Behind Good Intentions: An Autistic Perspective on Sia’s Film Music

Despite claims of writing Music out of “nothing but love” for the autistic community, Sia’s angry response to autistic Twitter users proves the opposite

Lindsay Fortin // Contributor
GERALDINE YARIS // Illustrator

Sia hides behind a porcelain mask of good intentions. It’s pretty, easy to trust. But it’s also just that—an object easily put on and easily taken off. It lacks anything real and sturdy that would turn into something more steadfast, more true. It’s also easily broken.

Sia came under intense scrutiny when the trailer for her movie Music, which follows a nonspeaking autistic girl, was released. Creating anything about an autistic person when you’re neurotypical is not only a difficult undertaking filled with massive amounts of research but also a huge moral and social responsibility. Autistic people, like many disabled people, still fight to be seen as equals to their neurotypical and able-bodied counterparts. This responsibility is doubled if someone is non-speaking or visibly disabled, and it’s one that Sia completely disregarded.

The only way she could have avoided this would’ve been to involve autistics with writing, directing, acting, art direction, and production—essentially at every level. Only we know the problems we face as a community and how that translates into real-life discrimination. Only we could have prevented this mess and turned it into something great.

The root of the controversy lies not in Sia casting a neurotypical actress to play a nonspeaking autistic character, but in reality, it goes much deeper than that. Sia claims to have spent three years on research for this film. I find that difficult to believe because she doesn’t seem to know the most basic facts about autistic people or the primary issues that we face as a community. It’s especially important to understand and avoid stereotypes when you’re writing about a marginalized community

Most people don’t believe that I’m autistic. Many people tend to think of autistic individuals as “simple,” or “not all there.” This is especially true for nonspeaking autistics. Choosing to depict a nonspeaking autistic girl’s inner world as full of garish primary colours, rainbows, and simple shapes is not only insulting but highly irresponsible. It doesn’t matter that this style is consistent with her repertoire—in this context, it’s damaging, and Sia should have known better. The only way she could have avoided this would’ve been to involve autistics with writing, directing, acting, art direction, and production—essentially at every level. Only we know the problems we face as a community and how that translates into real-life discrimination. Only we could have prevented this mess and turned it into something great.

The only experts on autism are autistic people, and this was never her story to tell.

It’s true that I haven’t seen the movie and that I’m basing my opinion off of the trailer and a music video for the film. I wish I could say that I’ll give the movie a chance and that I might be wrong in my assumptions, but Sia has mismanaged this narrative at every level. She uses functioning labels, which are not only reductive but wildly inaccurate. She patronizingly calls disabilities “special abilities” and doesn’t know that disabled is not an offensive term. Part of Maddie Ziegler’s (the actress who plays Music) research was watching invasive meltdown videos of autistic children. And worst of all, she aligned herself with Autism Speaks, which many autistics consider to be a hate group that likens autism to a disease that should be eradicated. Their infamous “I am Autism” video only scratches the surface of their beliefs. All of this points to an irresponsible lack of knowledge entirely inconsistent with her “years” of research.

When you’re autistic, you often come across eugenicist rhetoric aimed at you. People on social media discuss finding the genes that cause autism and systematically weeding it out as casually as if they were deciding whether or not a top in a store suited them. And of course, we all know the people who would rather let their infant die than be vaccinated. Sia could not even begin to imagine the weight that carries. She cannot understand the weight of her decision to create something centred around an autistic character and how a piece of media can influence people’s already warped perceptions. She said herself that she has her own “unique view of the [autistic] community,” which is apparent. If she was really an ally, she would’ve listened to us. But instead, Sia hurled insults at autistic Twitter users for their criticism about the movie, growing instantly defensive and insisting that she was in the right rather than taking the opportunity to learn.

This movie should never have been made. It reeks of a saviour complex and inspiration porn. She even said, stating that the community was “underrepresented,” and that’s what “compelled [her] to make [the movie.]” There’s one thing that’s worse than no representation, though, and that’s harmful, inaccurate representation. The only experts on autism are autistic people, and this was never her story to tell. It doesn’t matter if her “heart has always been in the right place,” as she claimed. Intent will never negate impact.

1 Comment
  1. I’m really curious how this representation is inaccurate? Because it isn’t your experience, does it mean that it isn’t valid. Over and over in media, we see representations of “high functioning” people with autism, rarely do we see people who are greatly affected by it. Non-verbal people also deserve representation and because their experience is not the same as yours does not make it an invalid perspective. Verbal or communicative representations of autism are not the only ones that matter and they also do not necessarily empathize with nor understand those who have been non-verbal and non-communicative their entire life.

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