Pop singer/songwriter Sia has recently come under fire for her directorial choices in Music, her new movie about the autistic community.
The film, which was nominated for a Golden Globe, stars Maddie Ziegler as Music, a young woman on the autistic spectrum, and is watched over by her half-sister, a recovering addict. After the initial music video and trailer were released in November, many viewers questioned Sia's casting calls: Why had she hired a neurotypical actress to play the part of a non-verbal autistic woman?
In the past, actors have been praised for their portrayals of disabled or neurodivergent characters (such as Dustin Hoffman's role in Rain Man or Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything), but in recent years there has been an increased demand for neurodiversity in the film industry.
Sia responded to the backlash with a series of tweets, which only exacerbated the situation. "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." Wrote the singer.
She continued with a direct insult to one critic, who responded to her tweet: "Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. 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." The user tweeted. "Maybe you're just a bad actor." Sia replied, rather than apologizing.
Later that day, Sia posted again: "I cast thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as f****** prostitutes or drug addicts but as doctors, nurses and singers. F****** sad nobody's even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place."
Criticisms worsened after the release of the film, with Zeigler's performance based completely on stereotypes about people on the autistic spectrum. The actress, apprehensive about the role, was assured that she would not be offending anyone in the autistic community, however, that is exactly what happened.
In a one-star review of Music, film critic Simran Hans wrote that, "Ziegler... is not herself on the autistic spectrum. It's a problem, especially given the cartoonishness of her portrayal, which sees her gurning, grimacing and mumbling through her scenes...The lyrics, jaunty platitudes about Music's "magic mind" and failing body, are offensive too."
Between Ziegler's exaggerated portrayal of an autistic woman and extremely problematic scenes involving restraints-- which have since been cut from the film --many are outraged. The use of restraints on an autistic person has been a major topic of debate within the autistic community in recent years; the practice is extremely traumatizing and often leads to larger violent outbursts.
The critical consensus for the movie states that it is "offensive in its depiction of autism—and painfully misguided in essentially every respect," a film deserving of its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.