Singer Sia is under fire for how her film portrays autism


Some were offended by Sia’s (pic) choice to cast Maggie Ziegler, a nondisabled actor, as an autistic character. Photo: TNS

Australian pop singer-songwriter Sia is known for hits such as Chandelier but also for protecting her privacy, often concealing her identity with larger-than-life wigs.

It might come as a surprise, then, that the nine-time Grammy nominee engaged directly with critics of the new trailer for her upcoming film, Music.

The project, which she’s calling a “cinematic experience”, will feature dancer and frequent collaborator Maddie Ziegler as Music, a teen with autism as well as actors Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr.

Sia, who has dabbled in directing since 2014, released the trailer on Nov 19. Since then, a backlash has been brewing on Twitter around the portrayal of Ziegler’s character, who communicates her emotions through a tablet in the trailer, leaning into a disability the actress does not have.

Sia, however, seems annoyed by the pushback, tweeting: “Why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”

“Hi Sia, can I ask why you didn’t cast a disabled actor for this part?” Irish actress Bronagh Waugh (Unforgotten) wrote on Twitter. “It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character. People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing.”

Waugh continued: “Many of my friends have different disabilities and they are some of the... coolest, most talented, funny, kind, intelligent people I know.

“They are also the most under-represented and inaccurately represented group in our society. This kind of inaccurate, offensive representation causes so much pain.”

“I agree, ” Sia responded in a tweet. “I’ve never referred to (the character Music) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.”

The social media platform amplified the outcry as a Twitter Moment Friday as the controversy began to trend in the United States, with actors, activists, organisations and fans chiming in.

Some were offended by Sia’s choice to cast Ziegler, a nondisabled actor, as an autistic character.

(Sia has worked with the 18-year-old dancer for a number of years, featuring her as a muse of sorts in videos for Chandelier and Elastic Heart.)

Detractors have funnelled their frustration into the #ActuallyAutistic and #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs hashtags.

Others, such as Twitter user @oceansofnovels, condemned the singer’s use of the organisation Autism Speaks to consult on the project.

Autism Speaks bills itself as an “autism advocacy organisation” but has come under fire for not being founded or led by people with autism, among other failures.

Although Sia did respond directly to a number of tweets, her response to the backlash too has been criticised.

Twitter user Helen Zbihlyj, a prominent member of the gaming community, wrote: “Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that – excuses. “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs”

To that, Sia responded with a curt: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

In her only general, public response as of the afternoon of Nov 20, Sia tweeted: “Grrrrrrrrrr. F — f — why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”

The movie is expected to be released early next year.

“The purpose of a movie trailer is to spark interest in a film, ” responded actress Franchesca Ramsey (Superstore).

“Thus *asking* people to judge aka decide if they want to see the full film. It’s obvious you put a lot of work into this project & are incredibly talented but you missed the mark here.”

Ramsey continued: “People are allowed to feel however they want about the work.

“But especially when you take it upon yourself to tell the story of an under represented and often misrepresented community the LEAST you could do is include/consult them. Otherwise are you really advocating for them?” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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