“Music”: Offensive Representation in the Media

Jamie Feldman, Staff Writer

Sia is a popular music artist, most well known for her songs “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart”. However, even against better judgment, she decided to take up directing and screenwriting. Her first project on this journey is a movie called “Music”.  “Music” is about a woman, named Kazu (played by Kate Hudson), who is a recently released inmate.  After her grandmother’s death, she became the caretaker of her younger sister, who is a non-verbal autistic girl named Music. Kazu, with the help of her neighbor Ebo (played by Leslie Odom Jr), goes through trials and tribulations until Music changes her life, because her existence as an autistic person is just so inspiring. 


From the outset, this film seems like pure inspiration porn, using their disabled character as a plot device to create inspiration for the non disabled characters in the film and audience. But, since Sia had been so adamant on Twitter saying that she researched autism for 3 years before creating this movie, and that it was a love letter to the autistic community,  people still had hope for it yet and rushed to see what amazing autistic actress she had hired to play Music. Lo and behold, the actress hired was none other than her neurotypical protege, Maddie Ziegler. Now of course this raised an eyebrow or two, because it seems odd that a movie which is supposedly a love letter to the autistic community hired a neurotypical actress to play a neurodiverse character. 


People immediately went to Twitter and asked Sia why this was? Her response was that she originally hired a non-verbal autistic actress but she was too overwhelmed on set, so she fired her and hired Maddie instead. “Yikes. I just cringed at the thought because though I didn’t know much about Sia, she seemed pretty unproblematic. I didn’t think that the movie was going to be terrible, but I did think it was a bad move to cast a neurotypical teen to play this nonverbal autistic character,” said Esther Adebi ‘24. Now there are three main concerns with this, one being that if the set was too stressful for this actress, Sia should have been able to accommodate her needs rather than giving up and replacing her with someone neurotypical. Two being that she, with her three years of autism research, should have been able to identify what may or may not cause sensory overload for someone who is autistic, and judging by her movie, which has many jump cuts, flashing lights, and bright colors, this did not phase her. Three, is that there are many accounts of her saying that she was working on a movie made specifically for Maddie. This begs the question of if this autistic actress even exists?


 Sia and Maddie Ziegler, in interviews, both discussed how she did not want to take the role of Music out of fear that people were going to think she was mocking them. Despite her concerns, Sia did not listen and forced her to do it, simply telling her that she would not let that happen. Sia used Maddie as a device to help her create this publicity stunt of a movie. On top of that, her responses on Twitter to the autistic community addressing these concerns were horrific. In response to an autistic actress saying that she, and many other people she knew, would have been happy to take the role, Sia responded with, “Maybe you are just a bad actor.” Now, this brings up a plethora of issues, not just with Sia but with the entire media representation of Autism itself. If we look back at characters such as Rainman, Forrest Gump, Sheldon Cooper, etc., these were all autistic characters played by neurotypical actors. “To me Rainman was like thirty something years ago, why are we still here. It’s really sad to me that this is not that much different than rainman. It’s like time stood still and all of our understanding of autism just didn’t happen,” said Dr. Joppa, the consulting psychologist at WFS. The fact of the matter is that any neurotypical actor hired to play a neurodivergent character is just ableism. Not only will neurodivergent actors play neurodivergent characters better than anyone neurotypical because they have the real-world experience, but also, any portrayal of neurodivergence by a neurotypical is, in essence, a mockery because it is based on common stereotypes. 


Word also got out that Sia partnered with Autism Speaks for this movie. Autism Speaks is a company that the autism community has expressed over and over their discomfort with. Autism Speaks donates very little money towards supporting autistic families, and only has two autistic members on the board. It talks about the autistic community constantly. The fundraising and marketing strategies it uses are based on fear and reinforcing the stigma around Autism, that Autism in itself is terrible. The company is searching for an “end to autism.” This in itself, again, creates the idea that there needs to be a cure, and that it is a disease. They are classified as an advocacy group and claim to help, while enforcing harmful stereotypes and ignoring actual autistic people who criticize them. If Sia did three years of research on Autism with autistic people, she would have known not to associate with such a patronizing group.


