Newsflash: Ableism isn’t cute, especially when there are misconceptions regarding neurodivergent representation in mainstream media.
Australian pop artist Sia has tried her hand at directing, but the results, thus far, have been poor.
Just released on Feb. 10, Music follows a now-sober girl taking care of her half-sister who is on the autism spectrum.
This movie is supposed to explore themes such as “finding your voice” and “creating family,” but instead leaves a sour taste in the mouth when you remember former Dance Moms actress Maddie Ziegler is not, in fact, on the spectrum — which is what her role in the film requires.
According to ABC News, Sia said that Ziegler cried on the first day of rehearsals, afraid that her acting in an autistic role might seem like she is mocking, or making fun of those on the spectrum. Thus, Sia said that she “wouldn’t let that happen,” but now realizes that she can’t actually protect her from that ridicule because that is the position she put this young teenager in.
Although Sia has researched autism for the past three years while also getting approval from the Child Mind Institute, this does not consider the individual emotions of each person on the autism spectrum.
Autism is referred to as a spectrum because it is just that: a wide array of cognitive abilities, each unique to the individual. A broken leg is a pretty universal experience, and can be represented with accuracy and ease with a mere set of crutches and some wincing. Autism? How can a movie define such a vastly differing experience?
But it’s not just about “getting it right” — it’s also about giving acting opportunities to performers on the spectrum so they can represent the adversity they personally face, knowing their cognitive disability and portraying it in a thoughtful way that isn’t like bullet points on a check-list.
When Sia announced the production of this movie, fans on the spectrum took to social media to express their concerns, feeling misunderstood or underrepresented in the acting industry, though no commentary has been made on Sia’s end.
The movie already has even lower Rotten Tomato ratings than 2019’s Cats — which is saying something considering how heinous that adaptation was.
Clearly, including autistic actors in the ensemble won’t cut it. Why was there not a casting call for a woman on the spectrum to play the lead role? Do we always need a big-name, neurotypical role in the spotlight?
This calls to mind Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. So many people were amazed by his performance, shocked to find out that he is not on the spectrum. Looking back, was that an insult? Not to his performance, but to how the character was written, and furthermore how much praise he got for trying to represent something he is not, which may have hurt autistic people in the process.
You can’t make everyone happy. That’s known in the film world. But if the target audience is autistic teenagers, why not listen to what they have to say? There’s been backlash on this movie since film production started, which would’ve given Sia ample time to make modifications to her work, or reconsider her casting — maybe even consider that she put a young actress on a pedestal for backlash, knowing that this could hurt her career.
It must be difficult for neurodivergent performers to put themselves out there if they aren’t considered for neurotypical roles, whilst also not being casted in neurodivergent roles that they would be much more qualified for than the same go-to actors and actresses.
Hopefully Hollywood continues to diversify the film industry; however, that should include those on the spectrum, too.
Oh, and Sia: Stick to “Elastic Hearts.”