Sia dropped the trailer for her upcoming movie Music, and activists and actors were quick to call out the singer for casting Maddie Ziegler, a non-disabled actor, as the autistic lead.
The movie, Sia says, is based on a close friend and also stars Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr. alongside Ziegler in the titular role.
The news you’ve been waiting for! ? Music, the movie written & directed by Sia + starring Kate Hudson, @leslieodomjr & @maddieziegler, will be arriving in early 2021! Watch a sneak peek of the movie right here. pic.twitter.com/w38L2UtIhJ
— sia (@Sia) November 19, 2020
The film follows the story of Zu (played by Hudson), who is estranged from her family but then finds her self as the sole guardian to her half-sister Music (Ziegler), a non-verbal autistic teen.
Viewers quickly expressed their disappointment in Sia for casting a non-disabled actor rather than give the opportunity to an actor with autism. Some even shared their disapproval of the portrayal of Music as a “broken” girl in need of fixing.
sigh. yet another example of Hollywood casting a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character. When doing a film about Autism, hire #ActuallyAutistic folks to work on it. https://t.co/wwyxdgPYDf
— Margaux Joffe (she/her) (@MargauxJoffe) November 20, 2020
Coolest, most talented, funny, kind, intelligent people I know. They are also the most under-represented and inaccurately represented group in our society. This kind of inaccurate, offensive representation causes so much pain.
— Bronagh Waugh (@bronaghwaugh) November 19, 2020
“Hollywood strikes again with another film where non-disabled actors play disabled roles,” one said.
“Having a neurotypical play an autistic person is offensive enough; rolling this trailer out at the start of #DisabilityHistoryMonth is a kick in the bloody teeth. No captions, either.”
Why does this give neurotypical and abled people WARM FUZZIES is the real question!?
What do they not see!?
How can people not see that the non-autistic people were the center of that ad… That non-autistic people ARE TELLING OUR STORIES!
WHY DOES THAT MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY!?
— ?Maelee Thee Zombie??♀️ (@Mae_DayJ) November 20, 2020
Sia responded to the criticism that this is pure ableism masquerading as inclusivity (that feels like a half-hearted token), but her responses fell flat with viewers.
“I’m so confused. The character is based completely on my neuro atypical (sic.) friend,” she tweeted.
“He found it too stressful bing non verbal, and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother.”
I agree. I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.
— sia (@Sia) November 20, 2020
I believe this movie is beautiful, Will create more good than harm and if I’m wrong I’ll pay for it for the rest of my life.
— sia (@Sia) November 20, 2020
Oof, centring yourself in the narrative ain’t it, Sia.
She claimed that she had two people on the spectrum advising her at all times – presumably during the writing and direction of the movie – and had “thirteen people on the spectrum in the movie”. That might be a cold comfort to activists.
Her responses continued to spiral into bitterness, nastiness (she said to one actor “maybe you’re just a bad actor”) and “FURY” as she continued trying to justify the movie’s choices against advocates and disabled people calling her out.
It’s because you’re showing yourself as someone who clearly didn’t put in the work to center disabled and #ActuallyAutistic people before making a movie profiting off of us. Who’s judging who here??#NothingAboutUsWithoutUs https://t.co/mHF9gzsCP0
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) November 20, 2020
The criticisms are valid, and so are Sia’s frustrations for being called out for doing a movie that, on the surface, looks nothing but good.
But, the fact of the matter is, more could have and should have been done in the production process – to cast a neuro atypical person in the lead, rather than Sia’s close creative partner, Ziegler, for one – to make the movie a truer showcase of disability and the people who live with it. Not performative tokenism.
Sure, the movie may not be explicitly mocking people with disabilities, but, as the critics say, putting them in the backseat (again) for a neuro-typical actor only further disables them and makes Hollywood and society less accessible.
The answer, as we’ve seen with actresses who played disabled characters before and faced criticism, is not to lash out. But to face it with grace and actually make steps to change.
Last thing I’ll say here. Not that we abeled folks deserve cookies for acknowledging our ableism but Anne Hathaway & Lupita Nyong’o are great examples of actresses who faced rightful critique over ableist performances & accepted the critique with grace. It’s not impossible!
— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) November 20, 2020
Image Sources: Instagram (@maddieziegler, @siamusic, @_musicology_)