As the mainstream media continues to grow and develop, we thankfully have begun to see a stronger push for more inclusive representation in our entertainment. Big, well-known names in the media have been-- or at least have tried to -- use their power to share the stories we have still yet to hear. However, their efforts do not always come across as intended. For a long time, singer-songwriter Sia was one of the most talked about artists after the release of many chart-topping singles. Lately, however, the singer has found herself as the main topic of rather negative conversations. Recently, Sia released her first movie called “Music”; the film follows the story of Music, a young, non-verbal girl on the autism spectrum and her older sister Zu, a recovering addict. A seemingly inclusive story, right? Not exactly. Instead of casting a neurodivergent actress to play the role of Music, Sia chose to cast Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actress who has worked closely with Sia for over five years. So, many can argue that the controversy Sia has found herself in is well-deserved.
A History of Sia and Maddie’s Relationship
Sia’s mother-daughter-like relationship with Maddie Ziegler, who starred on the hit reality show Dance Moms, began in 2014, when the singer cast the then-11 year old as the main focus of her music video for her song “Chandelier”. The video went viral and accumulated over 2 billion views on YouTube, skyrocketing both Sia and Maddie’s fame; since then, the pair have been practically inseparable. Sia has cast Maddie in every single one of her projects, and has even stated that she refuses to do a project if Maddie is not involved, which explains her poor casting choice for “Music”. While the media adores Sia and Maddie’s relationship, many fans have begun to question whether it is loving or actually controlling and ultimately, creepy. For starters, Maddie was said to have frequent sleepovers at Sia’s house when she was younger, and would even sleep in the same bed as Sia-- keep in mind that the two are 27 years apart. In addition to this, Maddie reportedly spent more time in lockdown at Sia’s house during the COVID-19 pandemic than she did at her own home. While it is nice to see such a strong connection between the two, it is safe to say that Sia’s love for Maddie has led her to make many unwise decisions, and has reached a point where it seems to be more obsessive than normal.
What Were They Thinking?
There is a lot to unpack from the film: it had the right idea with the wrong execution, and it seems as if the members of the production don’t fully realize the extent to which the film is harmful to those on the spectrum. Even though the film is called “Music”, it centralizes around Zu, Music’s half-sister (played by Kate Hudson) and her influence in Music’s life. In fact, given Music is non-verbal, audiences don’t have the chance to fully learn about her as a person, making her hardly a character at all. For a movie that is supposed to represent those on the spectrum, you would think a positive portrayal of the neurodivergent character would be the main focus. To many, however, the movie seemed like one big opportunity to mock the characteristics and actions of those with autism. Throughout the film’s entirety, Maddie over exaggerates many tics and facial expressions that people often use to taunt and make fun of individuals on the autism spectrum. These tics and facial expressions come naturally to those with autism because they are things that they are comfortable with; they do not come naturally to Maddie Ziegler, making her entire performance damaging and somewhat unsettling. However, Maddie believes that Sia chose her for the role to bring life to the dance sequences woven throughout the film, and that the tics and exaggerations were simply choreographed “dance moves” rather than a mockery of those with autism. Finally, a large portion of the backlash Sia faced was due to very graphic, intense, and uncomfortable restraint scenes that ultimately demonstrated a lack of knowledge and research. On two occasions, Music has an episode and begins to panic; in an attempt to stop it, Zu and Ebo, Zu’s friend in the film, use their body weight to pin Music to the floor, where they stay until she calms down. According to the National Autistic Society, those on the spectrum are often extremely opposed to physical touch, therefore, the correct way to deal with an episode is to give them their space and talk them through it. After being called out by basically everyone on social media, Sia has promised to remove the restraint scenes from the film, as well as add a warning at the beginning for future screenings.
Do We Hold Maddie Accountable?
In light of the film’s controversy, another topic of conversation has been whether or not audiences should be holding Maddie Ziegler accountable as well. When the making of the film began, Maddie was 14 years old. Some may argue that she was too young and didn’t know any better, while others may argue that she was still old enough to know what is right and wrong. Ultimately, whether she knew it was wrong or not, you would think someone in Maddie’s life, like her mother for instance, would have stepped in sooner. A lot of people have also claimed that Maddie was under a strict contract with Sia and the production company, and therefore had no choice but to do the film: however, I was unable to find any sources that confirmed this. It is evident that Maddie did not go into this film with confidence. In an interview with “The Project”, Sia mentioned that Maddie broke down on the first day of filming out of fear that audiences would shame her for mocking those with autism. She was clearly worried about her role in the film, but Sia assured her that none of that would occur...we all know how that turned out. Overall, we can all agree that the film was poorly executed, and that the cast and production company as a whole should be held accountable. We shouldn’t pick and choose who should own up to their mistakes.
The Importance of Neurodivergent Representation
As the media is constantly changing, it is important to assure that they are including those with autism as much as possible. To a young person on the spectrum, seeing characters like themselves portrayed in the entertainment they consume can do wonders for their self-confidence and pride in who they are as they go through life. It is also important that these characters still show some diversity in terms of their identities and journeys being on the spectrum. For example, a typical character with autism that is frequently portrayed in the media is the “autistic savant”, a person with autism that is exceptionally brilliant. TV shows like “The Good Doctor”, which centralizes around Dr. Shaun Murphy, a genius young doctor with autism, features this exact character archetype. While this is a great step towards inclusivity, studies have shown that about only 10% of people on the autism spectrum have these savant abilities, therefore, it still does not provide enough equal representation. So, how can the media push for more representation of those on the spectrum? The industry needs to begin actively searching for and casting neurodivergent actors to play these roles. These actors will be able to truly educate audiences on the reality of what life is like for someone on the spectrum and can help Hollywood break free from what is considered “the norm” of characters with autism. It is also important that the media strays from only casting white, male leads in these roles; when looking at shows like “The Good Doctor” and “The Big Bang Theory”, they consist of similar characters, giving those with autism a very one-dimensional persona that does not represent the community as a whole.
In essence, it all comes down to consistently putting in effort towards making sure that those on the spectrum have the chance to share their stories and make their voices heard. The sooner we can provide those with autism the opportunities to help create characters with autism, the more efficiently we will begin to see a much needed change in Hollywood.
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Tinubu More Articles February 16, Abeni. “Inside Maddie Ziegler and Sia's Relationship; Is It Problematic?” Showbiz Cheat Sheet, 16 Feb. 2021, www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/maddie-ziegler-sia-relationship-problematic.html/.
Wanshel, Elyse. “Sia Says 'Nepotism' Is Why She Cast Maddie Ziegler In Her New Film.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 4 Jan. 2021, www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/sia-nepotism-casting-maddie-ziegler-music-film-autism_n_5ff37359c5b61817a538c163?ri18n=true.