Sia’s film showcases autistic stereotypes, not autism

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Sia performing on stage in her staple black and platinum blonde wig wikipedia commons

Blacklisted practices, inaccurate representation, and poor research – oh my!

The recent film Music by Sia has created a lot of controversy because Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actress, was cast as the main character who has autism. Teo Bugbee, a NYTimes critic, said that the pop star Sia’s feature directorial debut, about an autistic teenager, at times seems indistinguishable from mockery.”

The public has greatly criticized this film as it has been stated that Sia did not do enough research or consult those who actually have autism when making this film.

Her negligence and ignorance continue to inaccurately represent those with autism in the media, and to perpetuate wrongful assumptions and stigma surrounding neurodivergence.

In addition to the general inaccuracies throughout the film, Sia included a scene where Music, the main character, was restrained in attempt to calm her. This practice has been blacklisted by the autistic community, as it most often causes more harm than good. After receiving negative publicity for this scene, Sia tweeted saying that the scene would be removed from the film – this tweet was later deleted, and the scene remains a part of the movie.

After analysing this film and doing some research on autism spectrum disorder, Sia’s disregard for the autistic community when making this film begs the questions: What were her intentions with this film, and why did she ignore the requests from the autistic community to include them in the making and production of it?

It is no secret that Maddie Ziegler and Sia work very closely together. Ziegler, a famous dancer, is Sia’s goddaughter and has been featured in Sia’s music videos, red carpet appearances, and live shows. Ziegler is a very talented young woman, but she is not an experienced actress which makes me consider if she was the best person to fill the role of Music, a neurodivergent character.

There are many actresses that are autistic and would be wonderful in the role of Music, yet Sia chose to ignore that fact and stick with what and who she was comfortable with. In media productions, neurotypical people are far too often cast in the roles of neurodivergent characters, which continues to keep opportunities out of the hands of neurodiverse individuals, and allows for inaccurate representation of neurodivergence and thus is continuing to perpetrate stigma and general misunderstandings in society.

The depiction of autism in this film was very clearly just another example of the media depicting neurodivergence by using stereotypes instead of truth, research, and people’s lived experiences. This angle is widely taken and ignores the truth of what it is like to live with autism spectrum disorder in order to create something that is “more entertaining on screen.” This fact leads me back to the question of what Sia’s intentions were when making this film. Was it just to get press? Was it to make money? Why would Sia put out a film that obviously mocks autism and depreciates the value of those who live with it?

Most often, when someone hears “autism,” they have a very clear idea in their mind of who that person is and how they talk, act, and interact with others. This depiction is often incorrect, as most people have gained their knowledge of autism from a singular experience they have had, or from what they have seen in the media. Not everyone with autism spectrum disorder is the same and this fact is far too often lost in conversation, leading to many incorrect views and stigmas.

Sia’s lack of consultation demonstrates how little she values the lives of neurodivergent people and how little she values raising awareness and bringing truth to the autistic community. Prone restraint was used in this film as a way to calm the autistic character, Music; yet this practice has been deemed unacceptable as it has been documented to cause harm and in extreme cases, avoidable deaths. The positive depiction of this in the film is dangerous and can cause great harm to those with autism, as people watching this movie may believe that prone restraint works and could attempt to use it. Due to Sia’s lack of research, she is putting the wellbeing of those with autism spectrum disorder at risk. 

In a review on commonsensemedia.org, a reviewer with autism said, “As an individual with autism, I found this movie repulsive and violating. The title character is simply a caricature of autistic behavior. I found her performance hurtful and misleading. The glorification of Music “overcoming” her problems is just…..blegh. All the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, the dialogue feels about as graceful as a rhino in an antique store, and the artistic representation of the mind of an autistic person felt like an awkward 5th grade ballet recital. A mess of an experience you can’t wait to be over. All in all, I think this movie feels to me what blackface may feel like to a black person. Shallow, self-indulgent, and all-around offensive. Stay far away from this movie.”

As stated in this review, the film made a mockery of those with autism spectrum disorder and was very out of touch with the facts. The feelings, talents, and experiences of those who are neurodivergent were completely disregarded in the making of this film. It is quite disappointing that Sia chose to be so insensitive and ignorant in this film, because Sia has a huge platform and could have used this film to raise awareness, battle stigma, and educate people about the truths of autism spectrum disorder.

Reese Estwick

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