Sia causes controversy with 'ableist' film

Gemma Powell discusses the importance of neurodiverse casting amid Sia controversy

Gemma Powell
2nd December 2020
Media outlets across the globe are reporting that Sia has received backlash for not casting an autistic actor for the main character with autism in her new film Music (2021). Whilst this may be the focus point of media attention, it is not the only issue surrounding this film and has highlighted the problem of ableism in the film industry and society, as a whole.

Music is about a non-verbal autistic child, who is cared for by an older sister with addiction and clear mental health issues. The casting of Maddie Ziegler, Sia’s long-time collaborator for music videos, is controversial because she is not neurodivergent. Sia claims to have tried to work with a young non-verbal autistic girl on the film before working with Maddie, but the environment and the working schedule was too stressful for her.

This is, of course, something directors may face when working with neurodiverse actors. However, Sia could have tried harder to provide more reasonable adjustments to allow the young actress to work. It seems like Sia and the team behind her were not willing to make a longer filming schedule simply for monetary reasons.

Image: IMDb

This film is not the first film to be ableist, nor will it be the last. Forest Gump (1994) shows a person with an intellectual disability, which many have assumed to be autism. As well as being played by Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, Toy Story), a completely neurotypical actor, the butt of the joke is often his intelligence and good things didn’t happen to him until his leg braces came off. Rain Man (1988) was based on a disabled man, who in real life did not have autism but in the film was institutionalised for having autism. Many of these classics have done great harm to the autistic community.

However, poor casting is not the only thing Sia has done to harm the disabled community. In a series of tweets, Sia has used the term ‘special abilities’ instead of disabled, as well as suggesting that a disabled person is simply a bad actor. Not only did she undermine an autistic person publicly to millions of her followers, the continued use of ‘special abilities’ and other coded language immediately implies that ‘disabled’ is a bad thing to be.

Sia should have researched for her film better and if she had more autistic people on board the project, then this issue would have been raised immediately

Sia’s biggest mistake was working with Autism Speaks. The controversial group advocate for a cure for autism and have endorsed invasive and potentially dangerous treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy for autistic children. Many of the autistic community consider this charity to be a hateful group, who suggest, rather than the world learn to adapt around us, we are a burden on the world. Sia should have researched for her film better and if she had more autistic people on board the project, then this issue would have been raised immediately.

After watching the trailer, it is obvious why the autistic community are quick to call Sia ableist. The character immediately falls into stereotypical autistic tropes, such as a constantly dazed smile, as if the character is always on cloud 9. Phrases like “she sees the world in a completely different way from us” and other cliches are played over a seemingly bizarre and hallucinatory rainbow world, that many have remarked would set an autistic person with colour sensitivities into sensory overload. Other users on YouTube also remarked about the lack of captions on the trailer, meaning it is completely inaccessible for the hard of hearing.

Many of us in the autistic community have previously listened to Sia’s music to uplift us in times of darkness with our disability but this so-called love letter hasn’t made me think ‘I am titanium’. It’s left autistic people feeling rather like tinfoil.

Featured Image: YouTube, Wikimedia

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