For the past few years, there has been a fight to have more diverse representation within the media. Many different industries and companies have worked to reach the demands put on them by their consumers. In some cases it results in tremendous success and in others it leaves the creators under the eye of scrutiny. As times change and evolve, every decision will be closely looked at. There is no way to guarantee that everyone will be satisfied with the changes made. That isn’t to say that the creators are wrong or that the receiving audience is too demanding. The simple solution is to localize the audience that you are trying to reach and work on satisfying the demands of that specific group before venturing out to other endeavors.
Art is a complicated subject. With the desire for representation and still wanting to stay true to their vision, an artist may have to make sacrifices. Singer Sia received major backlash for her film Music. The film tells the story of young Music, an autistic teen who has recently lost her grandmother/caregiver and is now being taken care of by her older sister. With the new adjustments, Music - who is nonverbal - is struggling to make connections with the outside world and instead uses song and dance as a way to communicate her feelings and experience the world around her. The main issue that people find with the movie is that the main character, Music, is played by neurotypical actress and dancer Maddie Ziegler.
When the news came out that Ziegler would be playing the role of Music, critics were quick to question the casting decision. They referred to it as ableism and inconsiderate to the individuals of the neurodiverse community - especially those that have a passion for acting. In an interview on Australian TV show "The Sunday Project," Sia stated that nepotism played a larger role in her casting decision than ableism: "I realized it wasn't ableism. I mean, it is ableism I guess as well, but it's actually nepotism because I can't do a project without her. I don't want to. I wouldn't make art if it didn't include her."
During the time of filming, Ziegler was 14 years old. Afraid of the backlash she might receive for working on the project, she voiced her opinions to Sia who in turn told her that she would protect her from any negative backlash. Despite these promises, many still chose to hold Ziegler responsible for her role in the film. To a certain extent, everyone involved in the production is at fault. Due to her young age, there is only so much Ziegler could have done. She was led to believe by several people, including Sia, that the majority of viewers would appreciate her depiction of Music when in fact many have described it as a caricature of a neurodiverse individual (caricatures are known for their exaggerated features that are meant to be seen as humorous). Ziegler’s performance in the film can be more closely associated with the display of dance choreography than it can be with the actual characteristics and emotions of an autistic individual. That could have been the goal of Sia when she wrote and directed the film or it could have been an artistic oversight. However, it takes away from the authenticity of the character,
In debating whether or not Ziegler can be held responsible for her role in the film, I can see both sides. Many do believe that Ziegler was too young at the time to be held responsible. The problem itself is just that: was Ziegler too young to know that what she was doing was morally wrong? She had her doubts but the issue stems beyond her, Sia, the production team, and maybe even her parents. The problem is that children are not educated on neurodiversity. Had she been more aware of the impact she would be making, there could have been more consideration on whether or not she should take the role. And if she still decided to take the role, she would have been able to play the role better than how she did.
Had the movie been released closer to when it was originally filmed there may have been less backlash. The movie was filmed in July 2017 but wasn’t released until more than three years later in February 2021. Within that time people have grown more sensitive to certain topics and are more likely to fight for the accurate representation of minority groups even if they may not be part of that group. Sia said she spent 15 years writing the movie. In those 15 years, there was never a time where people were as critical of neurodiverse representation as they are now. I don’t blame Ziegler for her role and I don’t immediately blame Sia either, yet an issue remains.
After being called out, Sia made a relatively weak argument to support her decision. Sia spent so much time and effort to bring her vision to reality that she was very insensitive to how others felt about the project. The National Autistic Society called Sia out on her casting decision via Twitter: “Sia has got this one wrong. There are so many talented autistic actors out there – like Saskia, Alex, Max, and Holly.” Alongside this organization, there were many others that came to her on social media with their critiques. In summary, she responded with a profane decree that her goal was to represent the neurodiverse population and show their unique perspective of the world. Her intentions were in the right place but the execution was questionable.
In the end, Sia isn’t the first director to cast a neurotypical actor to play a neurodiverse character and probably won’t be the last. The most that can be wished for is that the portrayal of these characters is authentic and takes into consideration the actual lives and characteristics of the individuals being depicted rather than the stereotypes that are continuously perpetuated. Representation is still being fought for in many different avenues. Although the movie may not have been what many hoped it to be, it did spark conversation that is pivotal in the fight for representation and inclusion across several platforms.