‘Music’ fails to properly represent the autistic community


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During November of 2020, artist, Sia, announced that her newest project was creating and directing a movie titled “Music” that would be released in early 2021. This movie would also  contain an entire album of her music. The film is described as a story of a young woman who finds herself as the sole guardian of her half sister, who is on the autism spectrum, and learns about the meaning of family. However, as soon as the first trailer for “Music” came out people were outraged, and for good reason. 

In 2014 Sia became one of the most popular artists when her single Chandelier came out and was ranked eighth on the Billboard top 100 songs in the U.S. With over 200 million copies sold across the country and four Grammy nominations, it was shocking to see that the once beloved celebrity was now being criticized for her new movie, which only got eight percent on rotten tomatoes. However, Sia’s followers knew that these low rankings and critical reviews were coming. Once the cast, plot and trailers were released for “Music”, people realized that Sia’s portrayal of autism was offensive and was dangerous for the neurodivergent community. 

The main criticism for “Music” before it was released was about the cast, specifically, the actress who was portraying the character with autism, Maddie Ziegler. Many people were upset that Sia cast a neurotypical person to represent the life of a person who had autism. This was disheartening to many people who have autism because it is extremely difficult for actors with autism to land roles, and it is crucial for their community to have accurate representation in the media. This made Ziegler’s portrayal of the character feel like a caricature, almost making fun of people with autism. Ziegler came out saying in an interview with The Independent that she understood why people were uncomfortable with her playing this role. 

However, it was Sia’s defensive response to the criticism that made people question if representing the autism community was really her main goal in making this movie, as she had claimed. When one Twitter user wrote, “Several autistic actors, including myself… said we could have acted in [“Music”] on short notice,” Sia responded by replying, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” This begs the question whether Ziegler was more qualified for this role, especially considering that her role in Music was her first time in a feature film. This led to accusations of near nepotism. Ziegler started working with Sia back in 2014 as the star dancer in Sia’s music video for Chandelier when she was only 11 years old. Since then, Ziegler and Sia have been working very closely together, and Ziegler has said that over the years Sia has become like a “second mom.” However, Ziegler believes that she obtained this role because of her dancing abilities. “Music” features many dancing and artistic scenes to portray how the character with autism interprets the world. “In terms of the dance sequences, I think that’s why Sia chose me, to bring the dream world to life,” Ziegler said. 

Sia has claimed that her team and Ziegler have done a tremendous amount of research about autism in order to create this film. One of the groups that she announced was supporting this movie was an organization called AutismSpeaks, but people were not satisfied upon hearing about this. Many people have claimed that AutismSpeaks is an ableist group that does more harm for people with autism than good. According to Root Policy Research, the board of directors for AutismSpeaks has very little representation from the autistic community and that a majority of their members represent big corporations. Furthermore, many of their fundraising tactics promote stigmas around autism and their main goal is prevention of autism instead of actually helping to make life easier for people with it. Sia has said that she was unaware of the controversies around this group when they started supporting her, but many people did not think this was a valid excuse. “Had she talked to like, 3 or 4 autistic people, [they]’d have told her (AutismSpeaks) is ableist,” said a different Twitter user. This led to the creation of a petition that was asking to cancel the film, gaining over 17,000 signatures. 

To this major amount of criticism and backlash Sia took to Twitter to express her frustration saying, “Grrrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.” But once the movie came out, the criticism only got worse.  

Many people took issue with the fact that Sia’s movie normalized the use of physical restraint against neurodivergent people. There were multiple scenes where the character with autism would have difficulty controlling her emotions or actions. This caused the other characters to physically restrain her in order to calm her down. In reality, this is a very controversial issue within the autism community. Many people believe that physical restraints can lead to abuse and should only be used by trained professionals. Sia ended up issuing an apology through twitter for the use of physical restraints in her movie and she has said they will be adding warning labels about these scenes. However, only an hour after this apology was posted, Sia deactivated her twitter account because of the large amount of criticism. 

After viewing “Music” it became clear that this was never a movie intended for people with autism or to shed light on the struggles of people with autism. The role of having a character with autism was merely an obstacle that the main characters had to deal with. The most frustrating part about “Music” was the lack of character development and growth for the character with autism. This character was more or less the same in the beginning of the movie as in the end. The element of autism was merely a vehicle for the other characters to have growth and development throughout the film.  

It was also noticeable that the use of autism in this movie could be seen as just a way to promote Sia’s newest album. There were several scenes throughout Music where the audience is taken to a dream-like world. This world is used to portray how the character with autism perceives the world. It contains many bright colors, costumes, intricate dance numbers and songs that are all written by Sia. At times, this made the movie feel like more of a glorified music video rather than a feature film. 

All things considered, the actual film and cinematography were not that bad. The quality was good, the plot was interesting, and the many dance numbers and songs throughout it were entertaining. But this just makes Music all the more dangerous. Without awareness being spread about the harmful messages of “Music”, it could have easily gotten much higher ratings and spread many misconceptions about autism. Since the release of “Music” Sia has apologized and admitted that she was “being ableist to a degree,” but that doesn’t change the fact that this movie is still available for anyone to watch, whether they are aware of the controversy that goes along with it or not. 

The only way for actual positive changes to be made for any minority group is for people to listen to each other and learn about others’ struggles. The main issue in the way of making Music a beautiful and meaningful film was the creators not taking the time to sit with people who had autism to learn about the intricate details of living with this condition and the necessity for accurate representation within this community.