[Content warning: this article discusses ableism against autistic people at length, prone restraint, and features images of an actor playing a caricature of an autistic person]
Music, the new musical from Australian musician Sia, was released today on streaming services, but the film is being panned by audiences and critics alike for its depiction of autism, which critics have called “ill-judged,” “super-exclusionary,” and a “patronizing cringefest of ableist minstrelsy”.
The film, which currently holds a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than 2019’s Cats, sees frequent Sia collaborator Maddie Ziegler – a neurotypical actor – in the titular role of Music, a young non-verbal autistic woman, whose life is thrown into disarray when her grandmother dies, and she is left in the care of her “free-spirited” half-sister Zu (Kate Hudson), for whom Music acts as a catalyst to encourage Zu to take responsibility for her actions and care for her sister.
In the run-up to its release, Sia deflected criticism from the disabled community, who questioned the casting of a neurotypical actor in the role of an autistic person, and the singer’s responses, which ranged from her being “unable” to find an autistic actor to play the part, and accusing an autistic thespian who queried this of being a “bad actor”. Sia also claimed to have done significant amounts of research during the creation of the film, which included working with American charity Autism Speaks, who have been embroiled in a number of controversies over the years.
Critical reviews of the film have been scathing: Matthew Rozsa, who is autistic and a fan of Sia, wrote a dissection of the film for Salon, explaining how it reads as a neurotypical person’s “love letter” to the well-intentioned yet wrong people who act on behalf of disabled people without their input. Similarly, non-speaking autistic writer Mickayla wrote that despite appearing on the surface to be well-meaning representation of a non-verbal autistic person, the movie’s myriad problems do nothing but exemplify outdated stereotypes of autistic people and people who communicate using alternative and augmentative communication, as Music does in the film.
Perhaps the most damming criticism came from Twitter, where a viral thread from The Autisticats highlighted the worst parts of Music – namely Ziegler’s offensive and inauthentic portrayal of an autistic person, and the use of prone restraint by multiple characters in the film.
Here’s a still shot of Maddie Ziegler’s face at the beginning of that opening scene.
I don’t think I need to explain what’s wrong here, but I’m going to anyway. pic.twitter.com/FKZZGk1069
— The Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the ways autistic people move, or the ways we make facial expressions.
Some of us roll our eyes and put our teeth over our lips as a stim or just because it’s comfortable.
But we do those things naturally. Maddie Ziegler does not.
— The Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
The account criticised the movie for two specific scenes in which Music is subject to prone restraint, a criticism which was echoed by the Autism Self Advocacy Network. This type of restraint has been called “human rights abuse”, and can be both deadly and highly traumatic for autistic people on whom it has been used. In a brilliant and comprehensive thread on Twitter, autistic occupational therapist and writer Anna Karina Vorbeck Suarez explained the intricacies of prone restraint, and how dangerous it is for autistic people.
Disability rights activist Cal Montgomery noted in his thread discussing the film – which he had previously watched as part of a Communication First screening – that Sia had been urged to remove the scene, as it could be seen to promote the dangerous practice, which she inferred that she would do.
Sia apologised and said that she would add a warning at the beginning of the movie stating that she did not condone the use of prone restraint. The singer tweeted: “I promise, have been listening. The motion picture MUSIC will, moving forward, have this warning at the head of the movie: MUSIC in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people. There are autistic occupational therapists that specialize in sensory processing who can be consulted to explain safe ways to provide proprioceptive, deep-pressure feedback to help w meltdown safety.”
However, PosAbility can confirm that this warning is not present in the film’s Amazon Prime release at the time of writing, and the scenes were not removed prior to Music’s UK release. Sia has now deleted her Twitter account.
Writer Laura Dorwart pointed out that while Sia’s movie has been panned for its depiction of autism, films which utilised an authentic portrayal of disability have been shining in the last few years:
Sia’s movie Music has been almost universally critically panned. Meanwhile, A Quiet Place, which features a deaf actor in a prominent supporting role instead of an actor pretending to be deaf, was nominated for countless awards and has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
— Laura Dorwart (@laurawritesit) February 14, 2021
In spite of the backlash from the autistic community, Music has been nominated for two Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and Best Actress for Kate Hudson.
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