Ableism, tokenism spark controversy in Sia’s film

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Emma Matzen

Famous singer-songwriter Sia recently released her controversial and reportedly ableist directorial debut film “Music.” The movie has received lots of criticism and backlash, specifically for its portrayal of people with autism. The titular character, Music, is a young teenage girl with autism, and many reviewers have called her character an offensive stereotype. 

“[A]t times [the movie] seems indistinguishable from mockery,” Teo Bugbee of “The New York Times” said. 

The character Music is portrayed by actress and dancer Maddie Ziegler. The former “Dance Moms” star, who was befriended by Sia after her performance in the singer’s “Chandelier” music video at age 11, has since been named a “muse” by Sia. 

“I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her,” Sia said.

This raises a few eyebrows, seeing how Sia is 45 and Ziegler is 18, and was 14 years old at the time of filming “Music.” Sia has stated that she originally tried working with “a beautiful young girl nonverbal on the spectrum,” but that because the actress found the character too demanding, Sia recast the role to Ziegler, a neurotypical person, instead of opening auditions for more actors on the autism spectrum. 

“I realized it wasn’t ableism — I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well — but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without [Ziegler], I don’t want to,” Sia said in an interview with Australian talk show “The Project.” 

Autistic actors online spoke up, saying they could have managed the role on short notice had Sia given more actors on the spectrum the chance. “Maybe you’re just a bad actor,” Sia tweeted.

It is also concerning considering that Sia mentioned Ziegler crying on set the first day of filming, because she didn’t “want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.”

“Music” has also been criticized for its depiction of its black character, Ebo, who seems to fall under the “magical negro” stereotype — a black character who only serves to aid white characters. 

The Asian character Felix, has parents who speak in heavy Asian accents that own a laundromat. Both Felix and Ebo go undeveloped, and are merely tools to further the stories of the white characters: Music, and her older sister and caretaker, Zu. The criticisms of her racist writing have not been addressed by Sia. 

Sia did not apologize for her film’s portrayal of autism until it was surprisingly nominated for two Golden Globe awards. After a very short apology tweet addressing her controversial use of restraint against people with autism in the film, which stated that she would later provide a warning before the film in future screenings and/or remove the scenes entirely, Sia deleted her Twitter account. According to reviews and critics, no such warning has been given before later screenings of “Music,” nor have the restraint scenes been removed. 

The film’s conclusion praises Zu, Music’s sister and caretaker, for her “acceptance” of both Music and Ebo. For these reasons, critics have called the film out for its inherently obvious savior-complex. It has also been speculated that Zu is a self-insert character for Sia. 

“[Music] is offensive for many reasons, it is ableist, it is racist…Sia idealizes the world in this film, and unfortunately by idealizing the world you fail to adequately capture the struggles of marginalized groups,” autistic YouTuber Category: OTHER said in their review of the film. 

“Music” now sports an 8 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 3.1 out of 10 on IMDB, and a 0.5 out of 5 on IndieWire. With a budget of $16 million and Box Office profits being only $619,049, the film not only fails to accurately portray an autistic character’s story with nuance, but also fails to make even a quarter of its budget back in profits. 

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