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Singer Sia Faces Criticisms from Autism Rights Groups for Portrayal of Autistic Girl in her Film ‘Music’

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Photo source: HanWay Films

Autism rights activists have asked Australian singer and songwriter Sia and HanWay Films, the production company backing her debut feature film directorial titled Music, to cancel the film’s premiere for casting an actor with no developmental disability as an autistic teenager. The film, starring Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr., has been scheduled for an early 2021 release.

The trailer for Music released on November 19 and showed 18-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler, who appears in several of Sia’s music videos, playing the role of an autistic teenager. The trailer soon began to draw flak on social media from users who questioned why Sia had not considered casting an actual autistic actor to play the part of the titular character Music. On November 20, an online petition was launched by an autistic woman Hannah Marshall to cancel the film. Within a week, the petition has garnered 1,081 signatures.

Criticisms

One of the major reasons Sia faced backlash was over Ziegler’s casting as a nonverbal autistic teen, even though she is not autistic.

Irish actor Bronagh Waugh was among those who questioned Sia’s casting choices and pointed out that the portrayal of the character was offensive. “People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing,” she wrote.

Sia was quick to respond and wrote on Twitter, “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’s mention of the phrase “special abilities” to describe autism also didn’t sit well with Twitter users. According to the Disability Language Style Guide, “the word ‘special’ in relationship to those with disabilities is now widely considered offensive because it euphemistically stigmatises that which is different”.

Another user named Jordana Golbourn stated that the singer “should know better than to allow able-bodied & neurotypical to represent the disabled community”.

“I actually tried working with a a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie (sic),” replied Sia.

Earlier, replying to other criticisms, Sia had defended her choice of casting Zeigler and said, “(The) Character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum, they suggested I use Maddie.”

“The movie is both a love letter to caregivers and to the autism community. I have my own unique view of the community and felt it is underrepresented and compelled to make it. If that makes me a shit I’m a shit, but my intentions are awesome,” she wrote on Twitter.

While some of her fans came to her rescue, they were outnumbered by the people who were angry over Sia’s replies.

Who is Maddie Zeigler?

In 2014, Sia reached out to Zeigler, who was known for her performances as a child in Lifetime’s reality show Dance Moms, and asked her to appear in the Chandelier music video. The video clocked nearly 2 billion views on YouTube. Zeigler has appeared in several music videos of Sia, including Cheap Thrills, Big Girls Cry and her latest hit Thunderclouds. 

Credit – A screenshot from the official trailer of Music

How Sia reacted

Helen Zbihlyj, an actor and director of Community for ReWrite Media, wrote that many autistic performers, including herself, were available to perform on a short notice. “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic,” she wrote on Twitter.

Responding to her, Sia wrote, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

After waging a war with several from the autistic community, Sia’s ire came out in the form of a tweet which said, “Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”

Marlee Matlin, who is the only deaf performer to have won an Academy Award, asked Sia whether this was the response she was expecting when discussing such an important topic referring to the singer’s angry tweets.

Talking to Silverscreen India, Zbihlyj said that Sia’s comment made her laugh. “While I am also an actress, my career for over a decade has been doing community management for video games. Because of my career, I’m pretty used to internet trolls insulting me. It looked like just another internet troll. After all, this woman has never seen my work and doesn’t know anything about me. Upon seeing the account was verified, however, I was honestly concerned because clearly she must have taken my comments personally (and I never meant to offend, just to inform). I followed up with a response that we in the autistic community would love to have a conversation, and that we should talk rather than fight,” she said.

“Sia didn’t consult the autistic community but she promoted it as being a ‘love letter’ to the autistic community. Talking to one or two people on the autism spectrum is not representative of an entire group, and the portrayal in the film is indicative of that. The actress, who does not have autism, admitted her preparation for the role was watching autistic children on YouTube having meltdowns. These videos are often exploitative and don’t at all represent or portray the nuances of autism. It just reinforces negative stereotypes of people with autism,” she said.

View of the autistic community

Marshall in her petition mentioned “no autistic individuals were consulted on the film. Stereotypes are used throughout the trailer, and the visuals are nauseating to autistic people who would’ve wanted to see the film.”

“Sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there,” the National Autistic Society wrote in a Twitter post.

Talking to Silverscreen India, Marshall said, “I want people to see that autism doesn’t make us into monsters. We are human beings with our own feelings and opinions. And we want to be represented, just not like this. Sia is not representing us. She is representing a stereotype that paints us as mentally deficient sub-humans.”

“But this isn’t just a personal dislike. Sia is working with an ableist organization (Autism Speaks) to create a movie that insults autistic individuals. It’s hateful, to be frank,” she added.

Involvement of Autism Speaks

Twitterati got more infuriated when Sia cited Autism Speaks as a group that backed her film. Autism Speaks is an organisation that receives immense celebrity support, but has been condemned by several disability rights groups. Speaking about this organisation’s involvement with Sia’s film, Zbihlyj said, “Generally, when someone is doing a creative project- be it a movie, a song, or even a video game- they want positive support for it. To do this, they do research into organisations and people who are wanting to publicly be associated with the project. Choosing organisations that are highly controversial and potentially harmful to members of a community that are represented in the art is going to do the opposite of what the creators want to accomplish. While the controversy may give the project some initial publicity, the long-term legacy will be tainted by the negativity generated by it.”

Will Music be canceled?

While HanWay Films are yet to respond to Silverscreen India’s email, Marshall told her supporters  that she has informed the production house about the petition and the number of signatures it has garnered.

Recently, Anne Hathaway‘s character in The Witches was called out by people with disabilities for its problematic depiction of the character. Along with Warner Bros., Hathway too issued an apology and wrote, “As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really detests cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused. I am sorry.”

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