I’m actually hesitant to write this article because if my writing encourages even one person to check this movie out—even to hate to watch it—I’ve done a great disservice. Basically, since its idealistic conception, pop musician Sia’s first attempt at directing a feature film has been met with strong—and honestly, very constructive—criticism. I’m not here to criticize or question Sia’s musical talent; she obviously has a passion for music and a lovely voice, but when it comes to movies, well, let’s just say that I hope she doesn’t quit her day job.
If you’re unfamiliar with this movie and the furious reaction it has warranted from several communities, this is where you should be; I’m going to do a summary of this movie and the process in which it was made, and explain why you should hate it as much as I do.
To begin, I want to preface this article by saying that I have not personally watched this movie, which is definitely a bold statement because this article has all the trimmings and trappings of a movie review; now, there are three main reasons why I didn’t watch this movie:
I am not interested in giving Sia even a penny of my money for this movie.
I will not encourage her by paying her for this. Every person who watches this movie is giving her money, encouragement, and condoning her behaviour.
I am not a person with Autism.
Although I have empathy for others and listen to others’ voices, I cannot and will not suggest that I understand what it means to be a part of the autistic community. If people with autism want to watch this movie and criticize it or use it as a teaching tool, I totally understand. But as a neurotypical person, I can’t in good conscience give my money to a movie that is so outwardly harmful to a community that I am not a part of. I’d much rather listen to autistic voices and their opinions on this movie than try to understand it myself.
Although I will reference this movie and what other people have to say about it in this article, I’m less interested in talking about this movie than talking about the process in which it was made and the culture surrounding it.
Consider this article as less of a movie review and more of a “shitty behaviour” review.
Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s start at the beginning.
When we hear that a pop star is directing a movie, I think that we’re in store for something that fits the narrative of a western musician. People tend to gravitate to what they know, so perhaps when some of us heard that Sia was writing a movie, we thought it would be about life as a musician or a singer, a dancer, a woman in a large and exploitative industry; well, we were wrong.
Sia decided to create a movie centred around a subject that was far out of her realm of experience: living as a person with autism. Now, it can definitely be argued that a neurotypical director can create a movie about autism. With the money and notoriety that Sia has, she definitely could’ve consulted with autistic groups, experts in the field of autism and neurology, actors with autism, and perhaps created something beautiful. Instead, the movie Music was written and came off as a very uninformed woman’s idea of what it means to be a person with autism, complete with insensitive stereotypes and borderline bullying tactics to invoke emotion from the audience on behalf of a child with autism.
From the word “go,” this movie was so backwards with its casting. Starring Maddie Ziegler—eighteen-year-old long-time collaborator and Goddaughter of Sia—and Leslie Odom Jr., and Kate Hudson, immediately, the giant red flag is the lack of people with autism in this movie about people with autism!
There have always been long debates about who can play what roles, but my own general opinion is that while there are plenty of roles for able-bodied and neurotypical actors, there are very few for disabled actors, especially regarding actors with autism, as movie sets can be very over-stimulating for someone who is sensitive to loud noises and bright lights.
When a specific role is meant to portray someone with a disability, then that role should be given to an actor of that particular disability. This is particularly important because it firstly creates normalcy of including disabled actors in major motion pictures and actively showcases and celebrates talent from a wider variety of people. Secondly, it’s respectful to cast disabled people for disabled roles. Disabled people have seen a lot of able-bodied people pretend to have their disability (usually for comedic or bullying purposes) watching an able-bodied person on television faking a limp or a neurotypical girl pretending to have an emotional meltdown is a remnant of the ridicule and oppression they may face, regardless of intention from the director or actor.
The Twitter Freak-Out and Disrespect to the Autistic Community
When it was announced that eighteen-year-old Maddie Ziegler would be playing the role of a fourteen-year-old teenager with autism Music Gamble, there was an immediate backlash in the form of heavy criticism from both the autistic community and just general people who were absolutely shocked at the obviously problematic decision. As I explained earlier, people didn’t approve of or understand the foolish decision of not casting a person with autism for this role, thus outwardly isolating the community you are trying so half-assedly to represent.
Both fans and condemners of Sia came to Twitter to air grievances, talk about the situation, and reach out to Sia herself to see what she has to say about the movie and the casting she’s in charge of.
Sia immediately doubled down on her decision, refused to take criticism, and sent out some mean and all together cringey tweets. The forty-five-year-old singer acted like a teenager getting into Twitter beef. She seemed to immediately forget that the people she was talking to were her supporters, fans, and members of the autistic community, who she claims to love and support much.