Many people were dreading to see the movie at this point, and for a good reason. The film showed four scenes of the characters using prone restraint to stop Music’s meltdowns. Restraint in itself is not an excellent technique to deal with a breakdown, and in most cases, it makes it even worse. “I am not someone who is completely anti restraint but there should be some sort of prevention approach to help them feel safe. The movie should not be coming out saying that this is what you do if someone is having a meltdown,” said Dr. Joppa. Still, prone restraint is especially dangerous and has killed autistic people in the past. Due to the weight on one’s chest while in a prone restraint, positional asphyxia occurs, which means that the compression on one’s diaphragm compromises their breathing. The fact that the film not only shows this but promotes it, calling it “crushing her with my love,” is irresponsible, disgusting, and dangerous. This became even more of an issue when it was discovered that the film was reviewed by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) before release, which informed Sia that the restraint shown is dangerous and needed to be taken out. Sia then ignored this until the ASAN published an article reporting that “Sia’s new movie is dangerous.” Sia went to Twitter and said that she would immediately take out all of the restraint scenes and add a warning to the movie’s beginning. She proceeded to delete her Twitter account shortly after that time. She has currently taken two out of the four restraint scenes, and there have been no reports of any form of warning being added at any point during the film. 


The movie also uses autistic stims as dance moves. “Even just seeing clips in the beginning, it was completely insensitive and inappropriate,” said anonymous. Stims are repetitive motions, such as tapping one’s foot, rocking back and forth, etc., that autistic people use to help regulate their emotions. They are a wonderful expression of feelings so intense that they are put into motion. That being said, they are not a dance move. Stims being used as simply a piece of choreography, especially when being done by a neurotypical person who is just imitating autistic stims, is a mockery of something already ridiculed and shamed in society. After the movie was released, Sia went on an interview to talk about and be praised by neurotypicals for her incredibly inspirational film. During one of these interviews, the interviewer stated, “here’s this person who can’t speak, you know she might as well be like an inanimate object like a wig.” In response to this, Sia smiled and nodded in agreement, saying “yeah,” then went on about a moment later to say how this was a love letter to the autistic community. To represent the autistic community, one first has to be able to see them as human beings, not inanimate objects like wigs. It is appalling that someone with such clear ableism as Sia is profiting from a misrepresented marginalized community. 


Along with being extremely ableist, this film also perpetuates the stereotype of the magical Black character. Ebo’s only purpose in the movie is to assist the White characters in their “quest.” He has no other purpose in the story and no additional background information or actual character development. “I was baffled by the fact that Leslie Odom Junior took this role. As soon as I saw the trailer, I was dreading yet another depiction of the Mystical Negro Trope. It was just disappointing,” said anonymously. This trope roots back to the late fifteenth and sixteenth century, where White authors told stories of Black knights coming to the rescue of White knights. This character is only there to fix the White characters and paints Black people as subordinate to White people. They also serve as an exception, allowing white America to accept this specific Black character when it benefits them, but not Black culture. In the song “Oh Body” in the film, Maddie Ziegler, a White person, darkened her skin and wore box braids. This suggests that the film was trying to portray her as more Black during the number for some completely unacceptable reason.


Despite all of the film’s complete and utter ableism and racism, Sia has not faced any consequences. In fact, “Music” was even nominated for two golden globe awards. This proves that both society and the film industry want to profit from minorities yet trample over their voices and opinions. People like to watch this film because it allows them to justify their ableism and racism. This movie was not a love letter to the autistic community but the caretakers of autistic people. I strongly do not recommend watching this movie because the people who made it should not profit from others’ exploitation. At the end of the day, all parties involved lose except for one, Sia, because sadly, even negative attention is still attention brought to her movie. This movie was just one big publicity stunt that minority groups had to pay the price for so that Sia could make money. She, like many in the film industry, values cash at a greater price than people.