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Image / Agenda / Breaking Stories

Sia’s response to criticism for casting Maddie Ziegler as an autistic teen is as tone deaf as the move itself


by Jennifer McShane
22nd Nov 2020
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Sia and her film Music are currently facing criticism for casting Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic actress, in the titular role, a nonverbal autistic character who moves in with her recently sober sister (Kate Hudson). As if that weren’t disappointing enough, the singer’s defensive response to this rightful anger from the autistic community is proof that the project was doomed from the start


As a member of the disabled community, I feel it’s utterly fair to say that I feel excluded when it comes to conversations on civil rights, healthcare, media representation – pretty much the whole nine yards. We are not, in my opinion, accurately represented on screen or in the general zeitgeist either; in 2015, a report found that just 2.4% of characters in the top 100 Hollywood movies who spoke or had names had a disability.

So, naturally, when word gets out of a film that will portray or depict in this case, a non-verbal autistic teen, naturally all eyes are on the project. The fact that Sia, a singer whom I generally was a fan of, chose to convert to type is disappointing enough and wholly fits in with the churning entertainment industry stereotype that the young, beautiful and non-disabled actor should ‘transform’ using disability as the crutch.

It’s practically all we know. Glee, The Good Doctor and Atypical are only a few examples of autistic characters being portrayed by non-autistic actors.  But just because it’s a common occurrence doesn’t in any way make it acceptable.

In fact, it can lead to harmful portrayals about various disability – just look at Will Traynor in Me Before You where it’s suggested that death is the option for someone living with a disability.

It’s at best, pure laziness, even with well intentions (Sia said she spent three years researching the project, based it on a friend, and had two autistic people advising her as well as casting a number of autistic people in smaller roles) but in this case, is yet another example in a long history of autistic people not being centred in stories about autism.

There is naturally, an autistic acting community who feel they were overlooked, and Sia’s reasoning for it doesn’t in any way help the situation, citing it would have been ‘cruel’ to use an autistic actor.

A disappointment 

In fact, her whole response to the matter, to the community who are autistic and live it day-to-day and who are rightfully questioning her choices, has been as disappointing as her misguided casting decision. She has reacted in anger, gone on the defence instead of being open and willing to listen.

As a public figure, she could have used this opportunity to reflect on her role in perpetuating ableism and autistic stereotypes – ableism is rampant in the industry as it is – and we need public figures with platforms to be calling this out.

To put it simply, if she can’t listen to a directly-affected community’s criticisms on the project, should she even be justifying trying to direct a film about their life (in which the non-autistic lead actor would have little or no clue about the direct challenges they face)?

Her whole response is tone-deaf and quite careless. Yes, you can see she’s frustrated and she was trying to do the right thing, but is this really necessary?

Anne Hathaway and Warner Brothers did it the right way when there was an outcry that The Witches did not consider the harm the portrayal could have on children with limb differences. Anne apologised, admitted even with the well-intended actions of all involved that she hadn’t made the connection herself and would have done things differently if she had.

Sia’s response leaves a lot to be desired:

Because it’s not about Sia feeling “bummed” about criticism. It’s about a community who feel they’ve again been overlooked and underrepresented for an easier, glossier casting choice who fits the traditional mould.

Please do better, Sia.

Main photograph: @RollingStone


Read more: What Netflix’s The Politician is already getting right about disability

Read more: Having a disability took me years to come to terms with’

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