“Inspiration Porn, Voyeuristic Bullshit”: How Autistic People Actually Feel About Sia’s ‘Music’
"It’s voyeuristic bullshit. It’s saviour superiority. Her version of us is more important than we were."
Since the trailer of Sia’s directorial debut film, Music, was released, the movie has been highly criticised for its decision to include autism as a running plot point.
Sia, who directed Music, is not autistic. Dallas Clayton, who wrote Music, is not autistic. And most concerningly, Maddie Ziegler, who stars as the film’s non-verbal autistic titular character, is not autistic either.
While disability representation on screen is important, Music has been slammed for its inauthentic depiction of autism, which boils down to the lack of any real consultation with the neurodivergent community prior to making the film — and this surface-level understanding of autism can be seen throughout Music.
Take even just the general plot of the film, for example. Music focuses on title character, Music, who is a non-verbal autistic teenage girl, and her new life with her recently sober half-sister, Zu (Kate Hudson). Despite sensory overload and photosensitive epilepsy being a common issue for people with autism, Music is riddled with a number of brightly-coloured musical sequences with strobing lights used to demonstrate how Music is supposedly meant to see the world.
But when Music isn’t dancing, Ziegler over-exaggerates her movements, stims, grunts, and hits herself so the audience are constantly reminded that Music is autistic, as if autism has a one-size-fits-all physicality to it.
I’m watching Sia’s movie, in order to write a detailed & chronological review (so that nobody else watches it out of curiosity).
But for now, I just want the public to see a few things that speak for themselves, starting with this image: pic.twitter.com/jPqtd5tLOz
— The Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
As Ruby Susan Mountford, LGBTIQ Disability advocate, explained to Junkee, Music feels inauthentic because it’s an extremely shallow understanding of how autistic people move through the world, which is rooted in ableism.
“[The film feels like] a neurotypical person has observed autistic behaviour and has just put that over themselves like a badly-fitting skin suit, without understanding why we tick, why we stim, why we sometimes might hit ourselves or hurt ourselves or get distressed or have meltdowns,” Mountford said.
“There’s no actual attempt to understand what’s happening, so you can’t authentically represent a community you have not bothered to consult,” they continued. “I think this idea that an abled, neurotypical person’s perspective is the only perspective worth looking at, and the only perspective that can exist, is ableist.”
Jess Flint, an autistic woman who has done authenticity and sensitivity reader work in the past, also found issue in the simplified and inaccurate portrayal of autism in Music.
“[Music] is a very outdated caricature based entirely on a neurotypical’s perspective,” Flint told Junkee. “There’s no neurotypical person trapped in my brain behind The Big Bad Autism Jailer, much less one doing big colourful song and dance numbers.”
Stims are autistic body langauge and the biggest mistake is to portray them as a random thing autistic people do. Most of the time autistic people stim when they're excited or anxious and they can be a sign of autistic replay going on in an autistic person's head.
— Hantu the Undiagnosable 🇸🇬 (@barisanhantu) February 13, 2021
Where Music Falls Short
As The Autisticats, a prominent group of young adults with autism, pointed out while reviewing Music over the weekend, these exaggerated mannerisms used by Ziegler throughout the film feel “unsettling and insincere”. But more than unsettling, these expressions coming from a non-autistic actor feels like “one long display of mockery” and “a caricature of autistic body language”.
“It’s deeply reminiscent of the exaggerated mannerism non-autistic people often employ when bulling autistic and developmentally disabled people for the ways we move,” the group wrote in a Twitter thread that went viral.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with the ways autistic people move, or the ways we make facial expressions,” the thread continued. “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 next thing I want the general public to see is this clip from the opening scene.
CW: strobing lights, overwhelming visuals, caricature of autistic mannerisms pic.twitter.com/p8dzP66HFC
— The Autisticats (@autisticats) February 12, 2021
This is something that Meg, an autistic woman who works as an artist and audio describer, also finds issue with in Music. This shallow, but common, neurotypical understanding of what autism is, which is essentially just a caricature of movements and expressions, is learned through inaccurate media.
“To other autistic people, I certainly look and act autistic. To anyone without knowledge in the area, I may appear ‘just a little weird’. Their image of autism was informed by inaccurate media,” Meg told Junkee. “My first reaction to Music was, ‘Oh, god, here we go again. This is going to be the new standard. And we were just getting over Rainman!”
“The reality is that neurotypical people do not know what it’s like to be autistic, and can only perform a pantomime of my movements and facial expressions,” Meg continued. “Their image of autism is informed by similar bad media to the stuff they produce, and they perpetuate the cycle.”
Similarly, Jayden Walker, a PhD candidate at Monash University who also has autism, agrees that a neurotypical actor using these autistic traits makes Music feel like a caricature of autism, especially for those who are non-verbal.
“The autistic traits that are shown in the movie, such as the stimming and being non-verbal, they are things that are quite personal to the autistic community, and can come off as a caricature when done by someone who is neurotypical,” Walker told Junkee.
“It’s also a very small minded view of non-verbal autism. There are plenty of autistic people who are non-verbal, who can still communicate by writing, especially with today’s technology.”
