Ableism in Pop-Culture and a Focus on Sia’s Film “Music”

Kerrera Jackson, Staff Writer

Sia’s film Music, which was released on January 14, 2021, has come under fire for its incredibly ableist and inaccurate portrayal of autism. This film centers around a nonverbal, autistic young girl named Music, who is portrayed by Maddie Ziegler. When the casting for this role was announced, autistic communities immediately pointed out how harmful it was to have a neurotypical person portray this character. They pointed out how the distinct challenges that people with autism go through and the characteristics they have cannot be accurately or sincerely portrayed by a person who does not know the complexities of having autism.

As those who watched the film later saw, their fears had become a reality. Ziegler had portrayed an overly-characterized version of an autistic person, and the body movements she performed to portray Music’s autism were incredibly close to those that mock and belittle autistic people. Her physical tics and facial expressions came off as overly choreographed instead of as those of a real autistic human being.

“A lot of movies or shows cast actors who are not actually autistic and, although doing research helps, they will never have the true experiences of people with autism. I think that movies and TV shows should cast more actors with autism to play characters with autism,” said Sam Boime, ‘21, leader of Minnetonka’s Unified Club.

Included in the film is a scene where Music is experiencing sensory overload, and those around her physically restrain her in an incredibly unsafe maneuver that could possibly kill an autistic person. The inclusion of this traumatizing restraint not only shows how incredibly uninformed Sia was in the making and researching of this movie, but it also puts those with autism at intense risk if this restraint method were to be attempted.

Sia’s incredibly defensive and abrasive remarks in response to this controversy have not made the controversy surrounding Music any better.

When responding to an autistic actress saying that she, or any other neurodivergent actress, could have been available to play Music, Sia responded, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

Overall, Sia’s film is an offensive portrayal of autism, not just limited to the reasons detailed here. While Music is a significant and recent example of ableism in popular media, it is definitely not the only one.

More often than not, when a person with a disability is portrayed, a harmful trope comes with it. An accurate portrayal of disabilities is sadly hard to come by. The trope, “A Fate Worse Than Death,” portrays those with disabilities as better off dead.

This trope is seen in the popular romance film Me Before You, in which Will, a man who has recently become paralyzed from the neck down, ends up killing himself via euthanasia because he feels as though the woman he loves would be better off without him. This incredibly harmful trope has real-life repercussions on the disabled people who see it.

This is not the only harmful trope included in Me Before You. The main character of this film, portrayed by Emilia Clarke, and the man’s family believe that with her cheery attitude and a blooming romance, Will will be saved from his depression. This is an example of a savior complex. Often, neurotypical and able-bodied people are portrayed as the saviors of those with disabilities, making the neurotypical character into the hero of the film. In reality, disabled people do not need saving and do not need neurotypical people to benefit from their disabilities.

“What the author and filmmaker do not understand is, while it is ‘one story’, there are so few stories about us, by us, that this representation becomes normative. Disability representation is not even close to being fully authentic, diverse, or nuanced. Films like Me Before You condition audiences’ expectations of disabled characters and stories which, in turn, form societal beliefs and assumptions that can result in real-life consequences on actual disabled people (e.g., support for assisted suicide legislation, the rationing of health care, etc.)” said Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project.

According to “The Employment of Performers with Disabilities in the Entertainment Industry” report, 54 million Americans (20 percent of all Americans) are living with a mental or physical disability, yet less than 2 percent of TV show characters display a disability, and only 0.5 percent have speaking roles. This active exclusion of disabled people from media is not an accurate portrayal of the society we live in, and it only furthers the othering of disabled people. Disabled people deserve to be accurately portrayed in film and television, yet most often they are treated as props or jokes, or they are just not included at all.

Fortunately, however, there are examples of accurate portrayals of disabled people, such as the film A Quiet Place. This thriller features a deaf actress playing deaf character, and the use of sign language actually benefits the entire family, rather than other more common portrayals of it being seen as a challenge or a set-back.

“A movie that represents autism well is the Power Rangers movie from 2017 where Billy Cranston (the blue ranger) is on the spectrum. I think it’s represented very well because the movie shows how he thinks differently than the rest of them but he is still just a regular person like the rest of the Power Rangers. A TV show that represents autism well is the Netflix original, Atypical. The show’s main character Sam Gardner is on the spectrum and the first two seasons follow him through his senior year of high school and the third and upcoming fourth and final season follow him as he navigates from high school to college. It accurately shows a lot of the struggles that would come with that, especially for someone on the spectrum,” said Boime.

March 3rd was “Spread the Word” Day, a day that calls for the end of the use of the R-word and the importance of inclusion for those with disabilities. The necessity for days like March 3rd emphasizes how far we still have to go to make the world we live in truly equal and fair. Everyone has the responsibility to listen to and be an ally and advocate for those with disabilities. Stopping the use of the R-word is one big thing every person at MHS can do.

“To be a good ally, it’s important to include and treat a person with autism the way you would treat anyone, but still acknowledge that they have a disability and the struggles that might come with that. I think it’s important that people know that people with autism are just like anyone else. They just see things differently sometimes,” said Boime.

Ableism is sadly all too prevalent in society and popular media, even favorite films or television shows are not exempt from that. Acknowledging this fact brings us a step closer to real equality and decency.