can actually think. Isn’t that amazing?” is, a New York Post review points out how “Ziegler, who is not autistic, always has her mouth open with a wide grin and exaggerates facial expressions like she’s Marcel Marceau. It’s an uncomfortably heightened imitation that never rings true and verges on mockery.”
Many people have voiced their outrage at the exaggerated portrayal of a nonverbal person with autism in this movie. Twitter user and “community theatre maker” Jordana Golbourn sums it up well, sharing “This is totally unacceptable, and there are no excuses. You should know better than to allow able-bodied & neurotypical [people] to represent the disabled community. It’s incredibly offensive, as is the infantilization of the character. Sickened. And not even captioned. Don’t release this.”
To make matters worse, Tianasao explains that the film is not only ableist but normalizes restraining a child with autism who is having a meltdown. This practice of physically restraining children in the prone state while they are having a meltdown has killed children with autism in the past and is banned in many places because of its extremely dangerous nature.
However, in “Music,” they call this act of physical restraint “crushing someone with your love,” not only promoting but also romanticizing the practice.
In her video, Tianasao reports that Sia’s team reached out to Communication First, an organization run by and for non-speaking people with autism and invited a committee of people with autism to screen the movie. However, when Communication First reached out with feedback, they were ignored by Sia’s team.
Eventually, Communication First, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Alliance Against Seclusion Restraint released a joint statement denouncing the movie.
Their joint statement, posted on Feb. 3, states: “Music’s restraint scenes will undoubtedly cause harm to autistic people. Because many autistic people have experienced restraint, some will be traumatized by watching the film. The movie also irresponsibly suggests that people experiencing meltdowns should be restrained, which could not be further from the truth…. By not removing the restraint scenes or even providing a warning, those behind the movie are promoting a traumatizing and potentially deadly form of restraint that is illegal in over 30 US states…. We are saddened that the MUSIC team does not appear willing to take even the most basic precautions to mitigate the likely harm and deep trauma the movie may cause many nonspeaking and autistic people. MUSIC doesn’t just promote harmful stereotypes about autistic people – it shows restraints that have killed members of our community as necessary and loving acts…. This film should never have been made, and it shouldn’t be shown.”
After this statement was released, Sia took to Twitter, posting that “‘MUSIC’ in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people…”
Sia also promised to “remove the restraint scenes from future printings” and issued an apology on Twitter.
Another big problem with “MUSIC” is actually a symptom of the way society at large views people with disabilities. Tianasao pulled from a TED Talk by Stella Young, an Australian comedian, journalist and disability rights activist, to get the point across that “Music” is meant to empower the wrong people: non-disabled people.
At the beginning of her TED Talk, Young says, “I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing…and to live with disability makes you exceptional…It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional.”
Young uses this introduction to help the audience understand that we, as a society, objectify people with disabilities for the benefit of non-disabled people, to inspire or motivate non-disabled people.
“Music” is guilty of this, of making a person with a disability into an object of inspiration for non-disabled people. To highlight this point, in an interview for Variety, the interviewer compares the character of Music to a wig, saying:
“There’s this person who can’t speak, you know, she might as well be an inanimate object, like a wig. Except, there is so much going on in there,” to which Sia replied, “I want people to know that there’s somebody in there, and don’t talk about them like they’re not there.”
These comments are just abhorrent. As Tianasao points out, Sia and the interviewer are setting the absolute lowest expectations for this character, even comparing her to an object. Therefore, they set her up as inspirational and exceptional just for being human.
“It’s not powerful; it’s condescending,” said Tianasao.
And, yet Sia’s supporters are sharing positive reviews online to stifle legitimate criticism of the movie.
“That’s what you get when you decide to make it acceptable to fight against a marginalized community instead of empowering them in real life like you supposedly do in your screenplay,” said Tianasao.
As of Feb. 22, Sia’s Twitter account has been deleted. “Music” is still officially nominated for two Golden Globe awards: the movie is up for Best Picture – Musical/Comedy and Kate Hudson is up for Best Actress – Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy for her role as Music’s older sister.
At the end of her video, Tianasao said, “What people with disabilities need isn’t for people to be fascinated by them. They just need people to stop acting like they’re different because they’re not; they just have different limitations.”