Sia's film Music misrepresents autistic people. It could also do us damage

Autistic people are used to being underestimated and infantilised – but for Clem Bastow it was still a shock to see it on the big screen

When my girlfriend and I sat down to watch Music, the directorial debut of Australian pop superstar Sia, we were well aware of the tide of outrage that had preceded it.

In casting her regular collaborator, Maddie Ziegler, as the film’s eponymous autistic character – and then doubling down when criticised for doing so – Sia invoked the warranted ire of autistic advocates and neurodiversity activists worldwide.

We did not enter the cinema with high hopes: we’re both autistic, and well used to both the tropes of Autism Stories™ in screen media and the misunderstandings they foster in the non-autistic community. We came, in a way, to bear witness.

It may relieve some, then, to hear that like much like Rain Man, Music isn’t really a film “about Autism”. Instead, it’s a self-improvement narrative punctuated by song-and-dance dream sequences – but rather than those fantastical moments giving flight to something uplifting or illuminating, the film is predictable and suffocating. Those dream sequences occur in a studio that seems to have had Fun Fur stapled to the walls in a great rush; even in its moments of fantasy, Music has a cheap, oppressive quality.

If its representation of Autism is based on tired tropes, so too does the film’s broader worldview (or lack thereof) extend only to a parade of abject stereotypes. These include but are not limited to the ephemeral western concept of “Africa”, and unedifying portrayals of Asian Americans, immigration, family violence, rehabilitation programs, the elderly, the poor, and even the concept of music itself.

Nearly everybody in the cast – which includes Oscar-nominee Kate Hudson as Music’s sister, Zu; and Tony-winner Leslie Odom Jr as her neighbour Ebo – moves through the film as though they are slogging through a hangover on a hot day. As Ebo, a stereotypically saintly immigrant, Odom Jr has a sad look in his eyes that suggests he’s making a mental note to enter a witness protection program every time his character has to utter the words, “In Africa …” or, “Back in my village …” He exists only to impart his wisdom so that Zu can better herself.

Leslie Odom Jr. in Sia’s film Music
‘The cast moves through the film as though they are slogging through a hangover on a hot day’: Leslie Odom Jr in Sia’s film Music. Photograph: Studio Canal

Ziegler’s performance as Music, however, is the standout disaster, serving us “Autism” the Rain Man way, all tics and whooping and capital ‘A’ Acting. She affects a honking, hiccuping gait occasionally punctuated by phrases – “make your eggs”, “braid your hair” – delivered in a voice that lands somewhere between a school bully mimicking Meryl Streep’s low register and a dog waking up from dental surgery. One wonders what support and guidance was offered to Ziegler, just 14 at the time of the production. (Sia claims, in a Variety interview, that on set Ziegler expressed concern that “anyone” – presumably autistic people – would think she was making fun of them, and that Sia assured her “honey, I won’t let that happen”. And yet.)

It’s not that autistic people don’t have meltdowns, or echolalia, or tics; there are elements of truth to Ziegler’s performance, but even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. Any pathos is undone by the (mis)understanding of Autism betrayed by Sia’s lyrics: “In my dreams my body does not control me” are the first lines sung. Music is gifted an AAC device to aid her communication, but it seems to only have two phrases installed: “I’m happy” and “I’m sad”. (For context, popular AAC app ProLoQuo2Go has a default setting of 4,750 unique words.) Music manages to both underestimate autistic people and infantilise them.

Autistic people are used to this, but somehow it’s still a shock to see it played out on the big screen: ah, yes, this is what people think of us. It’s especially upsetting when autistic characters with complex support needs, like Music, are presented as problems to be solved, at any cost.

At one point, Music experiences a meltdown, and neighbour Ebo rushes in, lying on top of her in an effort to calm her. “I’m crushing her with my love,” Ebo explains as Zu watches on. In reality, the use of prone or supine restraint has killed dozens of children – often ones on the Autism spectrum – and injured many more in US schools, juvenile justice settings and psychiatric facilities. Just last year, autistic boy Eric Parsa died when sheriff’s deputies allegedly placed him in prone restraint, taking turns sitting on him, for nine minutes. Eric’s “crime”: experiencing a meltdown in public.

Maddie Ziegler and Kate Hudson in Music, a film by Sia
Maddie Ziegler and Kate Hudson in Music. Photograph: Merrick Morton

Sia claims that casting an autistic performer at Music’s “level of functioning” would be cruel. Putting aside the fact that functioning labels are outmoded and offensive (indeed, “functioning” is rarely static), being nonverbal doesn’t necessarily mean lacking in agency. This begs the question: was it so important that Music’s characterisation play into stereotypical notions of what Autism “looks like”? What if “in [her] dreams”, Music’s body is, actually, exactly the same as it is in real life?

But let’s assume that Sia is being sincere in assuring us that a nonverbal performer, cast prior to Ziegler, found the production process too stressful: she could have still cast an autistic actress. Just this past year alone we’ve seen Lillian Carrier and Kayla Cromer captivate audiences in Josh Thomas’s Everything’s Going To Be Okay, while Australian autistic self-advocate and TikTok star Chloe Hayden is a star on the rise. It’s not that autistic people are underrepresented in acting classes (quite the opposite); more that filmmakers aren’t willing to give them a chance. If Sia was prepared to, as she claims, “cast thirteen neuro-atypical people” in supporting and featured roles, why not extend that approach to the role of Music herself?

The question of whether or not it’s appropriate for actors to “crip up” continues to roil Hollywood. There are occasional examples of non-autistic actors and actors without disability portraying these characters with grace and dignity (Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, Wesley Snipes in The Waterdance, Claire Danes in Temple Grandin). These rare performances require sensitivity, months of preparation, and close work with advisers with lived experience.

The performances “of” Autism that really excite me, however, are the ones that are truly authentic. Pixar’s 2020 short Loop, about a nonverbal autistic girl’s day out, featured the engaging vocal performance of Madison Bandy, a young autistic woman the filmmakers cast through a neighbourhood art centre. There are plenty of other examples.

It appears from Music’s plot and songs, however, that Sia had no intention of authentically representing an autistic experience. Perpetuating the notion of a rich –read non-autistic – fantasy world trapped by the flesh prison of the autistic body diminishes us all. Autistic people with complex support needs have value even without the song and dance. Music is just another hamfisted person-first narrative that depicts Autism as something “suffered”, by autistic people, but even more so by those who are “brave” enough to love them.

It may be tempting to laugh it off as a “so bad it’s good” camp classic, but unlike The Room or Sharknado, Music has the power (in playing to both Sia’s and Ziegler’s vast audiences) to do untold damage to the gains made by autistic self-advocates the world over.

Contributor

Clem Bastow

The GuardianTramp

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