Sia's movie Music is harmful for the autistic community
( @siamusic / Instagram )
It’s an oath taken by doctors, nurses and bikini wax salons everywhere: First, do no harm.
Sia is none of the above, so that’s probably why she wasn’t too worried about perpetuating harmful stereotypes and making her film Music a dangerous watch for the autistic community — which she claimed to celebrate.
I think the best possible way to explain the controversy is to recount the concerns and criticisms content creators with autism have shared on their platforms. Through their experiences, they can explain the issues and harm because they are the ones directly affected.
Hence, I’ll mainly be recounting the points that autistic content creator, advocate and spokesperson Paige Layle speaks to in her Youtube video “SIA'S MOVIE MUSIC | An Autistic's Opinion”
Sia’s film has been controversial since the trailer was released in November 2020. Since then, Music has received two Golden Globe nominations for best motion picture and for Kate Hudson, who picked up a nomination for best actress in a musical or comedy.
I’m sure you’re as suspicious as I am hearing that an abled singer-songwriter has co-written and directed a musical about a girl with disabilities for her directorial debut. I’m also sure her “extensive” film experience and personal experience with autism will prevent her from doing anything too tasteless, though. Plus, she said she has a friend with autism who said it was cool soooo. (*For legal reasons: please note the sarcasm in the last two sentences.)
A lot of the controversy comes from Sia herself and her responses to the constructive feedback she has been getting on the film. Not only was she offensive and aggressive in some of her responses to people sharing their feelings on the film, but she also countered her own points. Here’s an example:
Sia claimed she did “three years of research” for the film in order to tackle portraying the disability accurately:
Yet points were made when she was called out for using the organization Autism Speaks as her contact point with an autism awareness / advocacy group. The group has been called anti-autistic for its promotion of a “cure” and strategies to “remove” autism as if it is undesirable and for its alleged misappropriation of funds for cure over accommodation.
A simple google search of the organization brings up years of articles and infographics that highlight exactly how harmful this organization is considered within the community. All Sia had to say was:
We’ve all just looked at a single Wikipedia page, done the bare minimum then claimed we’ve done research though tbh.
Sia’s Twitter fingers also landed her in trouble when she explained some of her casting choices. The film featured names like Leslie Odom Junior and Kate Hudson, but most of the casting backlash came from the choice to cast neurotypical Maddie Ziegler as a person on the autism spectrum.
As the face of the film, Sia’s “muse” and the titular character of the movie, Maddie Ziegler, has been personally attacked for her role. As an 18-year-old actress and long-time entertainment industry persona, people expect a level of autonomy and responsibility for the work she is involved in. Yet, it’s always important to think about her circumstances.
Apparently, Maddie had been involved with the project since she was 14, and contractual obligations tied her to the film. Not to mention, her close-knit relationship with Sia made things harder to back out of with the singer being her “legal God-mother.”
What’s important though, is that Maddie was definitely old enough to know better and apparently, she did.
According to Sia in People Magazine, "She [Maddie] 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,' And I, bald-facedly, said 'I won't let that happen.' And last week I realized I couldn't really protect her from that, which I thought I could”.
When asked why she stuck so adamantly to Maddie, her answers made everything kind of worse. First, she exposed her unwillingness to hire an actor with autism with snark and dismissal. She really insulted an ausitic actor, whew.
Then she exposed her unwillingness to accommodate an actor with autism on a set that was meant to be creating “a love letter to caregivers and to the autism community.”
According to one source “Sia insisted the story of the film was based on her "neuro atypical friend,” who found acting in the film "too stressful,” along with several other non-verbal actors tried by Sia.”
Why didn’t she make the set more Autism-friendly rather than replace the actress with the experience you claim needs more representation?
Something tells me that if the film set of a movie about a girl with autism is a stressful and unkind environment for an actor with autism, the film you’re making probably won’t be a good watch for the autistic community.
Context aside, the film is dangerous and unwatchable for many reasons. The physical portrayals that Maddie uses in order to “act autistic” condemned as mockery and a caricature of autism. Plus, the film itself uses strobing lights, overwhelming visuals and features loud music from the accompanying studio album which was used as a soundtrack.
According to the Director of Advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, "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."
As if Sia’s attitude, the harm of the film and accusations of nepotism and ableism weren’t good enough reasons for the film’s lack of popularity with audiences, apparently the movie is “also bad art”. I suppose it’s unfair to judge a film without having watched it, but supporting the film with a view or stream doesn't sit right with me. I’ve already seen enough.
In a case where so much harm is apparent, it may be beneficial to avoid rewarding willful ignorance and offensiveness with financial gain or acclaim. Sia won't mind anyway.
It was clear she’s fine with how the movie has been criticized and stands by her choices as she tweeted, “I believe this movie is beautiful, will create more good than harm and if I’m wrong I’ll pay for it for the rest of my life.” and replied “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.” to another user. She’ll be OK.
Alazne Cameron was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and is an Online Activism writer at Rowdy Magazine. She loves food-based metaphors, alliteration and social justice. Her favorite food is food for thought (but anything with a cheesy, creamy Alfredo base is a close second). You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @alaznecameron for more information.