Ableism: The prioritization of convenience in casting

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Left: Actress Maddie Ziegler posing in front of a display for dance companies. Right: Actor James Cordon glancing behind his left shoulder while walking. wikipedia commons

The performative allyship of creating a film on autism using faulty research

Casting neurotypical people to play disabled or autistic characters is ableism. Hollywood is entering murky waters and demonstrating their ignorance by hiring orthodox actors. 

Sia’s newest film, Music, depicting a non-verbal autistic girl, is problematic. The movie is about a young non-verbal autistic girl named Music who is taken into care by her half-sister named Zu. Zu, a sober drug dealer, struggles with the new challenges as Music’s sole guardian.

While we need to see people with disabilities in film making, Maddie Ziegler – a verbal and non-autistic actress – plays the role of Music. Sia hired long-time companion Ziegler for the job rather than hiring an actress that is a part of the autistic community. 

Before Ziegler, they did have a non-verbal actress who eventually resigned from the film due to it being “unpleasant and stressful.” It is questionable that Sia turned to previous companion Maddie Ziegler rather than hiring another actress from the autistic community. Ziegler allegedly had her concerns about taking on the role as she was concerned that the autistic community would think she was “making fun” of people on the spectrum. The predicted suspicions arising from Ziegler should have been their first clue that they were committing acts of ableism. 

Sia has now openly come out and spoke about why she wanted Ziegler for the role of Music: 

“I realized it wasn’t ableism. I mean, it is ableism I guess as well, but it’s actually nepotism because I can’t do a project without her [Ziegler]. I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”

It is completely fine if Sia wants to include Ziegler in her projects. However, she could have given Ziegler a role to represent a neurotypical person who could have easily fit into the plotline. Sia did not have to take away an autistic individual’s opportunity to complete the movie rather than giving the part to Ziegler. The dismissal of the first actress and rapid replacement of her with Ziegler demonstrates that Sia never really planned to represent autistic individuals within the film accurately. Nor did she want to adapt to help the young autistic actress thrive within her role, which is essentially the movie’s plot. 

So here we are once again, watching a neurotypical actor play the role of a disabled character. It is incredibly disheartening and offensive to the autistic community to watch ableism unfold for what seems like the millionth time. We are now entering an era where we need to diminish the Hollywood casting norm of hiring neurotypical characters to play something they are not. We need to re-analyze the praise for an actor or actress being “brave” for playing a disabled character. They are people just like the rest of us. They do not need to change because of their disability, and casting agencies do more harm than good by stripping opportunities from actors from that community. 

Sia’s aggravation of the autistic community’s protests shows that she is utterly tone-deaf to the situation. Rather than taking the advice of care aids and people with autism, it took her months to take responsibility for enabling Ziegler to play Music. Sia’s tweet to protestors of the film shows undistinguished anger: “Grrrrrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck, why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”

Despite Sia’s “three years of extensive research” put into the movie, there were still scenes with improper techniques when dealing with an autistic meltdown. A scene from Music, which Autreach leaked on TikTok, shows the physical restraint of Music by Zu during a breakdown. The act of prone restraint within the autistic community is heavily protested as many physical constraints have ended in the harm and even death of people with autism. Sia’s spectrum of research was too narrow, but considering her own ignorance in casting and defensive attitude to criticism there is the possibility that she may have ignored critiques from advisors. Sia later tweeted that the scene would be removed from the movie, and there would be a warning at the beginning of the film. 

The entire scenario screams right idea, wrong context. I want to see more films about people with disabilities and how they live, and how we can be more accepting of them. I do not want to see depictions from actors outside of the disability spectrum, or to perceive them as “weak” or “in need of help.” All people are prone to mistakes and growth, and there is no hierarchy among humans.

Enabling non-autistic actors is not a recent occurrence. We see Freddie Highmore in The Good Doctor, a neurotypical actor playing an autistic man. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Leonardo DiCaprio also received an Academy nomination for Best Actor playing the autistic brother of Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. These actors where heavily applauded for their extensive research into the life of an autistic individual, but little is said about giving the opportunity to a person with autism. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association have also nominated Music for Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Leading Actress for Kate Hudson, who plays Zu. Not only is Hollywood enabling films to cast typical actors, but they are also rewarding them. 

Casting ignorance within the film industry does not just impact the disability community, but every other marginalized community. We have recently seen James Corden playing a flamboyantly gay man in The Prom while he is a straight man. Gal Gadot is staged to be the next Cleopatra, which has faced criticism of whitewashing. Finally, Scarlett Johansson was cast as a trans man in Rug & Tug before quickly withdrawing from the movie due to backlash in 2018. These three A-listers show that your name is more important to casting rather than hiring a person of the category. 

Over 18,000 people have signed the petition to cancel Music, the film that has hurt and offended the autistic community. The lack of sufficient research combined with casting ignorance shows that the film is an inadequate and harmful representation of autism. My friends with autism are some of the kindest, most creative, and most brilliant individuals I have ever met, and stripping them of acting roles in favor of orthodox actors increases stigma.

Here is the petition against the release of Music: https://www.change.org/p/sia-cancel-the-film-music 

Gillian Massie

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