It’s difficult to know where exactly to start with the saga surrounding Sia’s debut feature Music. Public awareness of the controversy began with the moment that Sia started insulting autistic actors on Twitter after they rightfully criticised the casting of Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actress, in an autistic role.
The online autistic community also pointed out that, while Sia claims to have done years of research, her collaboration with the charity Autism Speaks suggested otherwise. Autism Speaks is a hugely problematic organisation that doesn’t help autistic people, instead portraying autism as some kind of life-ruining condition (especially for the parents of autistic people) which needs to be ‘ended’. Other parts of her research included watching videos of autistic people having meltdowns, hugely vulnerable moments that are often uploaded to the internet without the person’s consent.
As an autistic person, my life is so much greater and richer than the moments where I melt down and I’m tired of people seeking out autistic suffering rather than autistic joy. The film’s use of a restraint that has led to the deaths of autistic people only furthers the notion that Sia’s research – if she did any at all – did not seem to include the voices of any autistic people.
This is a problem that seems almost inherent in media portrayals of autism. The neurotypical view of autism is that it is a hardship – especially for parents and family. There is a focus on how difficult having an autistic child is for parents, and the feelings of the autistic child are completely ignored. Often it is ‘difficult’ having an autistic child because parents try to fit the child into a neurotypical mould instead of embracing their autistic worldview. Sia’s claim that casting an actress as the character Music with her “level of functioning” would be cruel, reflects her expectation for autistic actors to conform to a neurotypical set instead of altering the set to be more friendly. Clips of the film’s musical sequences, full of colours and flashing lights, are overwhelming to watch. Making a film about autism without understanding the simple concept of accommodating autism indicates just how Sia regards it purely as a prop for virtue signalling and character development.
What struck me when I first heard about this film was the fact she couldn’t even say the word autism. She wouldn’t call it a disability. She called it a “different” or “special” ability. Autism is a disability – and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about being disabled, and her refusal to use either “autistic” or “disabled” actually perpetuate the idea that there is. Autism is not a dirty word. Say it. Not “on the spectrum”, not “special needs/abilities”: “autistic”. Refusing to say it attaches a stigma to the word where there shouldn’t be one.
I am not going to watch Music. I actively avoid autistic representation in the media, because instead of seeing myself reflected on screen, I see a stereotype or a caricature. I see someone whose autism is used as a joke or as character development for somebody else. I often see cisgender white men, the most diagnosed and researched group – at the expense of everybody else. The best representations of autism in the media are actually of characters who aren’t said to be autistic. They are allowed to be fully-fledged, three-dimensional characters without being held back by stereotypes. In these characters you see joy. These are the characters we deserve.
Image: Kris Krug via Wikimedia Commons