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Framed: The Case of ‘Music’

Sia’s ‘Music’ takes advantage of disabled narratives, as the creator fails to listen to the people it heavily derives from.

Sia on Twitter: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” Background photo by Merrick Morton/Hanway Films

In an interview with Variety’s Shirley Halperin, singer-songwriter Sia recalls a memorable moment from the production of her film debut, : as the cast was preparing to rehearse the script, Sia found her fellow creative ally Maddie Ziegler in a somewhat disturbed state. When the musician confronted Ziegler (who was 14 at the time), the actor broke down. “I don’t want to make anyone feel like I’m making fun of them”, she cried, and Sia reassured her: “I won’t let that happen”.

Sia Talks Directing Her First Feature Film ‘Music’

You see, in , Ziegler takes on the character of, well, Music — a non-verbal teenager on the autism spectrum. Sia confirms the specifics in the same interview, and states that Music’s character is based on a “real person [she knows]”. The depiction of autism is apparently so damn accurate that the Child Mind Institute (with which Sia shared the footage to ensure the accuracy of the portrayal) approved of Ziegler’s performance: “Maddie scored a 100 percent”, Sia joyfully smiles. “Both of us cried on that day.”

And then the trailer was released.

Music, a film by Sia — coming in early 2021

Granted, a trailer is a sneak peek into the final product, yet many, including myself, found this minute of footage exceptionally revealing. Ranging from Ziegler’s depiction of characteristic facial expressions, to the character’s so-far-perceived limited usage of the AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication), to the overall narrative and language used by the actors — the essence just felt wrong.

“We’re trying to show love for all of the caregivers, and for all of the people on the autism spectrum”, Sia continues in the Variety interview — and that order of things is crucial. The trailer introduces Zu as she learns of her imminent guardianship over her sister, Music. “[Music] can understand everything you are saying to her”, says Ebo, Zu’s friend, “she sees the world in a completely different way from us”. Zu is the point-of-view character, taking away Music’s agency already within the context of the trailer: we’re meant to empathize with and experience “Music’s world” with Zu, a world which appears to be a candy-coated extravaganza set to Sia’s pop beat (in case you forgot that Music is a “magical little girl”). A trope that is tired, but seemingly appealing for the media at large: the enigmatic and dramatic autistic world. In this vibrant musical sequence, Music’s character comes off as nothing more but a visual narrative tool for Sia’s artistry, done at the expense of those whose experiences are being commodified through the neurotypical gaze.

As pointed out by Sia herself, autism is a spectrum, and the characteristics of it are extremely diverse and can vary greatly. While it is true, this is also seen as a green light for framing autism into whatever mould fits — think of any socially-awkward geek or “special” savant. They typically bond with a socially-apt supporting character, who serves as a bridge between the autism-coded lead and the world. Often supported by a dramatic plot line, these stories are also predominantly cis male-driven, likely as a result of male-centric theories and concepts (such as Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” theory) being largely observed within the autism research sphere. Additionally, countless research suggests that, due to sociological factors and existing gender binaries, female-assumed persons may fail to fit the existing diagnostic criteria for ASD. This is further reinforced by a large gap in diagnosis data.

While such nuances as gender binaries may seem irrelevant in the context of , they, however, potentially hinder Sia’s vision of Ziegler’s character. The songwriter previously asserted that Music is based off her male friend’s traits and “utterances” — likely proving yet another point of generalization and oversight within the film.

Music’s character comes off as nothing more but a visual narrative tool for Sia’s artistry, done at the expense of those whose experiences are being commodified through the neurotypical gaze.

Sia’s response is, at the very least, unsettling. While retracting in response to one of the many Twitter users suggesting that the lead role should have been given to an actor on the spectrum, Sia proclaims that she tried working with a “beautiful young girl, non-verbal, on the spectrum”, but the experience was “unpleasant and stressful”. She reinforced that continuing the work with someone with “that level of functioning was cruel, not kind”. It remains unclear whether the production environment was the source of anxiety, and if the appropriate production arrangements were established for that particular actor.

“I actually tried working with a a beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.”
“I agree. I’ve never referred to 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.”

As pointed out by the Refinery29 contributor Alaina Leary, the notion that an individual’s abilities can be casually assumed based on their method of communicating with the world is ableist at best — it is more indicative of the societal perception of persons with disabilities, rather than the people themselves.

The uncomfortable deflection continues: in response to another Twitter user, she highlights the diversity in casting, stating that “thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk” were cast in the film, and not “as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but […] as doctors, nurses, and singers”. If bringing other marginalized groups into the conversation, while also ignorantly making a mockery of “fucking prostitutes” and “drug addicts”, is supposed to prove a point, can we really take the proclaimed motivations into account? If representation becomes a fact-sheet with boxes to check, or a percentage to score, how pure can the intentions be?

“I cast thirteen neuroatypical people, three trans folk, and not as fucking prostitutes or drug addicts but s as doctors, nurses and singers. Fucking sad nobody’s even seen the dang movie. My heart has always been in the right place.”

And so goes the Twitter feud: from reluctance to acknowledge the ableist reinforcement of common stereotypes, to outright rude remarks.

Growing up, media shaped my perception of “me” — an asocial teenager (who’s very talented at masking) with severe anxiety issues and gender identity crises all mixed together, at the time unaware of my ASD. I was unsure of what “me” really means, and processing the world is a struggle that I have to face daily, and will have to face. I was looking at characters coded with some of my traits, but never explicitly addressed to as autistic: instead, they were “savants”, “special ones”, “geniuses”, or self-diagnosed punchlines (looking at you, Glee). It took getting to my mid-twenties to see the value to my experiences — a trope, a tragic backstory, an ambiguous nuisance that others have to deal with, or learn how to heal from.

The most telling part of the Variety interview comes at the very end: “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a thing for — and they’re called “special abilities” now, not “special needs” — the people with special abilities, and also for the caregivers of those people”, says Sia, eerily proud of herself for forgetting that the word “disabled” exists. Halperin seems to be amused by Music’s characterization as well: “[…] there is this wide-eyed innocence of this character, Music, that in times like these is almost so radically different, […] and it just feels so nice”. “That’s what I’ve always found with the special abilities people that I’ve fallen in love with… [it’s] this purity”, Sia responds.

It took me a while to finally go in for the diagnosis. As I was researching autism, I stumbled across one of the many wonderful Sarah Hendrickx talks — and I cried. I felt heard, and in a strange and relieving way—that was all I needed. After years of facing various difficulties, listening to Hendrickx recite her life anecdotes was liberating: in that moment, I was no longer the “different” one.

So far, the core of , refactored and labeled to sell a general idea of empathy and compassion (served alongside Sia’s songwriting bits), fades in comparison to the authenticity of genuine experiences. It is obsolete. The question is — was the exploitation really worth it?

dealing with it through tropes

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