Sia's new movie indicates Hollywood still hasn't learned the most important lessons about disability

Hannah Shewan Stevens
·5-min read
Photo credit: Sia/Youtube
Photo credit: Sia/Youtube

From Digital Spy

Over the years, films depicting the experiences of autistic and disabled people have become instant awards bait, but only for the neurotypical and able-bodied actors who play 95% of characters with disabilities. It is in this landscape that the trailer release for Sia's new film Music, starring Kate Hudson, debuted.

Music is a musical film which follows Zu (Hudson), a newly sober drug dealer and self-saboteur who finds herself the sole guardian of her teenaged, autistic half-sister, Music (Maddie Ziegler). Zu is a free spirit barely able to take care of herself, let alone her sister. She struggles with this new responsibility but soon learns that life's obstacles are made easier with a little help from a friend, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr), a neighbour whose own family story makes him someone Zu can learn from and rely upon.

The synopsis adds: The film explores the tenuous bonds that hold us together and imagines a world where those bonds can be strengthened in times of great challenge, while fantasy musical sequences show how the title character views the world.

Photo credit: Sia/Youtube
Photo credit: Sia/Youtube

Given its premise, there was the chance that Hollywood could have walked the inclusive walk as well as talking the talk. Instead it proved its dedication to excluding neurodivergent actors from narratives claiming to represent their experiences.

The film casts teen dancing sensation — and neurotypical actor — Maddie Ziegler in the lead role of a non-verbal, autistic girl.

On-screen autistic and disabled representation is very rare — GLAAD's 2019 study revealed 3.1% of characters on TV have disabilities. One would imagine then that Sia, who claims to care deeply about the disability community, had a responsibility to ensure that her film accurately and authentically depicted the community. And yet, by casting a neurotypical actor in the lead role, just like Freddie Highmore in the Good Doctor and Keir Gilchrist in Atypical (and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and, and, and), Sia has chosen to sideline neurodivergent people.

Photo credit: Sia/Youtube
Photo credit: Sia/Youtube

This has united many in the autistic and disabled communities against her, especially after she claimed that it would have been cruel to use an actor who had Music's "level of functioning." The autistic community have been advocating to get rid of functioning labels for years, so it looks like Sia's research did not even reach the shallow end of the pool.

That the controversial charity Autism Speaks (which has been consistently and publicly denounced by the neurodivergent community for promoting 'curing autism') is a supporter of the movie only raises more eyebrows. Autistic and disabled actors have long told stories of the film industry's inaccessibility and unwillingness to adapt, which is why we continue to see so many disabled and autistic roles diverted to able-bodied actors.

The film studio could have provided adjustments to make the set accessible for an autistic actor, the schedule could have been extended to accommodate their needs and the project might have delivered a beautiful and authentic depiction of the life of an autistic girl. Instead, non-autistic people have created a film that will only succeed in inspiring other non-autistic people.

Photo credit: Sia/Youtube
Photo credit: Sia/Youtube

Comparatively, Sarah Paulson's most recent film Run cast a disabled actor in the disabled role, something that should not be a revolutionary decision. There is precedent for neurodivergent and disabled actors but Hollywood continues to prioritise securing awards gold over creating accessible sets.

Justifications for the practice known as "cripping up" span from cost effectiveness to wanting to depict the character before and after developing a disability, but these are just excuses for feeding the rampant ableism of the Hollywood machine. And Sia's non-apology on Twitter has only highlighted the problem further.

She wrote on Twitter: "I cast thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as f**king prostitutes or drug addicts but s as doctors, nurses and singers. F**king sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place."

As neurodivergent and disabled writers are a minority in the film industry, neurotypical and able-bodied people, who cannot begin to understand the experiences they are trying to depict, write a significant majority of films about disability.

Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan - Getty Images

To see authentic depictions of neurodivergency and disability on our screens, studios must hire writers who actually understand what it is like to be autistic or disabled.

The film industry is way behind television in the race for accurate disabled representation. Dozens of TV shows have used disabled actors for disabled roles, including Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad and Sally Harper in Call The Midwife, but Run is the only recent example of a disabled film role being filled by a disabled person.

We may never get to the bottom of exactly how Sia researched and produced this film, but it is clear that good intent is irrelevant when the potential damage outweighs any educational benefits.

Photo credit: Sia/Youtube
Photo credit: Sia/Youtube

Until the film is released we will not know for sure if the characterisation of Music is yet another caricature of autism. However, regardless of the quality of the product, we believe the film cannot hope to accurately depict the experiences of autistic people because it was not made by or for autistic people.

Sia's mistake is a window of opportunity for all storytellers to question their own work, so that they can avoid reinforcing the same tired stereotypes disabled people fight every day. Filmmakers can transform the way autistic and disabled communities are represented if they just paid attention to their rallying call: nothing about us without us.

Music will have a limited release in February 2021

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