Trying and Failing To Do Good: The Hard Lesson Sia Is Learning About Responsibility for False Representation in Creative Work

There is something uniquely hurtful about being mocked. In Sia’s attempt to empower neurodiverse people, she’s hurt and offended many. Was she wrong to try the way she did, or is the world just trolling her?

For those that don’t know about the controversy swirling around one of the most famous pop stars of the day, Sia, I’ll give you the spark notes. Sia recently released a trailer for her upcoming movie, "Music," which features Maddie Zeigler portraying a nonverbal woman on the autism spectrum, named Music. Ms. Zeigler is not, in fact, on the autism spectrum, nor is she considered by the public to be neurodiverse. This has been the root of the controversy. While some might argue that Ms. Zeigler is merely “acting” as a nonverbal autistic woman, others might consider it “pretending” or even “mocking” those with the most extreme cases of autism. 

Why Does Autism Community Care?

There are many dimensions to measure the spectrum of autism. Most notably, individuals on the autism spectrum demonstrate social interactions, communication abilities, and behaviors that differ from neurotypical individuals of the same age. Adults on the autism spectrum may experience barriers in multiple areas, such as accessing quality healthcare and finding sustained employment and are significantly more likely than the general population to have many physical and mental health conditions. 

While the trailer is very brief and does not provide much insight as to the dynamic between Music and her friends, people have already been speculating that the film will portray the autism community in a negative light. Perhaps the most hurtful aspect of what people do know is that Sia did not employ someone on the autism spectrum to play the lead character in her movie. 

Screenshot from Music's trailer

Where Is the Line Drawn?

From Sia’s perspective, I can understand the frustration that people who have never seen the movie are already dismissing it as “hurtful” and “tone-deaf.” Regardless of the project, budget, or timeline for a project, there are always limitations. Sia has argued that her movie had only the best intentions (and that may well be true) but that she needed to work with someone with advanced skills in communication and acting to achieve her vision for the film. She asserts that if she chose to cast someone with the degree of communication challenges as Music had, the movie would not have been possible to make. While some may find that this is a perfectly legitimate argument to make, her extreme and patronizing reactions to the public’s negative response have only made matters worse for her. 

From the perspective of the autism community and neurodiverse community more broadly, why not hire a neurodiverse actress? Why not an actress on the autism spectrum? There are many actors and actresses on the autism spectrum that Sia could have considered. I can see from their perspective that it’s insulting to hire someone so distinctly different from the character they’re intended to portray, that an actor or actress who does not have the lived experience of someone on the autism spectrum is not capable of portraying that experience accurately, respectfully, and tactfully. 

The idea that Sia has tried to make a movie to convey the idea that the world can be a safe, accepting, and loving space for people on the autism spectrum is a noble one. Unfortunately, she has failed to authentically and earnestly engage with the community that she aims to help with her movie at all phases of this project — research and development of the movie — and now in promoting the movie. 

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39 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

It's a movie, yes, but how is this related to photography?

chris bryant's picture

A movie is a very fast series of still pictures (photographs) that give the impression of movement. Considering camera makers have, in their infinite wisdom, blended still photography and movie photography into one device, the article, I suppose, has some relevance.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Fstoppers caters to photographers and filmmakers, right? A story about a short film and its impact seems pretty relevant to the site and our industry in my opinion. But that's just me.

David Pavlich's picture

True, but couldn't you say that for just about any movie?

Dan Ostergren's picture

Yes, I think so. I'm honestly surprised there aren't more articles on this site focused on filmmaking.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

julia child not french but she cook that

glupyy chelovek

Adriano Brigante's picture

I'm on the spectrum and I don't give a flying f---. She can cast whoever she wants.
People need to stop looking for things to be constantly offended about. Get off Twitter and get a life.

Jason Berge's picture

Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man. Fuck off.

g coll's picture

Yeah yeah but we've come a long way and learnt a lot from those days. It's the evolution of social awareness.

Scott Wardwell's picture

You mean " social greivance mongering".

Jason Berge's picture

It's called "Acting" for a reason.

Following your logic, unless someone is playing themselves, then there will always be a reason to be offended, by the fact that they are not the group/thing they are "pretending to be".

