Sia’s Music – where is the harm?

Sia’s Music - where is the harm?

In February 2021, the film Music was released to the public. It tells the story of Kazu “Zu” Gamble, who becomes the guardian of her younger sister Music when their grandmother passes away. Music has autism and doesn’t speak, and Zu must learn to care for her properly with the help of her grandmother’s neighbours, while also struggling with alcohol and drugs. The film was directed, produced, written and scored by Australian singer-songwriter Sia.

At the time this article was written, reactions to the movie were severely negative, with a Rotten Tomatoes critic score of 9% and an audience score below 20%. While Sia has said she consulted with 13 of her autistic contacts, autistic and neurotypical viewers and reviewers have spoken up on mistakes, blind spots and dangerous behaviour demonstrated in the movie. To discuss these, the rest of this article will include spoilers to Music’s plot.

Good intentions vs. harmful results

It’s likely that Sia had good intentions when she made Music. However, even the best of intentions cannot make up for harmful results. Though the movie is named after the character, it focuses more on the struggles of Music’s caregivers. As incorrect or exaggerated portrayals of characters with autism increase, viewers start to take those portrayals as the truth. This can make it difficult for autistic people who do not fit these stereotypes, or even harm them if dangerous practices are portrayed as the right things to do.

The use of dangerous physical restraint during a meltdown.

Two scenes in particular have alarmed the autistic community. Both involve Music having a meltdown. In one scene, a character sits across her hips and leans forward onto her body, describing it as “crushing her with [his] love”. In another, Zu restrains Music face down, flat on the ground. This restraint can kill. Autistic people have died from similar forms of restraint, including students younger than the character.

Instead of physical restraint, other strategies to deal with meltdowns include:

  • giving people space
  • removing extra sensory stimuli (lights, sounds, smells, textures)
  • allowing stimming
  • allowing safe tools for regulation, such as weighted blankets, music or soothing videos
  • identifying triggers ahead of time and avoiding them or preparing for them

After this backlash began, Sia has said a content warning will be displayed at the start of the movie. 

The casting of a neurotypical actress

The role of Music is played by dancer Maddie Ziegler, who has worked with Sia on many previous projects. However, she is not autistic herself. Maddie voiced her concerns over the role to Sia, concerned that viewers would think she was “making fun” of autistic people. Sia reassured her that she “[wouldn’t] let that happen”.

There are autistic actors who could be cast in the role of an autistic character. Sia has said Music was originally played by another autistic actress, who found the shooting distressing. This is why she replaced her with Maddie instead of searching for other autistic talent. With that said, a neurotypical actor’s performance of autism can easily become an exaggerated parody of stereotypical traits, and disrespectful to actual living autistic people. An autistic person’s lived experiences would make for a portrayal that is less dramatized and more true to life.

Underuse of AAC

While Music has an AAC or augmentative and alternative communication device, it is severely underutilised. There is a scene that focuses on the kindness of a neurotypical character teaching her how to press buttons saying “I’m happy” and “I’m sad”, but she is not seen choosing her own button. Blogger and poet Niko Boskovic, who is also autistic and non-speaking, has noted that AACs usually have thousands of unique words programmed. Autism does not immediately correlate to low intelligence, and AAC has great potential to help people with disabilities communicate in both broad and specific ways.

Extremely bright scenes

A number of scenes involve bright lights, large areas of bright colours, and flashing lights. These can all increase the risk of photosensitive seizures. The bright scenes may also cause problems for those with visual hypersensitivity, i.e. they feel overloaded or overwhelmed by too much visible stimuli.

Response to criticism

While not directly related to the movie, Sia did not take criticism of Music well. When an autistic actor tweeted that her reasons for casting Ziegler in the role of an autistic character were simply “excuses”, Sia retorted “maybe you’re just a bad actor”.

Collaboration with Autism Speaks

Sia has also been known to work with Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization. However, the organization wants to get rid or cure autism instead of supporting autistic people and their families. It

  • has no senior leaders who are autistic themselves
  • has supported the idea that vaccines cause autism
  • reinvests very little of its funds to support autistic people and their families
  • has compared autism to a burden comparable to being kidnapped, dying of a natural disaster, or having a fatal disease.

While again not directly related to the movie, this known relationship caused autistic people on social media to be more wary of Sia’s intentions with the film, and more motivated to present their criticism.

Moving forward

Music may be taken as an opportunity to discuss and learn the actual realities of autistic people. Like neurotypical people, there are autistic people who have different personalities, skills, and coping mechanisms. No two are exactly the same. And in the words of disability rights activists, there should be “nothing about us without us”.

Resources

Alaina L. (2020) Sia, Stories About Autism Should Centre Autistic People. Period. [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://refinery29.com/en-ca/2020/11/10185250/sia-music-trailer-maddie-ziegler-autism-speaks-controversy 

Autistic Self Advocacy Network (2014) 2014 Joint Letter to the Sponsors of Autism Speaks [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://autisticadvocacy.org/2014/01/2013-joint-letter-to-the-sponsors-of-autism-speaks/ 

Elyse W. (2020) Sia Lashes Out At Autism Community Over Criticism Of Her Upcoming Movie [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sia-music-maddie-ziegler-autism_n_5fbc20d3c5b66bb88c60a4e3

Elyse W. (2021) Sia Says ‘Nepotism’ Is Why She Cast Maddie Ziegler In Her New Film [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sia-nepotism-casting-maddie-ziegler-music-film-autism_n_5ff37359c5b61817a538c163 

Helen B. (2021) Face the Music: Why Sia’s dangerous film doesn’t deserve a Golden Globe [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/sia-music-film-autism-maddie-ziegler-b1806871.html 

Jesse O. (2021) Sia film ‘Music’ criticized for ‘irresponsible’ depiction of autism [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://nypost.com/2021/02/15/sia-film-music-criticized-for-irresponsible-depiction-of-autism/ 

Matthew R. (2021) Sia’s directorial debut “Music” is a baffling and patronizing cringefest of ableist minstrelsy [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://www.salon.com/2021/02/10/music-sia-review-autism-maddie-ziegler/ 

Renee F. (2021) Sia Addresses Depictions of Lethal Restraint During Autistic Meltdown in ‘Music’ [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://themighty.com/2021/01/sia-music-prone-restraint-autistic-meltdown/ 

Reuben B. (2020) The Controversy Over Sia’s Autism Movie Music, Explained [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://www.cbr.com/sia-music-autism-movie-controversy/ 

Samuel S. (2021) ‘Music’: The Backlash Against Sia’s Autism Movie Explained [Accessed: 3 Mar 2021] Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/music-sia-movie-autism-controversy-maddie-ziegler-1569289