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
But beyond casting a non-autistic actor to play Music, the inclusion of dangerous physical restraint scenes in Music has also rightfully angered the neurodivergent community.
In one scene, Zu is taught how to hold down Music through prone restraint (face-down to the ground) when she has a meltdown in the park. The issue? Well, prone restraint has led to a number of deaths in children at youth homes and schools in real-life, and is a frowned upon practice in the community. So much so that an International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion has even been formed in response to this continued “barbaric” use of restraint on autistic people.
While these scenes promoting outdated calming tactics is dangerous, Ruby Mountford notes that the entire film is disappointing as Music undoes all the work that disability advocates have achieved over the years in changing the public’s perceptions around autism.
“Music’s carer restrains her by literally crushing her under their body. This is really, really dangerous and does kill people every year, and again just shows a complete lack of consultation [with the autistic community],” Mountford explained to Junkee.
“But seeing Music, as if there weren’t hundreds of autistic advocates, who worked for years trying to shift public perception, to see all of that get pushed out by a pop star, who I loved was really upsetting,” they continued.
“It feels like we’re going backwards. It’s rough to see so much work get undone by this.”
I'm only now seeing the screen grabs of how autism is physically portrayed in 'Music', that 'love letter to the autistic community' by @Sia and it's making me feel like years of advocacy by ordinary autistic people has been wiped out by a single thoughtless act by a celebrity.
— Pete Wharmby (@commaficionado) February 14, 2021
Where Sia Went So Horribly Wrong
In regards to the inclusion of these restraint scenes, Sia did apologise for them and shared that should would add a warning to the start of the movie.
“I promise, I have been listening. The motion picture Music will, moving forward, have this warning at the head of the movie,” Sia tweeted, before deleting her Twitter account following backlash. “Music in no way condones or recommends the use of restraint on autistic people. There are autistic occupational therapists that specialise in sensory processing who can be consulted to explain safe ways to provide proprioceptive, deep-pressure feedback to help with meltdown safety.”
However, this retreat only came after an onslaught of pushback to the general plot of Music, the film’s casting choices, and even worse, Sia’s childish response to the rightful criticism by the neurodivergent community.
Just in case: pic.twitter.com/jkCFx41NUf
— 💟 Dee ✨🧠✨ | #BlackLivesMatter | 🏳️🌈 | (@ADDeeCee) November 20, 2020
When the first trailer for Music was released back in November, the public were quick to question why Sia had cast Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic actor, to play the title role.
To justify her reasons, despite Ziegler being basically written for the dancing role, Sia said that she had tried to work with an autistic actor, but that they found the project too overwhelming as the role required someone with high-level dance skills.
“Casting someone at [Music’s] level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community,” Sia tweeted. “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.”
But when autistic actors shared that they would’ve gladly taken the lead role “at short notice” if the actor chosen couldn’t “handle the stress”, Sia got defensive and didn’t really think about the power her words and influence held online.
“Fucking bullshit. You have no fucking idea because you weren’t there and haven’t seen the movie, ” she snapped. “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”
After this outburst, Coby Bird, a professional actor on Netflix’s Locke & Key who also happens to have autism, wrote a public letter to Sia about her claims that actors on the spectrum can’t handle the pressures of a lead role, like Music.
“I understand that [our stories being told by people like us] can’t always happen with studios, with money, with casting, with skills that are specifically needed for a role, but we need to stand up for each other and work towards a common goal: Inclusion and authentic representation,” Bird said.
“People with Autism and other disabilities are capable. We are beyond capable,” the actor continued. “I always show up to set ready. I show up overly prepared because I want people to see and know that working with an autistic actor is nothing to be scared of. That I am capable.”
“All we ask is that you let us in the room to audition so you can see our faces, hear our voices, see what talent we can bring to the role, and understand that we are actors too. Professional actors,” Bird ended his letter. “It hurts to see people who haven’t had my journey representing what they think is my story.”
I know you worked hard on your movie and are proud of it. I am sure every person involved worked hard. I know what it’s like to pour all you have into a role.
As Coby Bird touched on in his letter, there’s no doubt that everyone involved in Music worked hard, and no one is blaming Maddie Ziegler for her involvement in the film. In fact, most people feel sorry for the 18-year-old dancer after Sia admitted that Ziegler was apprehensive of portraying a character with autism when she is neurotypical herself.
While on The Project earlier this month, Sia shared just how uncomfortable Zeigler was with playing Music, as the dancer feared people would think she was poking fun at people with autism.
“She cried on the first day of rehearsals and she was really scared. She just said, ‘I don’t want anyone to think I’m making fun of them’,” Sia recounted. “And I bald-facedly said, ‘I won’t let that happen.’ I realised I couldn’t really protect her from that, which I thought I could.”
Rather, the bigger issue is in Sia’s total dismissal of the autistic community, who were voicing very valid concerns. For example, one of those most hurt by Sia’s reaction to criticism was Jun Wilkinson, an autistic woman who was involved in the original critique of the film back in November, who told Junkee that Sia’s tweets sent a swarm of fans after her.
