On the 19th of November, Sia released the trailer for her first cinematic experience: ‘Music’. This film claims to portray the experiences of a non-verbal autistic girl, indeed, the unifying experience of life with autism – a claim which Sia no doubt expected praise for attempting.
On a surface level, the best of ‘Music’ can be assumed. Its titular character is not only a person with autism, but an autistic female – a demographic horrifically under-represented and under-diagnosed. I belong to this demographic and was hopeful for a piece of media within which I could see myself reflected. However, it is clear from a mere sixty-second trailer, this film exhibits only a gross and harmful stereotype of an autistic person, one which merely builds upon the reductive caricature given by popular media to those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).
There is very little media representation of ASD and even less representation which feels acceptable. Most content creators approach autism from the outside, rarely seeking the advice or approval of someone who has the lived experience of autism. ‘Music’ is an extreme instance of people external to autism choosing to produce an autistic narrative, and herein lies the problem.
Circumnavigating Sia’s own backtracking surrounding her reported three years of research for this film, obvious issues with its production begin to arise. Despite her claims of research, Sia neglected to consult any autistic creators in the writing or production of ‘Music’, instead using her previous experience of interacting with a non-verbal child as the basis for her titular character. Already, the eponymous character of Music, and her autistic presentation, is being filtered through the lens of an external and assumedly neuro-typical viewer. Although the use of Sia’s experiences could have been used to provide merely a sketch or placeholder of the character to be fleshed out by an autistic person who can vouch for the authenticity of Music, the playing of the character by the non-autistic Maddie Ziegler exacerbates the problematic writing of the film.
I would like to state I do not hold Maddie Ziegler responsible for the gross presentation of her character, and do not believe she should receive backlash for the position she was put in, a position she has repeatedly stated she felt uncomfortable in. Ziegler was a child when she was cast in 2015, a child who has grown with her name and image being synonymous with Sia’s brand. The pressure and expectancy for her to accept the role must have been great and to blame her for Sia not casting an autistic actor is naïve if not ignorant.
Sia’s refusal to cast an autistic actor, despite her claims otherwise (claims which are easily debunked via a quick glance at the production history of the film) roots itself in the heavy ableism which glosses every inch of the screen. When queried about the choice to cast Ziegler over someone who could authentically portray Music, Sia explained the set of the film was inaccessible. She had “actually tried working with [a] beautiful young girl non-verbal [sic] on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful”, making Ziegler the only ‘viable’ choice to wrap production. This statement from Sia is meant to placate those who have taken issue with her creative decisions. However, it merely makes transparent her motives concerning ‘Music’. This film may be about an autistic girl, but it is not intended for an autistic audience. The efforts cannot be made to accommodate the very people whose story Sia claims to value and wish to tell. At its heart, ‘Music’ is exclusionary, and meant only as voyeuristic ‘inspiration porn’ for an abled audience – although “[Music] can understand everything you are saying to her”, she doesn’t talk back, she cannot speak up, she exists only to be viewed.
‘Music’ can be nothing more than a harmful stereotype, one which leaves me sick to my stomach. Although it is inexcusable that no autistic people were consulted during the production of this film, it feels unbelievable that Sia did consult Autism Speaks, a ‘charity’ notorious for its regressive and negative ideas concerning ASD, whose logo of a jigsaw-piece hints towards their views of autistic individuals as missing or lacking a quintessential piece. Sia’s decision to coach Ziegler on how to ‘act autistic’ seems only apt within the context of this film’s production.
I have grown up disliking the various autistic characters who have ventured across my screen, to the extent that I actively avoid media which claims to show the autistic experience, finding such presentations too humiliating to withstand. The polarising response to the ‘Music’ trailer, though there are some out there already singing Sia’s praises and pretending to smell awards season in the air, makes me fearful for the young (diagnosed and undiagnosed) autistic people among us, who will no doubt internalise this and similar autistic stereotypes, as they are the only representation available.