Several choices were made in 2020. Out of many terrible paths taken throughout that cursed year, one choice stands above them all.
Sia announcing her magnum opus; Rain Man: the Musical.
Both of us are autistic and, along with many autistic people across the Internet, we watched Sia dig herself a gradually deeper hole when responding to repeated criticism and (justified) mocking by autistic people. The Australian artist, attempting to distance herself from the situation, deactivated her Twitter account.
The first trailer for ‘Music’ dropped in November 2020. It follows former drug addict Zu (Kate Hudson) who finds herself looking after her autistic half-sister Music (Maddie Ziegler). The only thing stopping Zu from dropping Music off at the ‘People Pound’ (nice) is that she has the hots for her neighbour Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.). Inspiration is inspired, songs are sung, and Zu becomes a bastion for how not to treat your neurodivergent siblings.
You might already be noticing several problems. This is every Oscar-bait, disability-as-inspirational-prop story heard a million times before, but with dance numbers. Said dance numbers take place in a trippy fantasy land that most people only get to see after a wild night on Wind Street. Autistic people often see, taste, smell and hear things at a higher level than neurotypical (non-autistic) people. The kaleidoscope-coloured, jet plane-loud musical numbers in Music would be a sensory nightmare for most neurodivergent people. So does it really represent us?
The biggest problem was casting Ziegler as Music. She’s a good dancer, but she doesn’t have the range for this role, or the autism. For decades, disabled roles have been given to non-disabled actors, stopping disabled actors from portraying their own conditions. Sia claimed that she tried to work with a non-verbal autistic actress, but that the experience was too ‘unpleasant’ for the actress, hence Maddie.
Trouble is, there’s more than one autistic actress. Several unimpressed autistic actresses responded to Sia, pointing out they could have entered the role. Secondly, Maddie is famous for being Sia’s ‘muse’, so the casting utterly reeks of nepotism. Thirdly, reasonable adjustments at work are A Thing, even on a film set. Why was the non-verbal actress not supported on-set or more effort made to cast an autistic actress experienced with filming?
For a film about autistic people, little effort was made to include us in it.
Sia complained that people were pre-judging the film before it was released, tweeting, ‘grrr, f*city f*ck why don’t you watch my film before judging it? FURY.’ She also responded to criticism by autistic people of Ziegler’s casting in an immature manner, telling one person: ‘Maybe you’re just a bad actor’. Classy.
However, this earlier criticism fades in comparison to a scene which horrified the autistic community.
The worst aspect of Music is its depiction of a restraint method that has killed autistic people. In one scene, as the three leads walk through a park, Music becomes overstimulated. It is unclear what triggers this upset (the only effort taken in understanding Music’s perspective is through musical sequences). Hudson’s character physically restrains Music, who responds by hitting and screaming.
The Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint found that in the US, ‘122,000 students were restrained or secluded during the 2015-2016 school year’, 71% of which were disabled students (source: endseclusion.org). In 2009, the Government Account Office found ‘hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to seclusion and restraint in schools’, with African American children disproportionately affected by these harmful measures.
Sia tweeted, ‘Duh. I spent three f**king years researching, I think that’s why I’m so f**king bummed.’ If she had indeed spent ‘three f**king years’ carrying out research, surely she would have found out that restraints inflict physical and psychological damage on children?
Prone restraint kills disabled children. In 2018, three California school employees were charged with the death of Max Benson, a thirteen-year-old boy with severe autism (source: nypost.com). According to the article, he was ‘placed facedown in a prone restraint by a special education teacher’ for just under two hours, until he became unresponsive, later dying at the hospital. This is what happens in real life when you restrain a child. Death.
And yet Music still got nominated for two Golden Globes.
So please, don’t watch Music. You don’t need enlightening on the Autistic Struggle™. Just watch Bridgerton again. Please.
Image from Rolling Stone