“Before the movie even came out, Sia sent her fans after me for my criticism, even though I am just a hurt person online, not a professional critic or anything,” Wilkinson told Junkee. “I think Sia handled the criticism abhorrently. Not only did she lie, she made countless excuses.”
“If she can’t even put in the bare minimum, she shouldn’t be making films about autistic people.”
Similarly, Jordyn Zimmerman, a prominent non-verbal autistic presenter and accessibility enthusiastic, added that Sia just didn’t handle criticism well because “she does not see the autistic community as competent humans”.
“Music is a misrepresentation of our robust and meaningful lives. I am troubled by so many of the stereotypes it plays into which will only hurt our community,” Zimmerman told Junkee. “Much like some of her tweets, the movie will only serve to increase the oppression of us non-speaking autistics.”
Music Is A Film For Neurotypical People, Not The Neurodiverse
While Sia claimed that Music is a “love letter to caregivers and to the autism community” via her deleted tweets, the autism community actually feel like it’s not really about them at all — and that’s pretty obvious by the plot alone.
Despite Music being the titular character of the film, Music really isn’t about her. Instead, Music’s presence in the film is merely to help Kate Hudson’s character, Zu, grow and become a better person. Really Music is just a classic case of “inspiration porn” in media, that’s played out through shitty tropes and disability narratives, as seen in Rain Man and Forrest Gump.
“It felt very much like Sia wanted a manic pixie dream autistic to be a whimsical source of inspiration for the older sister character to grow and change. The movie is called Music, but it’s all about the sister’s story,” Jess Flint said.
“Music represents a romanticised view of autism. It’s absolutely inspiration porn,” Jayden Walker added, believing that the inability to find an autistic lead actress “talented enough” for the dancing aspects of the film proves why it should never have been made in the first place.
“Music’s life is not better because she can dance in her head. Nor should her central role in the film be to teach everyone else around her that life is still good.”
"If you bothered watching her interviews you'd know Sia tried her best to consult the autistic community & do good representation."
Sia in an interview, "I wanted to make Rain Man the musical, but with girls."
— Ponderful (@PonderfulUK) November 20, 2020
Ruby Susan Mountford explains that Music is really less about representation for the neurodiverse, and more about “enforcing the idea that [society’s] experience of us is more important than our own experience”.
“I think if you love a community, you want to get to know them otherwise you’re not writing a love letter to them, you’re writing a love letter to yourself — and about what makes you feel good about being around these people, about how happy you can be because you’re not like that,” Mountford explained to Junkee. “It’s inspiration porn dressed up.”
Mountford also points out that Sia’s emotional and defensive reaction to the criticism of Music is a common example of the ‘charity model’ seen in disability, which is the idea that people with disabilities should be grateful that a non-disabled person would even be bothered to tell these stories, even when so painfully misguided.
“We weren’t grateful, and so she was angry,” Mountford continued. “This is a really common pattern that is also part of ableism, a sense that we should be grateful that anyone thought we were worth talking to or about at all — even if what they’re saying about us is wrong and shows a lack of curiosity about our actual experiences.”
“Sia appeared to be acting like a saviour of the autistic community… she assumed we would be grateful for the representation, like we should just accept whatever we are given,” Jayden Walker added. “To me, it indicated more than anything that she sees autistic people as less than. As people with nothing, and that we should praise her for taking time out of her privileged life to bother to pay us any mind.”
Sia's film is a very clear example of issues wrt the charity model of disability. Rather than actually talking to disabled, in this case autistic people, people work with organisations assuming their own moral high ground and are shocked when we don't want their charity
— Hantu the Undiagnosable 🇸🇬 (@barisanhantu) November 20, 2020
But a lot of people in the neurodivergent community believe that this backlash could’ve well been avoided if Sia had consulted with autism and advocacy networks, over trying to hide behind excuses and controversial organisations, like Autism Speaks, from the very start.
While defending herself from criticism, Sia shared that she had used Autism Speaks as her advisory group for the film. But a little research or communication with the autism community could’ve easily revealed the “polarising” nature of Autism Speaks from the very start — a group who are well known for painting autism as a curse of sorts, with ads that imply it has the ability to “work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined“.
Sadly, many of those who I spoke to for this article noted that Music could’ve been a very different film if Sia had just listened to the community she was trying to represent. Instead, she turned against the very people she thought she was doing a favour for by making Music. So while Sia may have gained two Golden Globe nominations for Music despite her abysmal 14 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, she has also lost a slew of fans and hurt the very community she thought she was helping.
“The biggest sin here is rather than let communities that she was trying to portray open up her perspective, Sia tried to shove us into what she wanted us to be,” Ruby Susan Mountford shared. “Her version of us is more important than we were.”
“It’s voyeuristic bullshit. It’s saviour superiority. It’s a love-letter, but she doesn’t know us because she never tried, and she loves an idea of us that makes her feel good about herself and often that’s all we get to be.”
Junkee has reached out to Sia’s management. They did not respond to our request for comment.
Michelle Rennex is a senior writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex.