I Don't Have To Watch Sia's New Movie To Know It's Ableist Trash

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 

As you’ve probably heard by now, Sia recently released a movie called “Music,” her directorial debut. “Music” features Maddie Ziegler in the title role, playing a non-speaking autistic teenager who apparently experiences the world by performing pop musical dance numbers with Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr.

Something like that. I don’t know, y’all. I didn’t watch this shit. I’m just reading what I can stomach to try to write an introduction to what I really want to say which is…

What the whole entire actual fuck?

In news that should surprise literally nobody, a lot of autistic people are not happy with this thing, like at all. Some of them are deeply hurt. (And some of them completely disagree with everything I’m about to say, so let’s not shove all autistic people in one box.)

I’m not going to try to explain every single reason why this movie is not okay. Autistic people can speak for themselves. But since I have this platform, I think it’s important to at least have a conversation.

Problem number one: Maddie Ziegler is not autistic. She’s a talented young woman who has worked with Sia for years now, and there’s a place for her in the entertainment world, of course. Nobody freak out and cancel Maddie Ziegler.

As Sara Luterman wrote in a must-read review of “Music” for Slate, “I do not think Ziegler is making fun of anyone. However, a lack of malice does not reduce the acute discomfort of watching her clumsily ape disability. Ziegler is a teenager, and by reassuring her about her role in this movie, the adults in her life have failed her profoundly.”

I’m sure Maddie Ziegler thought she was doing a good thing, (because allegedly adults in her life convinced her to do this project, despite her own misgivings) but deciding how to act the part of an autistic character by watching videos of children in meltdown moments is not, in fact, a good thing. YIKES to all involved.

But Sia was an adult, and she had every opportunity to abandon this train wreck project, or drastically change it so it wasn’t a painfully offensive piece of garbage.

Or at the very least, cast an autistic actress for the title role, Sia. My god. Were all the autistic actresses busy?

It turns out that, no. They were not.

Sia recently deleted her Twitter account, but at one point when it was active she said, “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.”

And this: “Casting someone at (the character’s) level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community. … I did try. It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.”


If this trash can of a movie was too uncomfortable…no, wait, what word did you use? CRUEL? If it was cruel for an autistic person to act in the part, what in the name of all that is holy made you think that it was a good idea to proceed? If a non-speaking autistic person can’t play the role you wrote, maybe, just maybe it DOESN’T PROPERLY OR RESPECTFULLY REPRESENT A NON-SPEAKING AUTISTIC PERSON?!

It should be noted that there are many, many ways to misrepresent an autistic person in a way that reduces their personhood, and “Music” seems to manage to find several of them.

Despite receiving praise from The National Council on Severe Autism (an organization that has taken serious criticism from the autism community), “The movie does not depict autism as ‘severe’ in any sense. Music’s autism is unrecognizably sanitized, her life miraculously, dazzlingly easy. Music’s neighbors love and support her. People on the street wave to her, handing her free magazine clippings and fresh fruit. In case you were wondering, this is not how the world generally responds to autistic people, more or less across the spectrum,” says Luterman, highlighting yet another way Sia’s understanding of the autistic experience falls short.

The Autisticats is an Instagram account run by a small group of autistic young adults. One of them, Eden, chose to watch this movie despite the pain it caused them, and provide the rest of us with some insight as to why “Music” is such a total freaking dumpster fire problem for many autistic people. The full review is not yet available, but this thread is a good place to start.

Neurotypical people, we need to stop and read the entire thread. Before we jump in defending Sia’s intentions or start throwing around buzzwords, we need to actively choose to see this film’s issues from an autistic person’s perspective.

Did you read the Autisticats post? The whole thing? Did you click through all of the photos, reading every word? Did you see Eden use words and phrases like caricature, unsettling, insincere, exaggerated mannerisms, and mockery?

Did you pay attention when they explained how watching an autistic character portrayed in the way Sia chose to portray Music was hurtful and uncomfortable for them and harkened back to their days being bullied for their mannerisms?

How about the scenes where Music is forcibly restrained? Did you read about those?

Scenes that Sia now acknowledges as harmful are still available for consumption as entertainment, despite the fact that some forms of restraint have actually injured and even killed autistic people.

CONTENT WARNING: The video in the following Tweet is disturbing.

This isn’t the kind of artistic representation that autistic people are asking for, and it’s certainly not the representation they deserve.

Autistic characters need to exist in the movies and shows we watch, in the books we read, and actually autistic people should be present in our social media feeds.

But autistics actors exist. So do autistic filmmakers. Writers. Musicians. Content creators. All of us should demand that autistic content come from autistic people. Or at the very least, non-autistic people who wish to portray an autistic character should consult a wide array of autistic voices—not just those that agree with them.

I guess it’s important to mention that Sia has sort of acknowledged some of the ways this movie is a mess. I’m not giving her that much credit because it’s way too little way too late, but she has issued some apologies and agreed to put a disclaimer on the movie and remove the restraint scenes (although they are apparently still in the movie, according to the preliminary Autisticats review.)

Over the course of the last year, Sia has consistently argued and debated with disability and autism activists about her decisions, refusing to gracefully accept that making this movie was a misstep. The movie is nominated for awards. She still stands to gain money, accolades and validation for this movie that harms the people she claims to want to “lovingly represent.”

Inevitably someone will tell me that I should watch the movie or I don’t get an opinion. Bullshit. Fuck that.

I don’t need to watch neurotypical Kate Hudson and neurotypical Leslie Odom Jr. sing and dance with (and physically restrain) neurotypical Maddie Ziegler under neurotypical Sia’s direction to form my own opinion about autistic representation. That makes no sense.

Plenty of autistic people have made it clear that the way autism is portrayed in this movie hurts them, frustrates them, harms their credibility, inaccurately represents their experiences and does not further their mission of acceptance and accommodations for autistic individuals.

I believe them.

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