Quick thoughts: Sia please stop digging you’re making everything worse

I understand that The Sia Discourse has escaped the autistic-Twitter bubble and made its way into the wider world, so I thought it was worth writing a (hopefully) brief explainer of what’s going on, why it matters and why this isn’t just Mean Trolls On The Internet.

Essentially: On Thursday, Sia released the trailer for her directorial debut film Music. The titular character, played by Maddie Ziegler (a young dancer known for being The Public Face Of Sia), is a “magical little girl” with “special abilities”. Those abilities being… er… autism. She does not speak, moves very differently to her peers (and very similarly to some autistic people), is never without her headphones, and has all the hallmarks of an “inspirational” disabled character. Ziegler is not disabled. In a promotional interview, Sia described Music as “Rain Man, the musical, but with girls”. No, really, that’s a direct quote. It’s all very uncomfortable, and was heavily criticised by half of Autistic Twitter while the rest of us thought “oh no, not again, I’m opting out” and tried ignoring it.

Unfortunately, Sia then kept digging.

One autistic actor, tweeting about the number of autistic actors who responded to a previous call, got “Maybe you’re just a bad actor” in response. A non-speaking autistic actor was said to be initially cast but unable to cope with the schedule – “casting someone at her level of functioning would be cruel, not kind” – despite Sia previously referring to a movie written for Ziegler. It emerged that Autism Speaks were involved, which is another level of yikes. However, Sia rejects any specific labels for Music, instead referring only to “special abilities”. Ziegler herself had expressed concerns on set, becoming upset at the thought of mocking others, but was nevertheless persuaded to continue by the adults around her.

I’ve linked to the trailer above so you have the option of judging for yourself, but to be clear: you don’t have to. That’s just a silencing tactic. You don’t have to wait two months for a full release, spend money not everyone has and potentially risk your health with a cinema trip in order to discuss the harm caused by the promotion. You don’t have to see the trailer itself to understand that the promotion’s framing, terminology and response to criticism is harmful. I watched the trailer today, and the only thing that wasn’t already made clear in Sia’s interviews and tweets was the dance sequences starring Ziegler and the cast – it’s hard to judge from a short trailer, but it struck me as a possible “abled dancer trapped in a disabled person’s body” narrative.

And Music is disabled. The vast majority of autistic people do not have special abilities, and that’s okay – we are enough as we are, without having to “compensate” for our autism. “Special abilities” disregards our very real challenges. “Special abilities” deflects from the societal barriers disabled people face; it absolves abled people of responsibility.

A refusal to label clearly autistic characters as such has the same effect – Sia herself says “if I made clear [what her diagnosis was, then I might offend somebody]”. I’d argue that the opposite is true – explicit autistic representation, if it’s done sensitively, is something to be celebrated. The autistic representation in Music, so far, has not been done sensitively, and has offended people regardless of the words they’re using instead. Whatever you think of Autism Speaks, their involvement shows that Music is specifically intended to be autistic; avoiding the word is little more than an attempt to avoid criticism. Even if Music is not autistic (here’s an interesting Twitter thread about how her movements more closely resemble cerebral palsy), she is still visibly disabled in a way that is constantly mocked by abled people.

While it looks like the claim that a non-speaking autistic actress was initially cast until she could not keep up with the schedule was untrue, it highlights wider assumptions about what disabled people are capable of. Failing to make adjustments for a disabled person, then firing them and replacing them with an abled person, is not a kindness. It’s called “workplace discrimination” and is typically illegal.

The problem of abled actors portraying disabled characters is a little more nuanced than Twitter allows for – especially as abled people tend to jump on this issue to the exclusion of all the other issues. I would say that non-speaking characters should be played by non-speaking actors, for whom these roles are usually the only option. I would say that characters who move the way Music does should be played by actors who move that way in real life, because otherwise it’s hard to distinguish from the everyday mockery those people face.

The casting debate is prominent because it highlights the crux of the issue: You like disabled people when you can brag about us, but not when we’re an inconvenience. You want the parts of us that make you feel good, but not the whole of us. You like us when we’re “inspirational”, but refuse to make even the smallest of changes so that we don’t have to be. This year, that’s more blatant than ever. The last thing anyone needs right now is another reminder that we’re seen as props, not people.


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