Why activists are calling Sia’s Music ableist
Australian vocal powerhouse Sia’s directorial debut Music has finally been released, despite the fact that many wish it hadn’t.
The film stars Kate Hudson as Zu, a newly sober drug dealer who becomes the guardian for her autistic half-sister, Music (Maddie Ziegler). Over the course of the film, Zu learns to take care of Music with the help of Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), and musical sequences take place inside Music’s mind showing how she sees the world.
On the surface, the film might look like the perfect recipe for positivity, great musical sequences, and representation. After all, the autism community is typically portrayed in only one way: a savant white man who is awkward with women (Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor). Sia also called the film “A love letter to caregivers and to the autism community,” and claimed she spent three years researching for the film. And yet Music, and Sia, are still being called out for ableism.
The most obvious issue with the film is the casting. In case you were unaware, Maddie Ziegler is not autistic. Ziegler and Sia first collaborated in 2014 for the singer’s viral “Chandelier” music video and Ziegler went on to star in eight other Sia music videos, tour with the singer, and perform with her on shows like SNL, Ellen, and The Tonight Show.
Despite this longtime collaboration, Sia said, “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl [who was] non-verbal, on the spectrum, and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie … Casting someone at [the character’s] level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community. … I did try. It felt more compassionate to use Maddie.”
In a video about the film, Paige Layle, a young autistic woman who has over two million followers on TikTok said, “What Sia should be promoting is accommodating autistic people,” and, “If you’re saying that anyone can act autistic, it’s just acting … you need to recognize your own ableism there, and why you think that autistics are not good enough at being autistic on their own, that they need to fit your level of what autism looks like and they need to perform to what you know.”
Ziegler’s performance has also been called a caricature of autistic body language. One Twitter user explained that:
“It is deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms non-autistic people often employ when bullying autistic and developmentally disabled people for the ways we move. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the ways autistic people move, or the ways we make facial expressions. Some of us roll our eyes and put our teeth over our lips as a stim or just because it’s comfortable. But we do those things naturally. Maddie Ziegler does not. The fact thneoat Ziegler is not autistic, and the fact that her performance is so heavily exaggerated, turns the entire movie into one long display of mockery.”
On the first day of filming, Ziegler, who was 14 at the time, reportedly cried, worried that people would think she was making fun of them, to which Sia promised her, “I won’t let that happen.”
The film has also been criticized for using the character of Music as a prop. David Fear for Rolling Stone called it “a sort of neurodivergent equivalent of a Magical Negro.” While doing press for the film, an interviewer even compared the non-verbal Music to an inanimate object, to which Sia agreed.
“There is a caricature of autistics which relies on depicting us as headphone-wearing, gaping innocents who are symbols of purity there to remind us of selfless sacrifice,” said autistic teen Niko Boskovic in an essay.
The other massive issue raised by activists has been a scene in the film that shows Music being forcibly restrained by Zu and Ebo who “crush her with their love.”
“[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,” said Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
In response, Sia promised that the film would add a warning ahead of the movie, and that future printings would remove the scene. She also clarified that the film does not condone or recommend the use of restraint on autistic people. Online however, people say that the scenes have not been removed and there is still no warning.
The film’s musical sequences also use strobing lights, bright colours, loud sounds, and quick camera movements, which are very overstimulating. As one online petition points out, “About one in four autistic people have epilepsy, so the movie can cause seizures and is also very uncomfortable for those without it. Despite making the movie ‘for’ autistic people, Sia has made it in such a way that a majority of us will be unable to watch it.”
Sia has not responded very well to her critics, personally attacking a few before deleting her Twitter account. When one autistic actor expressed their ability and willingness to act in the film Sia replied, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”
The singer also said, “I cast 13 neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers. Fucking sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.”
For the film, Sia also collaborated, to an extent, with Autism Speaks, an organisation that has been called “A eugenics-promoting hate group.” Over 60 disability rights organisations have condemned Autism Speaks. Sia could have learned that by simply looking at their Wikipedia page and yet she said, “I had no idea it was such a polarizing group!”
The singer also referred to Music as someone with “special abilities,” language generally found to be extremely patronizing and derogatory in these contexts. Sia’s resistance to the term disabled, which has been widely embraced by many autistic people, has also been called ableist because it implies that being disabled is a bad thing.
Sia eventually admitted to being ableist to a degree and said she’d learned her lesson, but also said, “I have my own unique view of the community, and felt it is underrepresented and compelled to make it. If that makes me a shit I’m a shit, but my intentions are awesome.”
Later, however, she said, “I realised it wasn’t ableism — I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well — but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without [Ziegler].”
Despite Sia’s seemingly good intentions and some supporters, Music remains at best problematic, and at its worst dangerous. Its nomination for two Golden Globe awards is both confusing and concerning. A petition for the Golden Globes to rescind the nominations currently has over 120,000 signatures.
For full disclosure, I haven’t seen the film. The film’s reviews, messages from disability organisations, and videos and tweets made by autistic people have almost universally shared the same message: don’t watch this movie. It’s bad, offensive and dangerous. So I did not feel the need to waste $6 and two hours to confirm. Instead, I think I’ll look at the work of actual disabled creatives and I’d recommend you do the same.