Sia has directed her first feature film, Music, and the movie certainly has made headlines but for the wrong reason. The film is a steaming turd of ableism as she used a disability as a means for financial gain.
Sia has a character in her film that is nonverbal and autistic, played by an actress who does not have a disability. Watching the trailer absolutely makes me cringe. I did field hours for my teaching class at the Heidt Center for Autism last year. I did encounter and interact with non-verbal individuals there, and I just don’t think that there is any way that a non-autistic person can act out a role like that without it coming across as mocking them.
In addition to this, there were reports that Maddie Ziegler sobbed during the production stages of the movie, saying that she didn’t want to play the autistic character because she is worried that people would think that she is making fun of the disability. Sia was the director, and she brushed this off. She essentially exploited a minor into a role that she did not feel comfortable playing in the first place. It is not Ziegler’s fault. She felt forced to do it because of Sia.
It was not even her casting choice, in general, that was the worst part. It was her rationale for doing so. She stated that she thought that “no one with the character’s level of functioning could play the role.” She supposedly tried out one autistic actress for the role and did not accommodate her. I am skeptical this even happened, as there are reports from those involved in the movie that she went with Maddie Ziegler as the title character from the get go.
But, let’s assume she did have this person audition. She basically said “screw it” after one audition and assumed that no one with that disability could act. And if a disabled person cannot act out something that they literally are, how is that at all an accurate representation of a disability? There also resides that tendency to correlate being non-verbal with lower intellect. But, some non-verbal individuals are intellectually competent and would be able to take the role. You can oogle disabled actors online. There are plenty of them for any disability you can think of. It’s not hard for someone with Sia’s fame to find talent.
Sia supposedly did three years of research, but anyone who knows anything about disabilities would know that Autism Speaks is not a liked group in the disability community. The “charity” views autism as a disease that needs to be cured, and she consulted with them during the making of the movie. Think about it like this: there is a movie with a transgender male character. A cisgender man is cast for that role, and the director consults an anti-LGBTQ organization for advice. Of course, that is absolutely outrageous and inappropriate.
Instead of Sia being a mature adult and apologizing for her casting decision and vowing to do better, she took her words to Twitter. An autistic actress tweeted an offer to take the role on the spot. Sia responded with “maybe you are just a bad actor.” The night did not get any better for her, as she attacked the disability community instead of listening to them.
She eventually did apologize at the beginning of February. But, this movie is not empowering those with disabilities, not when you exclude them from the production and belittle them. I hope this serves as an example for future filmmakers to include the disability community in the process of making the film.