There’s been a particularly incendiary flame war on Twitter over the last few days regarding the singer/songwriter Sia and her feature film directorial debut. Set for a limited release early next year, Music tells the story of a newly sober drug dealer who becomes the legal guardian of her Autistic half-sister. Originally conceived as a drama, the film has morphed into a musical featuring 10 new songs by Sia. According to IMDB, Music explores two of Sia’s favorite themes: finding your voice and creating family.
Cast in the role of the neurodivergent teen is Maddie Ziegler, an actor, dancer, model, and author who is essentially Sia’s protégé. The two performers have a significant history, so much so that Ms. Ziegler thinks of Sia as a “godmother”. Ms. Ziegler has appeared as a dancer during many of Sia’s live performances, including at the historic Hollywood Bowl. Additionally, Ms. Ziegler stars in several of Sia’s music videos; her captivating turn as the mad girl in the videos for Chandelier and Electric Heart has accumulated billions of YouTube views. Maddie Ziegler has also performed alongside Sia on various television programs including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Dancing with the Stars, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Saturday Night Live.
That collaboration has been fruitful for the two performers is indisputable. But I doubt either of them anticipated the tidal wave of backlash that launched along with the trailer for Music, which dropped on November 19th, 2020. Much of the fury aimed at Music and its depictions of Autism is rooted in Sia’s casting of her non-Autistic protégé in the lead role. Of that, Sia has said via her Twitter feed that “she had tried working with a non-verbal girl on the spectrum, but that actress had found it unpleasant and stressful, and that it would be cruel, not kind, to cast someone with that level of functioning”. In her tweet Sia does not directly state that she had tried casting a non-verbal girl in the starring role. However, I still call bullshit: Sia announced the project Music at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, also declaring at that event Maddie Ziegler was cast as the lead.
Over the last few days, numerous Autistic actors have noted on Twitter that they would have loved an opportunity to read for the role of the non-verbal Autistic teen named Music. But there apparently was no casting call. From its inception, given Sia’s 2015 announcement, the film Music was meant as a vehicle for Maddie Ziegler. According to Marie Claire magazine, in her efforts to portray non-verbal Autism, Ms. Ziegler watched documentaries and studied YouTube videos of meltdowns as recorded by the parents of Autistic children. Of her research, Ziegler notes “What I realized during this film is that everyone on the spectrum is different,” she says. “Everyone is unique and beautiful in their own way.”
Personally, what I find unique and beautiful is honesty. I don’t believe that Sia earnestly searched for an Autistic actor to cast in the lead role in Music. As a former theater arts educator and performing artist, I can say straight up that it would not be so difficult. There’s a vibrant #actuallyautistic movement on Twitter and other social media, which would be a fine place to start. Additionally, I believe Sia is a creative and inventive artist, with quirky and forward-looking sensibilities. I truly believe that, had she wanted to cast an Autistic actor, she could have made that happen.
What I also find unique and beautiful are the ways in which #actuallyautistic individuals present their neurodivergence. I watched the trailer for Music, which looks like it may be a bomb. The film breaks into several fantasy scenes which are from the perspective of the title character Music, in which Maddie Ziegler mugs her megawatt smile in supersaturated and hyperkinetic song and dance sequences. It’s as if Autism is some sort of parallel universe of colorful wonders, a playful dreamscape where Willy Wonka meets HR Puffinstuff. YouTube comments on the trailer for Music note that many #actuallyautistic folks find the aesthetics grating and unwatchable.
In fact, the terrible irony of the trailer for Music can be found the scenes of Autistic teen Music, as played by Maddie Ziegler, wearing the over the ear headphones many people on the spectrum use for their sensory processing differences. So, we have a character who illustrates SPD, but her fantasy world is almost hallucinogenic in kinetics, color, sound etc. I doubt the character Music would even be able to watch herself as depicted in the fantasy sequences. This is a big WTF for me.
As an advocate for neurocognitive differences, I’m curious to see the ongoing impact from Music. There’s an active and contentious conversation in the media right now regarding the film; I hope that casting directors are taking note. There are plenty of neurodivergent individuals ready to contribute their skills to film, television and other media. In fact, I hope there’s an intrepid casting agent who realizes they can make their mark by representing neurodiverse talent. Until then, may films like Music become cautionary tales; the Autistic community is large, diverse, talented, and capable. They are worthy of representation, and have much to offer. With only 25% of disabled roles going to individuals with actual disabilities (both visible and invisible) Hollywood can do better.