If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you may have seen the discourse surrounding Sia’s new film, Music, namely that it’s absolutely pissed off the autism community around the world. The film is troubling, to say the least, and if you haven’t read up on it yet, here’s what you need to know.
What is Music about?
Music follows a recently sober drug dealer Zu (Kate Hudson), who suddenly becomes the guardian of her nonverbal autistic young sister Music (Maddie Ziegler).
Leslie Odom Jr. co-stars as Music’s neighbour Ebo, who helps Zu learn about Music’s daily routine.
Music is Sia’s directorial debut.
The film became available in the States on February 12, but has already premiered (to shitty reviews) over here. The Sydney Morning Herald’s review is literally titled, “Sia’s Music leaves you wondering what anyone was thinking?”
A lot of the other reviews follow the same tone, more on that later.
Why has there been backlash?
Right from the get go, Music was denounced by both industry critics and autism advocacy groups for not casting an autistic actor in the main role.
.@sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there – like Saskia, Alex, Max, and Holly who starred in our #AutismTMI films: https://t.co/f1aWSs2nXM https://t.co/Vsts6g8728
— National Autistic Society (@Autism) November 20, 2020
Sia said she initially used Twitter to cast the film, but inevitably decided that her protégé and frequent collaborator Maddie Ziegler would play the role of Music. Ziegler is neurotypical, she’s non-autistic, and that upset a lot of people.
Autistic actors who responded to Sia’s callout expressed their confusion on Twitter.
“Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We said we could have acted in it on short notice,” @HelenAngel wrote.
“The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic,” she added, with the hashtag “Nothing About Us Without Us”.
Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that- excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic.#NothingAboutUsWithoutUs
— Helen Z ???? | BlackLivesMatter | LGBTQIA+ Pride (@HelenAngel) November 20, 2020
“Maybe you’re just a bad actor,” Sia replied in a tweet that has since been deleted. Well, she’s nuked her entire profile actually.
In another response to Irish actor Bronagh Waugh, who asked Sia why she didn’t cast a disabled actor to play Music, Sia responded: “I’ve never referred to Music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.”
“Special abilities”, as many people pointed out, sounded infantilising and patronising.
'Disabled' is not a slur. 'Special abilities' is downright patronising. We're not children or Xmen. Did you audition any disabled actors for the role? Or did you just make assumptions about what 'level of functioning' disabled actors have?
— Victoria Wright (@VictoriaMWright) November 20, 2020
Then, Sia said she initially tried to cast an autistic actor.
“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.”
In February, Sia appeared on The Sunday Project to talk about the movie. She openly discussed how uncomfortable Ziegler felt playing Music.
“She 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,'” Sia said.
When asked if casting Ziegler as Music was an example of ableism, Sia replied: “I realised it wasn’t ableism – I mean, it was ableism, I guess as well, but it was actually nepotism because 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.”
Sia also rose eyebrows for working with Autism Speaks, which has endorsed the movie. The organisation, which preaches inclusion and acceptance, has been accused by many autistic people of doing the exact opposite.
In 2009, it released an ad titled “I Am Autism” that portrayed autism as an invisible killer that ruined marriages, guaranteed financial ruin, and robbed parents of their children and dreams.
The ad compared autism to cancer, diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.
In 2019, Autism Speaks linked up with Sesame Street to promote a tool kit that suggests parents should grieve their newly diagnosed autistic children. An entire section is dedicated to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, even though their child is still alive.
“Autism Speaks came on board long after the film was finished,” Sia explained on Twitter. “I had no idea it was such a polarising group!”
One user, @mysicksadlife, tweeted: “Had she talked to like, 3 or 4 autistic people, we’d have told her [Autism Speaks] is ableist and wants us fixed or dead.”
Then, over the past weekend, the opening scene from Music was shared on Twitter. It showed Ziegler as Music, twitching, hitting herself, and lurching in different directions.
