“Music” by Sia Should Not Exist

March 8, 2021
maddie ziegler Sia Music review University of Melbourne

Annalyce Wiebenga

Content warnings: ableism, gaslighting, physical abuse, prone restraint, eugenics, drug references, racism

“Music” by Sia is an ableist nightmare that masquerades as a “love letter” to autistic people. Speaking over autistic people, and disabled people in general, has long been a one-way ticket to awards and adulation.

There’s too much wrong with this film to discuss in a single article. I will focus on ableist casting practices, Sia’s poor response to criticism, the film’s association with Autism Speaks, and the awfulness of the film itself.

Let’s Talk About Maddie Ziegler

The title character, Music, is a nonverbal autistic girl played by the allistic dancer/actress Maddie Ziegler. “Allistic” means someone who is not autistic. For many autistic folks, this was the first of many red flags, as the community has seen this type of casting result in extraordinarily insulting performances such as Rain Man (1988).

Sia claimed she tried to cast an autistic actress, but the working environment was unsuitable and therefore it was a supposed kindness to cast an allistic actress instead. There are two major issues with this:

First of all, if the working environment is inaccessible for a disabled performer, someone as powerful as Sia has the ability to change the working environment. I sat down with 2020 UMSU Disabilities Officer and 2021 UMSU Women’s Officer Srishti Chatterjee to comment on this issue:

“If you are making a movie on autistic people and you are making a movie where the centre character is autistic, then your movie set not being friendly to autistic people is not a comment on autistic people. It is a commentary on you.” 

Chatterjee suggested that any film set, regardless of whether the film is actually about autism, “should accommodate the autistic cast member.” The fact Sia “made a point about how she tried to reach out to autistic actors but no one was ‘good enough’, so she got an actor without autism to play an autistic character precisely shows her intentions.” 

Sia wrote the film about autism, “keeping somebody else in mind, and then she apparently went looking for someone with autism.” 

Autistic people make up approximately 1% of the population in Australia, but have an employment rate of less than 40%. Casting a non-autistic actress does nothing to improve the material conditions of real-life autistic people.

A minor at the time, Ziegler was aware that her performance in this role had the potential to cause a great deal of harm. Sia mentions in an interview with The Project that Ziegler “cried on the first day of rehearsals,” saying “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m making fun of them.” The adults in Ziegler’s life never should have put her in this position.

Buy a Ticket to Traumatown

Sia has repeatedly demanded that detractors of the film trailer should watch the film before making judgements about it, which effectively translates to “you can only criticise me if you pay me to traumatise you first”. 

But… here’s the thing. Trailers are designed to allow viewers to judge a film before they see it. As Chatterjee told me in our interview, “That’s literally the point.” For many people, including myself, the trailer was enough to spend that money on something else. Like chocolate.”

“But [it’s also] gaslighting. It’s telling people that ‘oh you have not interpreted me correctly. I have good intentions.’” It’s putting the blame on marginalised people for trying to protect each other. “The trailer did exactly what it was supposed to do and that is what Sia couldn’t handle.” 

Neurodivergent people chose not to watch the movie, and warned each other about it.“For a long time, neurotypical people have done this. They have silenced and they have put their lenses on neurodivergent people [without criticism] because that is how the culture industry worked.”

“It creates content that goes to the most palatable audience. Because no one ever thought that the people who won’t find this palatable will have the voice.” 

But now they do have a voice, thanks to social media. “Another autistic person on the internet… will be able to tell me that ‘this is wrong’. And so it saves us.”  It’s losing Sia money, and she’s angry about it.

Additionally, the artist has lobbed personal insults at disabled performers who stated they could have played the role, telling one actress “maybe you’re just a bad actor”. Sia has since deleted her Twitter, but screenshots are forever:

Source: Yahoo Finance, with consent from Helen Z

Autism Speaks, but Over Autistics

Sia is not the right person to create art about disabled people. Heck, she even refuses to use the word “disabled”, instead opting for nonsense such as “special abilities”.

Sia claims to have consulted with autistic people, but cited the eugenicist organisation Autism Speaks as a supporter of her film. Autism Speaks is infamous among the autistic community for promoting cure-seeking as opposed to accessibility for autistic people. Only 1% of donations to Autism Speaks actually go to autistic people and their families. In contrast, they spend 42% on lobbying and “awareness” and pay their executives upwards of $500,000

“I want 500 grand,” Chatterjee said wistfully as I read this out. 
Sia claims she had no idea they were a “polarizing group”, which suggests she didn’t listen to the autistic people on her project, or those people were not actually as important to the film as she makes it sound.