The Twitter feud between Sia and her fans and critics was quickly deleted, but luckily, Variety.com compiled the tweets, so they remain on the internet forever. Amongst a slew of backlash, the outwardly very childish Sia tweets: “Grrrrrrrrrr, Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”
As she defends herself, she continues: “I cast 13 neuroatypical[sic] people, three trans folk, and not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers. Fucking sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.” She also wrote, “I had two people on the spectrum advising me at all times.” While obviously there isn’t a way to prove if Sia did have advisory for her decisions or not, there’s a difference between receiving consultation and actually taking the advice. I can’t imagine that many professionals and advocates green lighting this project, so at the very least, she had these people on set and just didn’t listen to anything they had to say.
I’ll also say as a petty aside, the word “prostitute” is considered an outdated term and shouldn’t be used outside of sex workers themselves; many sex workers view the word “prostitute/prostitution” degrading—I guess Sia was just not out to make friends that day.
The Twitter feud (Sia v. everyone) culminated when @HelenAngel tweeted at Sia “Several autistic actors, myself included … We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that — excuses, The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic.”, and Sia (apparent lover of the autistic community) tweeted back just six words: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”. Real Classy.
Several other things happened and were said during this infamous Twitter dumpster-fire, but I’m going to save it for my other points. Basically, Sia had a full temper tantrum on Twitter and actively bullied the community that she claims to represent, not a great start to the movie hype and release.
The Autism Speaks Affiliation
So, as we know so far, basically, the more Sia spoke out on Twitter, the more she dug herself a hole, and the worse she ended up looking. When she was asked by many people critiquing her film, what research did she do to prepare for a film in which she was to represent a community that she was not a part of, she took to her very angry high-horse once more? She tweeted: “Duh. I spent three fucking years researching, I think that’s why I’m so fucking bummed.” When pressed further, she cites Autism Speaks as her leading consulting organization.
If you’re not familiar with Autism Speaks, you might be thinking “Well, at least she used a well-known organization to back her up, if they’re okay with it, what’s the problem?” That’s definitely how I used to think as well. Autism Speaks has become one of the nation’s leading groups regarding autistic representation and teaching. In reality, many people with Autism have major issues with Autism Speaks and how they treat people with Autism and Autism in general.
Autism Speaks has been referred to by the autistic community as a hate group that seeks to rid the world of Autism as if it’s a deadly disease. At the same time, many people with Autism feel that their Autism is part of who they are and just simply wish to educate others rather than be rid of their Autism.
The Washington Post has done a fabulous and very well-researched article about how dangerous Autism Speaks and the rhetoric is spewed. The article cites a video called “I Am Autism” Where Autism is personified as a malevolent force that seeks to destroy families, marriages, and lives. Campaigns like this—especially as there is no cure for Autism—villanize people with Autism and actively condones violence towards them, as if a person with Autism is possessed and everyone around them must protect themselves from the tainted person.
Autism Speaks seems to have at least one thing in common with Sia’s Music: there seems to be little to no actually autistic representation. Started by two neurotypical people, Bob and Suzanne Wright (who have a grandson with Autism), Autism Speaks often takes the form of a resource for how neurotypical people can better “deal” with the people with Autism in their lives, instead of focusing on resources and inclusion for actual people with Autism.
I could write a whole article about Autism Speaks, and maybe one day I will, but for now, it needs to be recognized that Autism Speaks is not a great resource for the rights of people with Autism or the disabled in general.
Founded in 2005, criticism has been very outward since pretty early on in Autism Speaks infancy. The terrible “I am Autism” video was posted in 2009, over a decade before Music’s release. It took me one Google search on Autism Speaks to find literally hundreds of articles and videos explaining how they’ve harmed the autistic community; if Sia has actually done “three fucking years” researching Autism, she would’ve come across this—honestly, I think if she did “three fucking” minutes of researched, or talked to one “fucking” person with Autism, she would’ve come to the conclusion that Autism Speaks sucks, and so does the concept for her movie.
The Nepotism and The Original Intention
So honestly, Sia, between us gals, why did you cast Maddie Ziegler to play a girl with autism? Why? Well, lots of people were very interested to hear the answer on this one, but Sia didn’t really give one…unless you read between the lines. I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s just a simple case of nepotism without regard for who it may affect or harm.
During Sia’s twitter freak-out, in attempting to defend herself, she said “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie,”. So, I think though Sia was trying to cover her ass, she exposed it even further with this comment.
Primarily, she’s admitting that the set of a movie that she’s in charge of was not accessible or inclusive to the people with autism who she claims to be trying to represent—creating an ableist space for a movie about disabled people is not a good look.
