Stop the Music
January 21, 2021
A swarm of controversy has descended upon the debut film from singer-songwriter Sia, Music, sucking the film’s chance at the box office out of its lifeblood. Much of it surrounds the casting of the titular character - a young woman with nonverbal autism - with an actress who doesn’t share that diagnosis. While, on the surface, this decision doesn’t appear to be harmful, the ramifications that it will wreak on the community that it directly affects are devastating. This editorial, written from the perspective of an autistic individual, will examine these ramifications further.
I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, but didn’t discover this information myself until I was on the cusp of double digits. I still remember the day I found out more clearly than I do my most recent memories. My parents called me over to the kitchen table, where they sat on either side of me like they always had at family dinners. Yet the conversation that day was not nourished with laughter and animated recounts of what my time at school had been like. It starved my emotions until all I could feel was sorrow and self-hate, cursing myself for being born with something that I saw to be so vile, that indelibly branded me as different from the ideal among people so consumed by the privilege of being the same.
In retrospect, I know that autism is not the firebrand of inferiority to the norm, and while it has the capability to drag me down to my lowest of lows, it more often lifts me up to the highest of highs. My parents’ intentions with their initial conversation were to prepare my mind for a world where its wiring was considered faulty, where others couldn’t see the electric potential that sparked within me. However, nothing could’ve prepared me for the way people like me would be perceived within that world, especially in the media. And the most recent, most heartbreaking example of this is the upcoming release of singer-songwriter Sia’s debut film, Music.
Its titular character is a young woman with nonverbal autism. Let me address this straight away - there is nothing wrong with this. Autism manifests differently for everyone (for example, while this character is nonverbal, I am all too verbal), and each different aspect of the diagnosis should be encompassed through media representation. Where this film fails - completely, utterly fails - is in the casting of Maddie Ziegler, Dance Moms alum and Sia’s protegé, to play the role.
I cannot judge Ziegler on her acting skills. What I can judge her on is this: she is not autistic. She cannot fully understand the mannerisms, the struggles, and the traumas of a member of the disabled community.
But it’s been done before, naysayers will blurt out. They do not lie. Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his role as an autistic person in Rain Man. The lead of Netflix’s Atypical, which revolves around an autistic teen’s coming-of-age, is played by an actor whose mental condition does not reflect the show’s title. Even one of my favorite autistic characters of all time, Abed Nadir of Community, is portrayed by a neurotypical actor, Danny Pudi. Where the naysayers are wrong is insinuating that because it’s been done before, it is perfectly fine to do again.
By its very nature, acting is to play the part of someone you are not. This definition appears to be harmless enough, but where Ziegler’s portrayal of Music (as well as the other examples I’ve given) crosses that line is by dimming the narrative’s spotlight on the community it belongs to and having those who aren’t part of it take control. This leads to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, such as the fact that autism is directly associated with incompetence. Further, it burdens the autistic community by enabling the idea that their stories, their struggles, their sadness, is only acceptable when filtered for the benefit of neurotypical people.
In truth, autism cannot be filtered. There are no special effects that can hide a neuroatypical person’s tics and stims, no snappy background music that can dissipate their anxieties, and no happy endings to their traumas. However, this is a narrative that much of the media employs when representing disabled characters. Oftentimes, they are not in control of that narrative - they only serve to benefit the emotional growth and development of neurotypical characters, as well as a living martyr of inspiration that motivates those same characters to be kinder, to achieve further success, to change their lives for the better. This is a phenomenon referred to as “inspiration porn” - R.J. Palacio’s Wonder and Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You immediately come to mind.
Music is yet another entry into this inane category. The trailer sees the titular character referred to as someone who “sees the world in a completely different way from us” (i.e. neurotypical people), as well as a “magical little girl.” This dialogue scribbles a messy narrative that paints those around Music as the focal point of the piece, rather than her herself. I am not going to deny that having a loved one on the spectrum can and does create difficulties for those around them - I’ve witnessed those effects firsthand within my own family. However, when these experiences are portrayed in the media, they carry more weight than those of the autistic individual themselves. Thus, the brunt force of disabled representation is carried by the needs of those without disabilities, forcing those within the community to hide behind a blockade of stigma and stereotypes.
There is even more inherent ableism that lies in calling a disabled teenager a “little girl.” By referring to her in these terms, Music is infantilized, which reinforces the ideology that neurodiverse individuals are “immature,” and should be treated like children. It is reminiscent of an adult seated at the kid’s table. They are barred from the chance to prove themselves in the mature world, whether it be corporate, educational, or social. This is an incredibly condescending attitude, implying that autistic people are not aware of their own minds, and must have everything spelt out for them by those of the neurotypical adult’s table. No matter how far along in mental development an adult is, that does not change the fact that they are an adult, and they should be referred to and treated as such in order for their needs to be met.
By relying on negative portrayals of the autistic community, whether unwittingly or not, and by casting someone who isn’t a member of that community to play the role, Sia has failed the group she sought to represent. And the worst part of this chaos is that it was almost avoided.
After autistic critics lambasted Sia via Twitter when she announced the film, she responded to them by saying to them that Maddie Ziegler was not the original choice to bring Music to the silver screen. Sia had initially cast a nonverbal autistic young woman to play the character. However, as Sia quoted on Twitter, “she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.” She also mentioned that casting this person, at their level of functioning, was “cruel, not kind.” Yet Sia refused to extend that kindness to her lead actress by making the necessary accommodations that would make her more comfortable on set. If the film was made with the intention to support the autistic community, then that intention must be present throughout the film’s production, both in and outside of its script. So many adjustments could have easily been made to support this young woman’s needs - Sia’s wallet certainly builds enough foundation for it. But, once again, she prioritized the concerns of neurotypical people, optimizing the filming experience for their benefit rather than that of the community she aimed to support.
For the longest time, the public eye, and especially the media, had me convinced that the wiring in my brain was faulty, that I had short-circuited into a deep low that I would never recover from. This was charged by the filtering of the image of autism through the neurotypical lens of “inspiration porn.” Sia could’ve had the opportunity to remove those blinders, but she missed out on it. She miscast, mistreated, and misrepresented. And because of this, I am so afraid