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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Previous comments
Dillan K's picture

She is trying to demonstrate the flaw in the author's logic by taking the author's logic to an extreme. Her argument is not attempting to equate autistic people with rapists. I think you should read her statement again, because you do not understand what she's saying.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I read the comment multiple times. My opinion and feelings remain the same.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Hi Dan, as the mother of an out child on the spectrum I had no intention of comparing the two. My only purpose was to point out that acting is by definition inhabiting a character unlike yourself. Meryl Streep isn’t a magazine editor or a Holocaust era mother, either, but her skill as an actress is what made those situations work. I am sorry for any pain my comment caused you. I know all too well the judgment that those on the spectrum face. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving! 🦃

Michelle Maani's picture

Did you miss the point by a mile? He's not comparing autistic people with murderers, etc. He's saying it's ridiculous to expect every role to be played by a person who actual IS what is being portrayed.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Michelle, you don't need to gaslight my feelings on this. I wont be validating your comment with any more of a response.

Sam Sims's picture

It’s funny how, in the last decade, people have become offended by literally anything and everything. Apu in The Simpsons being voiced by a white guy was seemingly OK for over 25 years but in recent years is now unacceptable.

Also, if people aren’t offended by something trivial, they’re complaining their own demographic is being marginalised by the ‘PC brigade’ or some other such rubbish. In other words people always looking for outrage.

N A's picture

Two questions:

1. How accurately did Zeigler portray her character's neuroatypicality?
2. Is getting any neuroatypical actor good enough or does it have to be one with the very specific neuroatypicality the character is presented with? Can you cast a verbal to play a non-verbal if they're 80% consistent otherwise?

I imagine the # of actors that meet the autism community's definition of sufficiently representative is low. What if that actor just isn't suited to the part, then what? Competent & reliable working actors have scheduling conflicts all the time, and films have deadlines.

If Zeigler did her job, played the character authentically, and inspired the audience to be more welcoming to neuroatypical people Sia succeeded in delivering her message. That's a win and hopefully the film will survive the backlash.

The problem with representation in film is acting isn't easy. It's demanding craft to learn and execute well. If there isn't a qualified actor in the demographic that's being portrayed you're going to have to choose the best actor outside that demo.Otherwise what, just don't make the film? I don't understand why people assume there's an actor in said demo always automatically available for every film that needs them.

Anyway, the trailer looks pretty good. Worth the watch I reckon.

Paul Asselin's picture

Pardon my age and non wokeness, but who is 'Sia'? Never mind, I looked her up. Meh.

German Simonson's picture

Andy Day, is that you?