On Twitter, The Autisticats – a blog run by three autistic adults who share their experiences as neurodivergent people – tweeted a thread about that particular scene.
I’m watching Sia’s movie, in order to write a detailed & chronological review (so that nobody else watches it out of curiosity).
But for now, I just want the public to see a few things that speak for themselves, starting with this image: pic.twitter.com/jPqtd5tLOz
— The Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
“The performance is a caricature of autistic body language,” The Autisticats’ Eden tweeted.
“It’s unsettling, and insincere.
“And it’s deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerisms non-autistic people often employ when bullying autistic & 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 Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
Two other things I want to touch on:
1. The strobing lights and colors in the dance scenes are extremely overstimulating, and could cause seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy (common in autistic people)
2. The restraint scenes are still there, without a warning.
— The Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
How else has Sia responded to the backlash?
Sia initially defended her film, saying she was upset that people were judging it before even watching it.
In one response to a Twitter user, who accused her of excluding neurodiverse actors, Sia said, “I cast thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nursers and singers. Fucking sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.”
But after it was revealed Music includes a scene of restraint, where Ebo helps Zu hold down Music after she has a meltdown at a park, Sia apologised.
According to autistic writer Sara Luterman, the practice is called ‘prone restraint’ and has resulted in multiple deaths.
“I promise, [I] have been listening. The motion picture MUSIC will, moving forward, have this warning at the head of the movie,” Sia tweeted.
The warning reads: “MUSIC in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people. There are autistic occupational therapists that specialise in sensory processing who can be consulted to explain safe ways to provide proprioceptive, deep-pressure feedback to help with meltdown safety.”
“I’m sorry,” Sia tweeted, adding that she plans to remove the restraint scene from all future printings.
However, as The Autisticats pointed out, the scene is still in the film without a warning.
“I listened to the wrong people and that is my responsibility, my research was clearly not thorough enough, not wide enough,” Sia said.
Then she deactivated her Twitter.
This was on February 3, after Music was nominated for two Golden Globes.
What has the critical response been like?
The film has been absolutely slammed across the board and received an incredibly low rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Luterman reviewed the film for Slate on February 12. She broke down the film’s plot and discussed the casting and the depiction of autism in the movie.
She didn’t like it, not even a little bit.
Sia asked autistic critics to watch her movie before judging it. So I did. And it sucks. https://t.co/r020HoU28F
— Sara Luterman (@slooterman) February 12, 2021
— Charlotte *JOIN A UNION* Gush (@CharlotteGush) December 2, 2020
Autism and disability activist Coby Bird shared an open letter to Sia on Twitter.
My letter to @Sia Part 1. Please know this is in hopes to start a conversation about Inclusion. For Neurodiverse and Disability voices to be heard in and understanding way. I am one voice. I speak from my own experience. pic.twitter.com/WN5licqdXU
— Coby Bird (@thecobybird) November 21, 2020
You can find part two of Bird’s letter in the thread.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Music currently has a 16% critic rating. As many people have pointed out, that’s even less than the frankly terrible/terrifying Cats.
Sia's new movie has a lower critic score than Cats. pic.twitter.com/CjTQMZzqBX
— ❤????️⚧️ Stephie ????️⚧️❤ (@StephieSparda) February 13, 2021
It really just gets worse from there.
“This is a bizarre movie, one that parades confused ideas about care, fantasy and disability with a pride that reads as vanity,” wrote New York Times film critic Teo Bugbee.
“It is audacious, in the sense that making it certainly took some audacity.”
Matthew Rozsa for Salon wrote: “I am autistic and a fan of Sia’s songs. As I watched her feature directorial debut Music, I felt overwhelmed with emotions… none of them good.
“This movie isn’t just offensive; it’s patronising.”
While Sia has deactivated her Twitter, her Instagram remains active. And despite the torrents of genuine backlash and criticism, Sia’s still proudly posting about Music.