Music – a cacophony of disableist representation

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The film Music, directed by Sia seems to have been almost universally dubbed as the most disableist portrayal of Autism yet, in the 21st century. Alison Wilde gives a deeper analysis of the problems behind this movie and undercovers more subtle strands of misrepresentation.

Film poster featuring two young white women, one with a shaved head and a black man all in an embrace as they look at the camera

Poster image for ‘Music’ a film by Sia. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Vertical Entertainment, and is reproduced under terms of ‘fair use’.

This is one film which I think we will all agree on, unequivocally; it is utterly atrocious on every level.  As Sarah Kurchak has said, “it is bad art, even without the consideration of disability.” And, of course, it is deeply disabling. A silver-lining to all this is that even the mainstream media have picked up on how unacceptable this is. This is a win of sorts. Perhaps.

It’s sad that it takes something so truly awful to bring the issues of non-disabled people cast in disabled people’s roles to everyone’s attention, not to speak of the multitude of representational issues with this film. These have been well-reported in many publications, so I won’t repeat them here beyond a few reminders.

The biggest criticisms overall have been focused on two issues: the casting for the role of Music (an autistic young woman), played by Maddie Ziegler, a non-disabled dancer, model, and actress; and the use of ‘prone restraint‘ by those around her. Of course, it should be possible to represent restraint in ways which inform the audience about the social model of disability, but context is everything. And this one couldn’t be much worse. A narrative which clearly advises us that restraint is the best strategy to calm an autistic person (or anyone!) is clearly damaging, especially in its capacity to communicate to an  audience who  lack knowledge, or for those who are as ill-advised as Sia and her team.

As usual though, it’s the way that the story is told that is the problem. Music’s sister Kazu (groan), or Zu for short (played by Kate Hudson) is concerned when her neighbour and eventual lover, Ebo (Leslie Odom) rushes into their flat to solve Music’s (loud) distress, immediately pinning Music down to the floor to calm her. He reassures Zu that her worries are misplaced and that he is ‘crushing her with love’.

To my horror, this first appearance in the film (to restrain Music) was the ‘meet-cute’ between him and Zu – a key plot point (and prime candidate for worst ‘meet-cute’ in film history). Zu is as accepting of Ebo’s view, just as Sia was when she decided to take advice on this from Autism Speaks. To drive the message home, we see this happening again, with the ever-kind Ebo helping Zu to get past her reservations in learning how to deliver ’tough love’, i.e. to get beyond her fears of grappling Music to force her to the ground for ‘crushing’.

Just in case we’ve missed this hard-hitting message, this is a key moment in the plot, as it seems to lead to Music exhibiting more trust and affection for Zu. We can be left in no doubt that the narrative offers unequivocal advocacy of such treatment as reasonable, necessary, and altruistic. This is pernicious – it all works to position people with learning difficulties and autism as sub-human, and their restrainers/attackers as courageous, loving, and empathetic.

I‘ll leave that there, as there is little more to be said on this. There are many other issues I will also leave aside especially as many insightful critiques have been written on the multitude of faults in the film, e.g. the representation of autistic traits, the employment of autistic actors, and the inherent racism, playing out on several levels, including stereotypes, the prosthetic use of Ebo as Zu’s saintly rescuer, and the use of ‘Blackface’.

Instead I want to highlight some deeper issues here, concerns which reach to the heart of many disabled people’s discomfort or outright hostility for disablist mainstream representations. Whichever side of the fence we sit on regarding the employment of disabled actors in disabled roles (and I certainly wouldn’t want to put any of the autistic people I know through this), another key theme we continually seem to return to is that of authenticity. Generally, I think that these debates tend to go around in circles without getting to the roots of ‘the problem’. I think an examination of this film is instructive in this regard – it could even be used as a playbook for what not to do.

When we talk about images being authentic or not authentic, as true, or not true, to our ‘lived experiences’ it often seems difficult to work out what is really meant, especially as we all have unique impairment experiences; there is only one thing all of us disabled people have in common and that is disablement. What is authenticity of representation then? Just a feeling maybe? Seeing or hearing something which doesn’t fit with our own unique experience? Possibly. Or something intangible which vexes us, e.g. incidences of disablement which are all too true but unquestioned and presented as common sense or inevitable?

Nothing about Music felt authentic, in any of these senses, except the latter. For me, one of the deeply upsetting things which flew under the radar of do’s and don’ts of disability representation, is the deeply insidious portrayal of benign neglect which is all too familiar in the care and support of autistic people and those  who have labels of learning difficulty. Here it is hidden in plain sight.