Secondly, although she could be lying or telling the truth about casting a girl who was non-verbal as Music (although the movie never specifies where Music lies on the spectrum, we’re meant to understand that she is mostly non-verbal), I believe that her original intention was always to cast Maddie Ziegler as the star from the very beginning. This isn’t me wildly speculating or starting drama; I got this impression from Sia’s actions—and more importantly—her own words.
It’s no secret that Maddie Ziegler and Sia are very close in both their professional and personal lives. Maddie is featured in most of Sia’s music videos, including the very controversial music video for her hit song Elastic Heart, starring both a thirteen-year-old Maddie and a twenty-nine-year-old Shia LaBeouf dancing together in a cage, both in underwear. Beyond working together professionally, in a 2019 clip of The Tonight Show, Maddie Ziegler tells Jimmy Fallon that Sia has been legally appointed as Maddie’s Godmother.
Whether you find the Godmother thing weird or not, there’s definitely at the very least a career co-dependency there, and finally, months after her Twitter meltdown, Sia admitted—again while trying to defend her decision to cast Maddie backwardly—that she cannot and will not do a project without Maddie Ziegler. She says, “I realized it wasn’t ableism — I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well — but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without her,” When I told you I took my opinion from Sia’s own words, I bet you didn’t think it would be this on the nose, huh?
I don’t understand why if she needed Maddie to do the project with her, why not write about a role that Maddie could comfortably play? Or make Maddie a role just for her in the movie? There’s no way to justify the casting in this movie—and if there was, “I just love working with my Goddaughter!” would definitely not be it.
I bet you didn’t see this one coming! At this point, it kind of feels like Sia is on a personal mission to annoy and alienate every community from watching her movie—and it’s kind of working. Twitter autism activist account @Autisticats puts together a great Twitter thread analysing the movie and the implications behind it, where they immediately point out the blackface and cultural appropriation in the very first scene.
In this beginning scene, Maddie Ziegler (as Music Gambler) is wandering around a dream sequence where she is portraying very heavy and borderline comical stereotypical autistic mannerisms (we’ll talk about this in a moment) and wearing thick black box-braids in her hair that are shaped like earphones. Why box-braids on a white woman are culturally appropriative and problematic is a whole other article, but we’ll talk about that another time for the sake of simplicity. Maddie Ziegler’s hair is naturally thin, dirty blond. She has a very thick raven-black wig on that is braided in a traditionally black hairstyle, and her face (whether it be make-up or lighting) is significantly darker than her natural shade.
I have to say; this is not a good start to a movie that was already hated from its inception and started off having a lot to prove.
Meaww.com compared how Maddie Ziegler normally looks vs. how she looked in the opening scene to Music.
The Harmful Stereotypes
The opening scene (yes, the one with the cultural appropriation) is available to watch on YouTube, as it also serves as a music video for Sia’s song “Oh Body,” and I have to say, if you want to understand why it’s disrespectful to cast a neurotypical person as a person with autism, all you really have to do is watch this one two-minute clip. Honestly, I’m starting to think I’m wasting my time writing this article when I could just post the link to this video and let it speak for itself.
This clip is just two minutes of Maddie Ziegler walking around making faces and making gestures that are meant to mimic autistic stimming to the beat of the song. If you’re unfamiliar with what “stimming” is, essentially, many people with autism—from children to adults—use certain hand and even facial gestures to calm anxiety or to feel comfort. This can look like hand motions (hand flapping, finger-licking, placing hands in different poses). It’s very usual and harmless in which people with autism can navigate the world around them.
Stimming is a normal behaviour in people with autism; it’s not normal behaviour for Maddie Ziegler, who is just attempting to look and act autistic. She’s flailing her hands and arms around and making faces that are unnatural to her to “look autistic,” which just comes off as horrifically insensitive and unkind, regardless of hers—or more importantly, Sia’s—intent.
Basically, the main critique from critics of this movie with autism is that this scene encapsulates how offensive the rest of the movie is. In just this opening scene, there is a huge play-in to how a person with autism is meant to look and a pretty outward expression of grandiose, and almost cartoonish autistic stereotypes. This whole opening scene actively bothers the autistic community, making autism seem cartoonish, weird, and foreign.
The Horrific Misinformation
Beyond misinformation regarding people with autism and generally creating a caricature of what it means to be autistic, the movie Music also openly encourages and normalizes violence against people with autism.
More than once during the course of the movie, the character Music is having an emotional meltdown that is completely out of her control—an autistic meltdown is not the fault of the person with autism—and to try to make Music regain her composure, the adults in her life treat her like a very inconvenient object, throwing her over their shoulder and even using potentially deadly forms of restraint.