Even when “apologetic” for her behaviour, Sia uses functioning labels to describe an autistic person she knows; many autistic people despise these labels.

Chatterjee explains: “All labels about autism.. [are] about what autistic people are like to other people. It’s not about what autistic people are like, period. That is the denial of agency, the denial of employability, the denial of a voice. Everything. Sia should not have made a movie about autism in the first place.”

The Film Is Ableist as Heck

Content Warning: prone restraint (ESPECIALLY in the linked articles)

Leaked footage portrays Music having a public meltdown and being physically held down by another character. This is known as “prone restraint” and is both ineffective and remarkably dangerous. People have literally died. It is more effective to provide an autistic person sensory comfort such as a weighted blanket, or to carefully remove them from the situation, than to physically hold them down and cause further distress.

Sia has apologised for this scene, and another like it, will supposedly remove all restraint scenes from the film and include a warning label. But that does not erase the fact that she thought this was an appropriate thing to film in the first place. Nor does it erase the ableist nature of the film in its entirety.

In addition, even though sensory overload and comorbid photosensitive epilepsy are common among autistics, the film is filled with bright colours and strobing lights. “Music” was clearly not created with autistic and other disabled people in mind.

“It was extremely insulting to me as a neurodivergent person,” said Chatterjee, in reference to the restraint scene. “As a kid who grew up largely confused and triggered by loud sounds and loud colours and flashes and stuff, not knowing why this was happening to me, … in a culture that constantly shamed me for not being good enough, [it was insulting].”

Inspiration Porn? It’s More Likely Than You Think

Despite this absolute curse-fest, Sia has claimed this movie is a “love letter to caregivers and to the autism community”. Charlotte Gush from Teen Vogue notes that the wording of this statement betrays the film’s direction towards caregivers instead of autistic people. So, it should come as no surprise that Music is merely a plot device for her sister Zu’s redemption arc from drug dealer to caretaker (bearing in mind Sia as a white non-autistic woman does not have the range to discuss any of the complexities involved). Apparently, that’s all disabled people are good for.

Chatterjee had a lot to say on this subject:

“This is not a movie about autism in the first place. This is a movie about a neurotypical person experiencing minor inconveniences and then using that minor inconvenience to create a self-serving redemption arc for themself.”

“My experience with disability is my experience with disability. Am I very, very grateful that people have supported me? Yes. But should my stories centre those people? No, absolutely f*cking not!”

Upon receiving a Golden Globe nomination, Sia’s language shifted to claim the film is a “love letter to everyone who has ever felt they didn’t have a voice”. Deeply ironic, given she is silencing autistic people.

Screenshot taken by Annalyce Wiebenga

Finally… here’s the thing…

It’s not even a good movie

“Music” has been almost universally panned by critics and journalists. Johnny Oleksinski for the New York Post was so disgusted by the film that his every word drips with resentment for having seen it: “Was Sia wearing a two-toned wig in front of her face while she directed ‘Music’?”

Simran Hans for The Guardian takes a more measured but equally disgusted approach, pointing out that Music’s purpose as a character is “to absolve Zu from her troubled past.”

Ultimately, “Music” is another in a long line of stories that paint autistic people as tragedies and centre allistic caregivers as long-suffering heroes. To creators like Sia, autistic people are not whole human beings, but a goldmine for tragedy porn. These industry norms will continue for as long as autistic people, and marginalised people in general, are denied opportunities to tell their own stories. 

Non-speaking autistic blogger Mickayla points out that “Music’s very inception hinges on the idea that autistic people need to be spoken for, and therefore reinforces all the harmful ideas it’s [sic] predecessors have established.” Autistic people, especially non-speaking autistic people, deserve better than this.” 

There is so much wrong with this film that it is impossible to fully encompass it in this article. Heck, I didn’t even touch on the fact Music was supposed to be a biracial character and Ziegler is a white girl wearing dark foundation and, at times, afro-textured wigs. Ultimately, “Music” is not worth the money and should never have been made.

In the words of the great Srishti Chatterjee (yes, they asked me to address them as such), “If you are not an autistic person, if you don’t have the lived experience of autism, shut up.”

A big thank you to the 2020 UMSU Disabilities Officer and 2021 Women’s Officer Srishti Chatterjee for agreeing to an interview and the inclusion of their comments in this article. We often sit in our shared apartment ranting about injustices already, so this is just a natural extension of our friendship.