Sia Attempts Damage Control As Her Controversial Film Is Nominated for Golden Globes

By Noah Berkowitz

On the morning of February 4th, Sia issued an apology on twitter for her upcoming film Music, and for her response to criticism she received from the autistic community. There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the film, which follows the story of a former drug-dealer taking custody of her non-verbal, autistic sister after the death of their mother. Although Sia may have not intended to cause harm when this film went into production, her initial response to the autistic community’s criticism of her film indicated that she possessed a very warped view of autistic people, using them as an artistic muse rather than recognizing their humanity. Given the controversy, it’s a shock that this movie is still being released, as it promotes several negative stereotypes, and reinforces ableism in ways that could prove deadly. While Sia’s attempts to mitigate the damage are appreciated, she cannot take back the harm she has already caused. It should also be noted that Sia’s apology only comes after Music received 2 Golden Globe nominations, which has spurred on the hashtag #NoGoldenGlobeForMusic. The scandal surrounding this film is indicative of a larger problem of persistent ableism within society as a whole.

Before getting into why Sia had to apologize in the first place, here is her apology in full:

There’s a lot here to address, although Sia’s apology only covers some of the criticism she’s received.

The root issue of most of the criticism received is that Sia seemingly did not include autistic individuals in the creation of this film. Had there been a broader conversation with the autistic community, or autistic people involved behind the scenes, a lot of the problems within the movie probably would have been addressed in pre-production.

When Sia first began to receive criticism, she claimed to have done significant research in preparation for this film. However, it’s plain to see that Sia did not make a significant effort to include the autistic community in her research. Sia’s choice to work with Autism Speaks, an organization that has come under fire from the neurodiversity movement, has been subject to criticism. Sia claimed to have no idea the group was so controversial, which is odd considering she reported to have researched autism for 3 years prior to working on the movie.

Furthermore, Sia elected not to cast an autistic person to play the autistic character. She claims to have “tried working with a beautiful young girl” who was on the autism spectrum but said the girl found the experience “unpleasant and stressful”. Whoever this one actress was, her experience doesn’t guarantee that all neurodivergent actresses would have had the same experience. When an autistic actress tweeted at Sia that she and several other disabled actors could have performed the role, even on short notice, Sia fired back at the tweeter that maybe she just wasn’t a very good actress.

This response is not only insulting and immature, but Sia’s refusal to accept criticism is an indication of a lack of genuine care for the autistic community. Sia instead cast longtime creative partner Maddie Ziegler, who has appeared in all of her music videos. Sia admitted that casting Maddie was an ableist decision on her part, but she couldn’t work on a project without Maddie. Many have pointed out that Maddie could have simply performed a different role if Sia wanted to work with her that badly, but Sia did not respond to any such criticisms. Sia also cavalierly admitted to being ableist, and when one is producing a film with an autistic titular character, it is cause for concern when they don’t seem to take ableism as a serious issue.

The issues with this film go beyond casting. A common criticism of the film based on the trailers is that the film uses autisitic people for entertainment, but doesn’t actually bother to provide autistic people with any sort of genuine representation. It’s pretty common in Hollywood for filmmakers to treat disabled people as “special” or “beautiful” in a way that separates them from their humanity and the struggles their disorders bring. In one line in the first trailer, Ebo, portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr, says that “she sees the world in a completely different way from us,” when referring to Ziegler’s character, Music. Autistic people are people, and they live in the same reality as everybody else. This sort of portrayal is as alienating as it is infantilizing. It’s almost as if the titular character isn’t even human in the eyes of the writers or other characters. The latest trailer for the film contains flashing lights, loud music, and people talking over the music, all of which would contribute to a sensory hell for an autistic person. It is clear that Sia didn’t make this movie for autistic people to enjoy, but to profit off of their struggle for the entertainment of neurotypical people.

But that’s not even the worst part of all of this. In a scene from the film released on TikTok, Music has a meltdown, which is a common experience for some autistic people. In reality, the best thing a bystander can do when an autistic person is having a meltdown, is to be empathetic, make them feel safe and loved, and give them space to minimize sensory input. Instead, in the movie, Ebo utilizes a tactic known as prone restraint, in which he lies on top of the character until she stops melting down. The film portrays this as the correct way to handle a meltdown, but prone restraint quite literally kills people. In fact, news broke the week this footage was released that Eric Parsa, a 16 year old autistic teen, was killed by prone restraint last year while he experienced a public meltdown. Prone restraint is a tactic used by Police departments, and even schools to stop meltdowns, and it frequently results in injury and death. Sia’s apology addressed prone restraint directly, although including a warning about prone restraint in the beginning of the film doesn’t change that it is portrayed as the correct way to handle meltdowns within the scene itself. Sia also didn’t make any statements about prone restraint when the leaked scenes first became controversial. She only addressed it after her film received 2 Golden Globe nominations.

This film is symbolic of a broader issue in the way neurodivergent people are deprived of a voice in society. Despite all the backlash to this movie from autistic individuals, this movie is not only still being released, but is nominated for awards. There is a sentiment held by many neurotypicals, conscious or otherwise, that neurodivergent individuals are not capable of advocating for themselves or even being aware of their own needs. Sia believed that a non-verbal actress would have too difficult a time on set, so hired a neurotypical actress, despite the fact that many other neurodivergent actors would have been capable of performing the role. Beyond that Sia could have made an effort to accommodate their needs. Her portrayal of prone restraint as the correct course of action for someone witnessing a meltdown also exemplifies a neurotypical person believing that they know what’s best for a neurodivergent person, despite having no true understanding of their experience. Neurodivergent people, especially autistic people, are often deprived of their humanity and their agency. Treating autistic individuals like children and negating their voices and experiences only perpetuates the issues that they face. Sia’s apology does not absolve her of the harm she has caused. While she claims to have done 3 years of research, there are very basic problematic aspects of her film that would not have made the final cut had she involved more autistic people in the production. Her apology also comes 4 months after the initial controversy was sparked, and suspiciously soon after her film was nominated for awards, which is not an indication of genuine regret. Her initial response to criticism from the autistic community was full of frustration and hatred. It may be beyond her at this point, but if she truly cared about preventing harm towards the autistic community, she would do everything in her power to prevent this film from being released.

Here are some resources so that you can learn more about autism:

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