In one scene, Music’s half sister Zu (played by Kate Hudson) pushes Music onto her stomach and sits on her back in order to gain control over her. This form of restraint (that is often used in schools and at home towards children with autism) can lead to PTSD for the child later in life, or worse, suffocation and death.
I would probably argue that this is the worst part and the most potentially damaging information spread by this movie. For the protagonists in this movie to restrain Music, seeing positive results from the potentially deadly actions is openly encouraging and normalizing violence against people (children) with autism. The restraint scenes make the person with autism clearly in emotional distress seem like a loud, bratty inconvenience that is just asking for violent physical restraint from the grown adults around them to save the embarrassment of an autistic meltdown hopefully. If these restraint scenes normalize or encourage this kind of violent behaviour to just one person, this movie has the potential to kill.
Music was released on February first, and very quickly, the reviews started pouring in. With an 11% (one star) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an average two-star audience rating on Google, and the New York Post calling it “unwatchable” the movie was just objectively bad, which is why many people were shocked, when it was nominated for two Golden Globes!
I honestly don’t know what to say about this because the general consensus is that (beyond the horrible stereotypes and misinformation) the movie was cliché, predictable, and poorly written. I can’t speak for sure as I haven’t watched it, but maybe the acting from Kate Hudson and Leslie Odem Jr. was really solid? I need answers on that one.
Autistic actress Ashley Wool said of the nomination “’Music’ is something that’s doing active harm to people. This gives it a veneer of legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve.”. Legitimizing this movie with award nominations will only encourage more viewings of a movie that shouldn’t have been made or consumed in the first place.
I feel like this just keeps getting more ridiculous as I go along, but I promise I’ll keep this one short and to the point. This movie about autism, meant to be consumed by autistic audiences and—according to Sia—meant to celebrate autistic audiences, cannot be consumed by all autistic audiences!
As you can see from the opening scene, there are many instances of bright lights, loud Music, and aggressively over-stimulating Music, and this doesn’t seem to only exist in the opening scene, apparently, these dream sequences take place throughout the movie. Loud music, bright colours, and bright flashing lights can be was over-stimulating and uncomfortable for autistic audiences, making the movie both figuratively and literally unwatchable.
If you’re looking to consume legitimate, informative, and also genuinely entertaining media about the autistic community, or made by people with autism, here are a few of my recommendations.
Paige Layle (Youtube)
Paige Layle is an autistic Youtuber and TikToker who speaks mainly about her experiences as a woman with autism, ableism, the autistic community, and her life in general. She’s very funny, articulate, and her make-up is always perfect. I’ve learned a lot from her, and she even did a video reviewing Music, and sharing her thoughts about the project.
The Autisticats (Twitter)
I cited this account in this article. The Autisticats is an autism activist Twitter account run by several autistic people of all genders. They talk about current events, feminism, civil rights, and of course, autism! The account provides a great intimate insight into the lives of those with autism and how they navigate the world,
Autism Canada (Organization)
There are many autism-based organizations to support that are not Autism Speaks. Autism Canada is a master resource for people with autism, people looking to learn about autism, and people looking to celebrate the autistic community. With several posts explaining the history of autism, how we can be more inclusive and less ableist as a society, and showcasing talent and art from people with autism, Autism Canada is a fabulous resource!
Asperger’s Syndrome Explained by Arthur (Video)
If you’re looking for resources for kids, the television show Arthur did a great job of simplifying and explaining the concept of autism and Asperger’s to kids. The clip is short but effective and cleverly explained, giving kids (and grown-ups) a look into what it feels like to be neurodivergent.
My Brother Charlie (Book)
My brother Charlie is another great resource for kids, showing a little girl named Callie and her little brother Charlie who is autistic. What’s great about the book is that it celebrates Charlie’s brain and how intelligent he is instead of just focusing on any limitations he might have with his autism. Callie is very proud of her little brother and thinks he’s great; she also knows and respects his autism and how he behaves differently from her.
The End (Hopefully)
Wow. If you got through this article, great job. I know it was pretty long, but it definitely needed to be said.
Even if you skimmed this article, I hope you learned something! I think this story is still unfolding as I type this, and I guess we’ll have to see what happens with the Golden Globes. Speaking over autistic voices, making fun of autism, spreading stereotypes and misinformation didn’t start with this movie, and it won’t end with this movie either. This is a way bigger issue that is far beyond Sia, and Maddie Ziegler, and this terrible movie.
The movie Music is a symptom. It’s a symptom of able-bodied and neurotypical people not listening to or caring about disabled and neurodivergent voices. If we celebrate and promote actors, creators, and neurotypical directors with autism, we’ll see more of their stories in our media. If we don’t want another Music to happen, we need better representation and respect for people with autism.