Music, Sia’s recently premiered debut film, faced intense backlash months before it was even available for viewing. It tells the story of Zu who, newly sober, assumes the role of primary carer for her 16-year-old half-sister, Music, a non-verbal autistic girl. Music is played by neurotypical Maddie Ziegler, a casting choice which is the root of the controversy surrounding the film and the ensuing twitter war between Sia and the public.
So, what’s wrong with Sia’s casting decision? First and foremost, it was an opportunity for autistic actors to self-represent in an industry that is notoriously exclusive, prioritising whiteness, thinness, and non-disability. One tweet commented: “sigh, yet another example of Hollywood casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character…when doing a film about autism, hire #ActuallyAutistic folks to work on it”, summarising the main point of concern for many. There are many autistic actors who struggle for on-screen roles and Music, a film with a wide opening for them, comes across as a slap in the face in its decision to cast a neurotypical girl for the lead role.
However, rather than admit to her faux pas, Sia’s responses to such tweets have been inflammatory, stoking even more fiery rage and culminating in yet um…more criticism. Shockingly, when several autistic actors took to twitter to express their availability and willingness to work on Music at short notice, Sia responded: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor”. It really feels like she’s digging herself an ignorant, self-destructive hole here. Indeed, she supposedly attempted to work with an autistic, non-verbal actor for the role of Music but quickly resorted to Maddie Ziegler after the aforementioned autistic actor found the experience “unpleasant and stressful”. No effort was made to change the production environment to suit or accommodate her different acting needs, and it really seems to me that it was a tokenistic, not even half-hearted, gesture to protect her from the backlash that some part of her surely anticipated with this mindless casting choice.
Interestingly, Maddie Ziegler actually expressed concern about playing the role of Music at the time of production. Just 14 when filming started, she apparently “cried on the first day of rehearsals and she was really scared”, saying “I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.” If 14-year-old Ziegler predicted it would be problematic, why didn’t Sia?
It appears that the debutante director wanted to exploit the disability narrative as a means of launching her film into the public eye to earn herself some praise for focusing on a different perspective of the world. Unfortunately, whilst the tale itself had potential, the casting choices and caricaturish portrayals of autism do far more harm than good. And worst of all, the bright flashing lights and colours that feature throughout the film exclude the very people it was designed to target – many of whom suffer from epilepsy. Perhaps the film intended to celebrate neurodiversity, but it’s really just a series of music videos interspersed with unsettling and insincere depictions of autism.
It might be called Music, but the chord it strikes is tone-deaf.
Image: DeShaun Craddock via Flickr. Maddie Ziegler and Sia perform on stage together in New York.