Sia's Musical Film "Music" and the Harmful Portrayal of Autism in the Media

Sia's Musical Film "Music" and the Harmful Portrayal of Autism in the Media

Ashley-Michelle Papon
12 minute read

Their partnership has been nearly a decade in the making. Sia, an Australian musical chameleon who spent years behind the scenes writing music for other performers, finally donned a too-large, two-tone wig when she was forcibly elevated from anonymity by shocking powerhouse vocals that surfaced on Flo-Rida's "Wild Ones," opted to lift others from obscurity in a similar enough fashion. 

Her first beneficiary? Maddie Ziegler, a talented teen dancer whose ambitions for stardom were overshadowed only by the size of her cerulean eyes that batted beneath too-long of lashes as she danced for her life under the barking orders of Abby Lee Miller each week during Lifetime's pee-wee league level dance championship reality show from 2011 to 2019. 

In 2014, Sia solicited Ziegler to portray an alternate version of herself in the music video—famously inviting her to do so via a Tweet—for the critically acclaimed and commercially successful single, "Chandelier," a track that more closely resembled a confessional about Sia's experiences with substance abuse and addiction. 

At 11, Ziegler could barely comprehend the complexity interwoven in the story seeking to be told through her slapdash steps, yet was nothing less than masterful in displaying a sophisticated understanding of the order within the chaos.

This appears to be an ongoing theme in the professional relationship between Sia and Ziegler, once again back in the headlines following the former's directorial debut. 

"Music," a bifurcated musical film that somehow nabbed two Golden Globe nominations and a myriad of criticism for its unfocused storytellinglackluster soundtrack, and a plot that lends to Ziegler unironically donning blackface. Given Ziegler's own history of making racially insensitive videos, it would be a relief if the criticisms about "Music" could end there. But kind of like with termites and ants, the presence of one problematic way of thinking usually indicates more not only exist but are certainly close by in a hive indicating trouble ahead.

In the case of "Music," Ziegler herself represents the hive. The 18-year-old, playing the eponymous Music with the same wide-eyed aplomb that made her a fan favorite during her "Dance Mom" days, moves through the film with her most noticeable feature being oversized, Beats-style headphones that convey to the audience that Music regards the world as a series of video clips. 

This framework could be entertaining, or at least forgivable, if intended to be autobiographical for how Ziegler navigates her post- "Chandelier" fame. However, the mistake is in choosing to render this the paradigm of "Music," an autistic woman whose placement on the spectrum is solidly nonverbal and whose story is told by two women who are self-identified as neurotypical rather than autistic.

Sia's creative choices in "Music"—and her abhorrent doubling down defensively against criticism, including that from the autism community, culminated in her suggestion that autistic actresses could not handle the role—is far from novel. 

After all, Hollywood has a long and frustrating history of deciding that marginalized groups have stories worth telling, provided it is done so by more socially acceptable people, such as former child star Mickey Rooney's turn as a put-upon Japanese landlord in the beloved "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

In the six decades since Truman Capote's literary darling captured the big screen, most of society has realized that white actors have no business being cinematic biographers of people of color. 

Much has been made about white actress Linda Hunt winning an Academy Award for playing Billy Kwan, an Asian male, in the movie adaptation of the novel, "The Year of Living Dangerously." But very little of the criticism around Hunt's portrayal of an Asian male took the time to address that Kwan's character was specifically written as a little person. While Hunt is indeed short, her stature is not the end result of dwarfism, as is the case with the character she portrayed. 

This kind of ableism is rampant throughout media depictions, and autism has consistently been a favored subject of interpretation. Usually, these portrayals ignore the existence of the spectrum, instead focus on autistic individuals fulfilling harmful stereotypes, particularly that of the gifted savant. 

This portrayal was first popularized by Dustin Hoffman opposite Tom Cruise in MGM's "Rain Man," but has more recently graced the small screen in CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" and ABC's "The Good Doctor." 

In all three portrayals, non-autistic actors have imbued their characters with halting speech patterns and visually obvious tics that noticeably separate them from their peers. 

To be certain, these are endearing characters, so it is fair to entertain the question: what is the harm?

The short answer is that the harm comes from reducing an entire group of individuals, with their own respective personalities and identities, to a single, one-dimensional representation that reflects less than 10 percent of the total autistic population. 

Defenders of these portrayals might be tempted to point out there's little chance of someone confusing Hoffman's card-counting, Academy Award-winning presentation as a vocally limited Raymond Babbitt with Jim Parson's Sheldon Cooper, a university professor whose Southern drawl makes his peculiar rules for order and superiority complex almost charming. But both portrayals correctly bank on belief that the appeal for the audience comes in the tradeoff for extraordinary abilities that surpass the drawbacks to existing on the spectrum. 

Raymond does, after all, get to enjoy a relationship with his erstwhile brother, who grows up over the film and eventually decides to look out for him; for his part, Cooper eventually marries a woman who displays many of his same character traits initially, which helps him to become less self-focused. Selfishness, in Cooper's case, is often the abbreviated explanation for his antics, and generally regarded as the most obvious manifestation of his presumed autism. While never explicitly confirmed, Parsons himself has given interviews confirming his belief that Sheldon's behaviors fit the mold for autism.

In actuality, autism is indeed a spectrum, and lived experiences, even with some common ground, are rarely monolithic. 

