Are Sia and Maddie Ziegler hurting the autistic community?
Australian singer-songwriter and director Sia is catching heat right now over the upcoming release of her new film Music. Slated for release on February 10, 2021, Music follows the story of Zu (Kate Hudson), a newly sober drug dealer and all-around irresponsible adult, and Music (Maddie Ziegler), Zu’s autistic half-sister.
Music’s grandmother and caretaker dies at the beginning of Music and Zu finds herself the only person left to care for her. Supposed to be a film that focuses on family, strength, and the idea of overcoming adversity, criticism of Music in the lead-up to its release would suggest some folks believe Music missed its mark.
Members of the autistic community are speaking out, calling for Music’s boycott – and even asking for its release to be permanently suspended. Critics have a multitude of issues with the film, ranging from casting choices to the representation of autism itself. Are they right? Is this film harmful to the autistic community? Journey with us as we unpack the objections to Music.
Music is a nonverbal autistic character played by Maddie Ziegler; Sia and Maddie Ziegler have a long working history together. Ziegler starred in a slew of Sia’s music videos, including both her smash hits “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart”. The two are believed to have formed quite a friendship over the years.
However, Sia is receiving all kinds of heat for casting her friend in this role over an actual autistic person. Autistic actress Charlotte Gush criticized Sia publicly in an op-ed published in Teen Vogue, stating that several autistic actresses responded to Sia’s call on Twitter to cast the role of Music. According to Gush, they were all ignored.
As news of Ziegler’s casting was announced, people began asking why Sia had not cast an actual disabled actor for the role, to which she replied: “I’ve never referred to Music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.” Sia then elaborated that casting someone at Music’s level of functioning was cruel, so she made the decision to “lovingly represent the community” instead.
Sia did say she attempted to work with a nonverbal female on the spectrum who reported that she found the experience uncomfortable & unpleasant. However, it has been documented that both Sia herself and Maddie Ziegler have both remarked several times prior to this statement that the role of Music was actually written for Ziegler.
Critics of Music have a lot to say about both the representation of autism in this film, and how Sia discussed the disability. Some members of the autism community took offense at the fact that Sia described Music as having “special abilities” rather than a disability.
In her Teen Vogue op-ed, Charlotte Gush wrote the phrase “special abilities” is patronizing, that the word “disability” is not bad, but in fact the correct way to describe people on the spectrum. Sia’s avoidance to using this term has angered many.
Scenes in Music have come under harsh criticism from the autism community as well. @autisticats, a Twitter account run by autistic people, shared a leaked TikTok video of a scene in which Music is having a meltdown, depicting Zu holding Music down in prone restraint.
The account published a long and detailed thread of their own experiences with prone restraint, explaining how traumatic and dangerous it is for autistic people. To further support their case, they listed the names of autistic people who have died as a result of this practice. Autisticats are also calling for people to boycott the film.
Autistic North Carolinian Hannah Marshall has launched an online petition to stop the release of Music on change.org. Marshall called Music “extremely offensive to myself and other autistic individuals. Sia has shown no remorse for her inaccurate and hurtful betrayal of the community”.
Marshall wants Music’s release to be cancelled; over 14,000 have signed the petition. Marshall’s objections include the fact that the character of Music was played by a neurotypical person, the fact that no autistic people were consulted on the film, and what she called stereotypical representations of autism depicted in the trailer.
Sia has urged everyone to withhold judgement until seeing the film. Have you seen Music yet? If so, share your thoughts below.