Get a grip people. Just say'n.

David Pavlich's picture

There's a new TV show called 'The Highway'. It's about a serial rapist/murderer that's a long haul truck driver. Some trucker's association is unhappy because the show portrays a truck driver as a bad guy. Who would have ever though that some truckers have joined the ranks of the offended, the snowflake brigade? Good grief!

Konrad jason's picture

Think about the serial rapist/murders that feel misrepresented too. Everyone has feelings!

Kirk Darling's picture

Did they use an actual serial rapist/murderer, or did they use an actor? How could they accurately portray a serial rapist/murderer if they didn't even use one?

g coll's picture

The thing is there are many autistic actors available. Why not use one? Win win. Not everything is as black and white as your comments convey.

Michelle Maani's picture

But are they good actors?

Miha Me's picture

• About one-in-five U.S. adults say they use Twitter, a share that has remained consistent over the past several years.

• 19.1% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018 (47.6 million people). This represents 1 in 5 adults.

chris bryant's picture

"The idea that Sia has tried to make a movie to convey the idea that the world can be a safe, accepting, and loving space for people on the autism spectrum is a noble one"

It is also a naive and delusional idea. All throughout my autistic life I have face exclusion, discrimination and prejudice. Humans, by their very nature and history, are discriminatory and prejudiced creatures. Generally unwilling to accept those who fall outside their programmed social mores.

I'll watch the movie with an open mind and then draw a conclusion.

Daris Fox's picture

It's arguably a legacy reflex from when we was forced to hunt and live as social groups, people hate anything that's not the norm. If you've are anything different from the 'accepted' norm you're automatically marked as potentially dangerous to the pack as a liability.

Then you have now modern social media constantly bombarding us with messages of what's the 'perfect' person creating a indoctrination process to exclude anyone that doesn't fit that narrative.It's a system that's exclusionary by it's very nature because most people say look at my life it's better than yours.

Michael Comeau's picture

Maybe people should see the movie first?

jim hughes's picture

No, we need to get outraged first, so we can view it later with confirmation bias in place. Or maybe just not see it because we already made up our minds.

Warwick Cairns's picture

It’s a movie trailer, so video cameras were involved. And there were hairdressers and makeup artists involved, and on-site catering. But the ‘controversy,’ if you can call it that, isn’t about photography, or hair and makeup, or catering. It’s about casting - the directors cast an actress to play something she wasn’t. You might think that’s pretty much the definition of acting, but some people got upset about it. But from a photography point of view it makes precisely zero difference: the lighting and exposure would have been the same whoever they cast.

johan saarela's picture

Did you know that the tie fighter pilots in the first star wars Movies where just Actors and not real tie fighter pilots? George lucas got alot of backlash from the tie fighter pilot community in the late 70s for doin that

Alexander Petrenko's picture

NO WAY IT IS TRUE! STAR WARS ARE REAL! IT IS DOCUMENTARY!!!

derek j's picture

It appears to be well lit. This concludes my interest in the contreversy.

Jeremy Strange's picture

Underrated comment haha

John Ohle's picture

OK, so where do you draw the line? If you want a murderer in a movie do movie makers have to look for convictied murderers to play the part. What about the movie "Slience of the Lambs"? Should Anthony Hopkins have been replaced by a real life cannibal? And don't get me started about an actor playing a character from a foreign country.

chris bryant's picture

Actors and Actresses should be able to act without recrimination. That's their job.

In the times of Shakespeare female roles were played by men or boys. Women didn't appear on stage until after the Restoration of 1660.

I am going to watch the movie because I want to see how young Maddie pulls of the autistic role.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Clearly, by this “logic,” murderers should play murderers. Rapists should play rapists. Racists should play racists. Homophobes should play homophobes. Also: this has zero to do with photography. Stop trying to pander to a grievance “community” that doesn’t exist anywhere but Twitter.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Not trying to be confrontational or anything, but I'm gay and on the autism spectrum and it just doesn't feel right to have autism be compared to homophobes, murderers, rapists, and racists, as if they're even remotely comparable. I'm not outraged by the film, to be clear, and I see the point people are trying to make with this comparison, but it just isn't sitting right with me.

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