While "Music" gets away from portraying the autistic savant, it reinforces some of the same fundamental cliches by coaching Ziegler into once again contorting her face and body into uncomfortable configurations. But unlike the frantic, paranoid sprints of an 11-year-old in a flesh-colored leotard pirouetting across a dirty apartment, this incarnation has the adult Ziegler grunting and humming while twisting rhythmically out of step with her surroundings. Her tics also include exaggerated facial expressions, self-injury, and twitching, despite the reality that autism is, in many ways, an invisible disability. Yet this manifestation is less about the struggles actual autistics may have and more about confirming the bias of the audience that what plays out on the screen confirms the views they have of what autism is and how it functions.

This, similarly, helps flesh out the real trouble with the decision to let autistic roles be filled by non-autistic actors. They can pick and choose which character traits they capitalize on to sell the performance to people who themselves are free from the responsibility of living within the community depicted for quick entertainment. Even if the end goal isn't an abject parody, it nevertheless creates a situation where a performer can simply disengage from the baggage that actual autistics cannot simply drop at will. 

In one particularly controversial scene, Music is flanked by her supporters, who restrain her during an outburst in a scene that—at its most charitable—can be described as forceful hugging.

The use of restraints with autistic individuals is also controversial, regarded as both traumatic and dangerous. After all, in cases like Music's, where individuals are nonverbal, they may have no way of communicating to people involved that they are unable to breathe. The concern is not misplaced, particularly as the depiction showcases a selfish, inexperienced caregiver trying to force an autistic person to calm down in the middle of sensory overload. 

In a statement released by Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the use of restraints in this fashion is not only traumatic but also deadly and responsible for the deaths of "Max Benson, Eric Parsa, and many other members of our community." Gross goes on to point out that Sia's way to avoid perpetuating this harm is the very thing she refused to do: consult the autism community about a film that was, she originally insisted, a love letter to them (and their caregivers) in the first place.

Unfortunately, Sia's decision to write, direct, and ultimately make a movie about autism while also disregarding anything our community has to say on the subject reads an awful lot like a "Dear John" letter. Except in this case, the problem with "Music," much like representation of autism in the media as a whole, is undoubtedly a problem with Sia, rather than the autistic community. 

While Sia and her supporters have marshaled their defenses around the insistence that her intention had been good, that does not mitigate the harm the film perpetuates, especially in having Music star as a redemption vehicle for a self-centered, morally questionable character who ends up stuck with the role of caregiver to a vulnerable autistic. 

This kitchen sink realism, similar to the redemption trope of Cruise in "Rain Man," instead continues a pattern of behavior that autistic folks are all too familiar with when trying to look for individuals who not only look and act like themselves, but also reflect the wider truth that as a spectrum, autism encompasses a wide range of personalities and abilities. Music is, as much as she's anything at all, a prop.

What choices exist, then? "Cancel culture" is regarded as a real threat to the entertainment industry, arming politicians and artists alike with the fear that society has become so politically correct as to make deviations of opinions inherently suspect. Paranoia aside, boycotting "Music" is certainly one choice available to potential audience members, but especially given the uproar the film has already generated, probably not a particularly practical or effective move, if only because it fails to do anything meaningful about the injury such representations create for the autistic community. 

Some critics have opted to bypass turning the movie itself into a talking point, focusing instead on how it simply falls flat as any kind of film—despite the Golden Globe nomination for co-star Kate Hudson, "Music" holds just a 14 percent freshness rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes after being panned in numerous reviews.

In other words, we can take the movie to task for falling short of the lofty goals of being any kind of love letter to the autism community or its caregivers, and evaluate instead why accurate, authentic, inclusive portrayals are so difficult to find in the first place. Attributing this as the price of ableism is undoubtedly accurate but no less of a nonstarter when trying to divine a way forward.

In that way, the questions being wrestled with are not unlike the conflict of "Music" itself; in trying to be profound, it is both disastrous and harmful, creating a sense of unease about how society might respond, and yet never comes any closer to showcasing an authentic portrayal of what autism looks like because it fails to take into account that autism actually varies from person to person.

In fairness, such a reality is hardly limited to Hollywood. In a letter to advice columnist and doctor Keith Roach, a worried writer asks for suggestions on how to interact with an individual on the spectrum. Roach's feedback is simple, yet startlingly appropriate to likewise describe how to perceive and behave around the autistic community: remember that autistic people are human beings whose individual baseline behaviors are as diverse as they themselves. If this understanding were to be incorporated into media representations of autism, those on the spectrum might finally get the complex, nuanced portrayals they so richly deserve.

About the Author

Originally from a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, Ashley-Michelle Papon has made her home in northern California since 2009. In that time, she has been afforded numerous opportunities to passionately advocate for justice, especially in healthcare spaces. 

As an autistic woman herself, she understands the importance of education as it relates to recognizing autism represents a critical part of our total identity.

Her professional background includes working with a myriad of forward-thinking nonprofits devoted to similar groups whose identities represent more than the sum of their parts, including Better Beginnings for Babies, Debate Kansas City, Improving Birth, Migrant Clinicians Network, Northern Valley Indian Health, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) Speakers Bureau, Safe Space Winter Shelter, and Stonewall Alliance Center. She is a prolific public speaker, having granted interviews with the BBC’s Have Your Say segment on a panel with playwright Eve Ensler, as well as featured interviews on the medical advice show Ask Dr. Nandi, and the Joy Keys Radio Show. Her writing has been excerpted in several books and published at sources as diverse as The Kansas City Star, Adios Barbie, Streamline, and The Huffington Post. 

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