Sia’s “Music”: A Case for Why Representation in Casting is Important
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When Australian pop singer Sia first announced that she was releasing a film titled “Music” about an autistic girl named Music (hence the title), it was immediately met with backlash. Though most of the information about the film had not yet been publicized, one crucial detail led many to demand its cancelation: Music is played by neurotypical actress Maddie Ziegler. Now that the film has been officially released, it’s become apparent why having proper representation behind the camera, as well as in front of it, is so important, as Ziegler’s portrayal of an autistic character is highly offensive.
The drama surrounding “Music” first began on Twitter, where hundreds responded to the tweet announcing the film, criticizing Sia for her decision to cast Ziegler. The National Autistic Society tweeted, “Sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there.”
Sia responded to the backlash by defending her decision and insisting that casting a non-disabled actress was “more compassionate.” Many from the autistic community also began to take issue with Sia’s usage of the phrase “special abilities” rather than disabled.
This backlash might have been unwarranted had Sia actually made the compassionate film she clearly wanted to. In response to these criticisms, Sia tweeted that people should watch the film before making judgments. However, the content of the film only makes her choices much more problematic. Despite being targeted toward a disabled audience, the movie is a cacophony of loud noises and bright colors, making it the embodiment of the phrase “sensory overload.” Additionally, the depiction of autism in the film is extremely offensive. Ziegler uses stereotypical characterizations of autistic people in her portrayal of Music, and her movements and facial expressions are heavily exaggerated. Rather than representing the autistic community, she is mocking them. To top it all off, the film encourages using prone restraint, a violent technique used to subdue autistic people that can lead to extreme trauma and in some cases death. The film ignores the harmful implications of using restraint and simply describes it as “crushing with one’s love.”
The movie’s inaccurate representation of autism shows why proper representation is important when it comes to casting. Sia could have casted plenty of talented autistic actresses to play Music, but she chose someone who she thought would be easier to work with. The issue with casting non-disabled actors extends beyond misrepresentation: rather than portraying the actual soul and personality of a character, abled actors tend to focus too much on the physical characteristics of a disability—which is exactly what Ziegler did. To play a character, one has to have a deep understanding of the character’s mindset and personality. The best actors are the ones who get inside their characters’ heads, which is what most abled actors cannot do when it comes to representing disabled characters. Rather, disabled characters should be played by disabled actors.
“Music” also brings up the trope of disabled characters being treated as props and aiding the growth of an abled main character. Despite being marketed as a film about Music, she ends up only serving the purpose of teaching Zu, the main character struggling with addiction, how to find joy in a world that may seem bleak. Music has little to no development throughout the film, which sends a message that people are defined by their disabilities and only serve to help others grow.
“Music” is not the first film, nor will it be the last, to offensively portray a disability. Stereotypes, improper casting, and the secondary treatment of minority groups are issues that we must strive toward resolving. Ableism is often overlooked in society, which is why it is even more important to stop the cycle of inaccurate depictions of disabled people by having better representation in casting. It is important to speak out and criticize media that cast a harmful light on groups that already receive minimal representation. Voice your opinion on whatever platform you can as spreading awareness of misrepresentation is the first step toward eliminating it. The impact of seeing an accurate portrayal of oneself on the big screen, especially when it is not done so often, is tremendous: it allows one to have characters to relate to and can make one feel seen—that one’s story is being told.