Sia’s ‘Music’ Movie Was Supposed to Uplift the Autistic Community. How Did It Go So Wrong?
‘Music’ was meant to be a love letter to autistic people and those who care about them. But its trailer launched an online firestorm—and sent Sia into a shocking Twitter meltdown.
What, exactly, is going on with Sia?
On Thursday the singer shared the trailer for Music, which debuts in February. In the movie, Kate Hudson plays Zu—a newly sober woman who assumes guardianship of her autistic half-sister Music, played by Maddie Ziegler. By Friday frustrated Twitter users had inundated Sia’s replies. Many wanted to know why Ziegler, who is not on the spectrum and has never acted in a feature film, was cast over a performer who’s actually autistic.
Rather than take the criticism to heart, as celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o and Anne Hathaway have in the past when faced with criticism from the disability community, Sia lashed out at those questioning her choices—while simultaneously begging them to watch her movie.
In series of tweets to Sia, Helen Zbihlyj, an actor and Director of Community for ReWrite Media, wrote that plenty of autistic performers, herself included, are available to perform on short notice. “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic,” she wrote.
Speaking with The Daily Beast, Zbihlyj, along with AEA stage manager Emily Paige Ballou and professional actor Estelle Olivia, all of whom are autistic, pointed out the obstacles that neurodivergent performers face. One common hurdle in Hollywood can be that so many projects want big-name actors to lead them, shrinking the number of opportunities for those who’ve historically been marginalized.
As Zbihlyj put it in an email, “This role could have been an amazing opportunity for an autistic actress that may never get the chance otherwise.”
The primary argument Sia keeps lobbing at her critics is that people should wait to judge the movie until they see it. Ballou said that’s generally true—but nonetheless, she noted, the red flags have been pretty familiar and obvious from the start, from the film’s promotion to the discussions around it.
“Autistic people are famous for our pattern recognition,” Ballou wrote, “and nothing I’ve seen so far suggests to me that this movie would be an enjoyable or enlightening use of my time, as opposed to simplistic at best, and incredibly hurtful and belittling at worst, in ways that we are sadly all too familiar with.”
As far as Zbihlyj is concerned, it’s fair to ask viewers to reserve judgment until after seeing the movie—but she also noted that none of Sia’s critics have called to boycott the movie. People are simply urging Sia to see where she went wrong, and Hollywood to change its casting practices.
Sia has said that she did try to cast with at least one neurodivergent actor before bringing in Ziegler—but it’s unclear how many, precisely, the production worked with.
In one post she wrote, “The character is based completely on my neuro atypical friend. He found it too stressful being non verbal, and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother.” (In an interview with Variety the singer said she helped Ziegler prepare for the role by showing her this friend’s utterances and tics—but more on that later.) “My character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum they suggested I use Maddie,” Sia tweeted in reply to another person.
And in another reply: “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful.”
As several Twitter users noted, casting Ziegler nonetheless calls into question who this film is actually for; if the goal is to highlight and support autistic people, couldn’t the production have found a way to facilitate a more authentic, representative performance from someone who actually knows the experience?
“In my mind, if you can't make an accommodation to actually allow someone who is truly capable of telling this story to play the role—because it’s too expensive, or you have to film too quickly, or whatever—then you can't actually afford to make this movie,” Olivia said. “If you could not find an autistic actor to play that role, then you shouldn’t have been making that movie.”
Sia said that she spent “three fucking years” researching for the film, and that she “worked very closely with two neuroatypical friends” at every stage of the production. She also made sure to point out that she cast 13 people on the spectrum, as well as three trans people—“and not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but s [sic] as doctors, nurses and singers.” (O...kay?)
But as Olivia notes, it's nonetheless frustrating that a bevy of neurotypical people are now “capitalizing on and making money off of autistic people’s stories and disabled people’s stories without involving them, paying them—aside from, OK great, 13 people out of how many cast, crew, creative team, producers, casting directors, staff?”
The research methods used to shape Ziegler’s character have also raised concern.
In addition to Sia coaching Ziegler on her friend’s utterances and tics, the pint-size actress told Marie Claire last year that her own preparation for the role involved watching documentaries about people with autism and watching videos parents had posted to YouTube of their own autistic children’s episodes.
To Olivia, this is another sign that the production’s research was inadequate, given how rife even basic social media hashtags like #ActuallyAutistic and #AutismAwareness are with autistic people discussing how awful these types of videos are.
“The autistic community has frequently spoken out against what we see as a violation of children's privacy and consent this way,” Ballou added. “[T]hat our most vulnerable and painful moments are put on display, usually as an illustration of the horror and hardship for parents of having children like us, or as an argument in favor of a ‘cure’ for autism (which is probably not possible and which most autistic people oppose), and almost never with respect for what the children in these videos are experiencing or why a meltdown is happening.”
Ballou granted that understanding what a meltdown can look and feel like is important—but videos like these, she said, are overwhelmingly considered a violation and not a fair representation of autistic people’s experiences.
And then there’s one more issue: the involvement of Autism Speaks, an organization whose relationship with the actual autistic community could be described as fraught at best. As Zoe Gross, director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, described the group to Entertainment Weekly as “an organization without autistic leadership whose advocacy priorities are in opposition to the autistic community.”
Sia tweeted that Autism Speaks did not come aboard the project until four years after production had wrapped—and in a statement to EW, a representative for the organization said it was not involved in the casting or production process.
But the singer’s follow-up statement—that she had “no idea [Autism Speaks] was such a polarizing group!”—once again leads one to wonder how much research she actually put into the project. Not one of The Daily Beast’s interviewees had a positive outlook on the organization, which has been the subject of criticism for years.
“Their behavior towards the autistic community has consistently reflected a stance that our perspectives on our own lives don’t count, and that autistic people capable of making any objection to their mistreatment aren’t autistic enough to count,” Ballou said. “Given that history, their support of a film featuring an autistic character must give me serious concern about the content and perspective of that film.”
But the real disappointment in all this, more than any production detail or misguided casting choice, has been Sia’s apparent unwillingness to try and see why autistic people have not jumped to thank her for this movie—a stubbornness that calls into question her sincerity as a would-be advocate.
As Olivia put it, “That right there shows me that Sia is not someone who should have ever been trying to tell our stories. She doesn’t have the right, and she clearly doesn't have the ability. Because if you can’t even listen when our community tries to speak to you and explain our position and what real representation looks like, then you were never going to listen. And you were never going to do this in a respectful way and try to actually tell—or help us tell our stories.”
A representative for Sia did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.