Almost all the times when Music was seemingly happily occupied listening to her music and rocking/stimming, or at least being calm, she would be in the background, a semi-constant feature of the main protagonists’ (love) lives, a latent disruptive force in their immediate environment. This is likely to seem nonthreatening, even kind or desirable to many viewers. This sense of wellbeing is perhaps heightened because it is counterposed with her behaviour in more dramatic incidents, e.g. where her body and mood is seen to be out of control, before the inevitable restraint is imposed, or in the fantasy sequences when she’s singing and dancing in her imagination.

I am perhaps more disturbed by the idea that most viewers will go along with the idea that a quiet autistic person ‘in control’ can be safely ignored, averting our eyes and minds from their real needs. I say this from a place where I witnessed countless such incidents. I trained as a nurse in an institution where this was usually the best a person could expect, where the processing of disabled bodies was the norm, with the treatment of inmates being somewhere on a continuum which ran from benign neglect to unspeakable forms of abuse, all of which can and do lead to social and psychological harms, and many deaths among people with learning difficulties and autism.

If we listen to the  families, professionals, and those who investigate the deaths of people with learning difficulties and autism the idea of neglect is a common theme (if under-reported in the media) – to name but two there are the deaths of Connor Sparrowhawk and my sister Sarah. The use of restraint in the film has at least started a conversation. Conversely the neglect of Music, and the exclusion from the romantic ‘we world’ of the main protagonists or anyone else, is likely to be unnoticed, thus normalized, so there is no conversation to be had.

We have been mis-sold a movie. It should be called Kazu. I thought it was about the titular autistic character, but Music is a mere cipher to help us understand and engage with Zu’s redemption story. Zu’s own story is a disability problem in itself. Many would agree that addiction is an impairment and this portrayal over-simplifies addiction almost to point of parody; there to be cured with the simple means of inheriting the ‘burden of care’ of her autistic sister, and the love of a good man.

How could a story of a disabled character go so badly wrong? As much as I want more disabled actors to be employed, the casting seems to be the least significant problem here – I suspect the same perception is true for others who have had the misfortune of seeing it. Indeed, Sia reported that she “cast thirteen neuro-atypical people [and] three trans folk”, which tells us something about the ways in which people in powerful roles can claim diversity without actually engaging with it.

Another place we might find some answers is in the film’s framing of song and dance routines – all dream sequences. As a standalone these may have been enjoyable for some, if probably intolerable for most autistic viewers. But I am struggling to understand why Sia thought this was a good idea, apart from the obvious – the promotion of her own music and aesthetic. I am being slightly disingenuous here as I am convinced that the reasons behind this (and other things which she seems to know little about) are THE problem, the curiosity and fantastical theories of non-disabled film-makers often being the cause of such damaging representations; of course we can make bad art too, but we seldom get the opportunities to do so.

So much harm is done by those who are on evangelical missions to show us something about disability which they think we have missed (I am thinking here of the likes of the writers and directors of curiosity-fueled films such as Me Before You, and Wonder). Sadly, many such ideas (often Oscar-bait) are churned out by those who have ample resources to indulge their curiosity through such storytelling, perpetuating the metagenre of disability as abnormality, whilst disabled writers and directors struggle for recognition.

Sia’s forays into song and dance are clearly there to express what Sia thinks is in the imaginations of autistic people. These parts of the film, usually joyous, are puzzling, and an ode to idiosyncratic dancing (marked as autistic), quirky fashion, and childlike imagery – cute colour contrasts and bubbly or spectacular shapes, presenting quite a compelling, if toned down Teletubbies/bubblegum vibe – innocence writ large. The lyrics to the opening routine perhaps speak for all these imagination sequences:

In my dreams my body does not control me/ My imagination sets my spirit free/ In my mind I’m free of electricity/ My imagination sets my spirit free (Hey).

I think we have been here too many times before.

Echoing such dubious if ‘well-meaning’ intentions, Sia has told her critics that ‘My heart has always been in the right place’. This is a woefully poor excuse for an abomination of a film, a vanity project which preys on the life of others whilst practicing ’inclusion’. It is not enough to see ‘ourselves’ on screen –  the stories which are told are as important as they always were and we also need to turn our criticisms to other aspects of storytelling, demanding a much greater presence of disabled people as writers, cinematographers, directors and so on.